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The Old Town and Chinese Quarter

1855

2018

“Here many thousands of people literally swarm by day, and sleep twenty in a single room at night. This portion of the city is called ‘The Town.’ It is almost always very dirty, except when washed by heavy rains.”
– Julius Smith, 10 years in Burma, 1902

Though the exact location of the older photograph here is not recorded, the density of the housing and the presence of Shwedagon just visible in the distance does suggest that it was taken from what is now downtown Yangon. Regardless, it provides a glimpse into what Rangoon looked like around the time modern city was beginning to take shape, versus its appearance today.

The photograph was taken in 1855, a time of great change in Rangoon. The British had completed the new gridded design for the city, and divided the land into plots for sale – most of which had by this point been purchased. The new streets were laid out but not completed, though Strand Road was nearly finished by this point. Much of the city would have felt like a building site.

Elephants hard at work building the new Rangoon, taken by Klier around 1895

The buildings visible here were perhaps the last bamboo structures on this site. The very real danger of fire led to thatched roofs being made illegal, but initially this was not seriously enforced. A fire in December 1855 did heavy damage to the city – and may even have destroyed the buildings we see here. Another in 1857 destroyed two whole blocks of buildings, including the original Surati Bazaar. Rules on housing materials were then strictly enforced, and brick steadily replaced timber across the city.

The modern street pictured is Sint Oh Dan, part of Yangon’s Chinatown. This was a Chinese district long before the British established the downtown grid design: the Chinese presence here predates even Alaung Paya’s conquering of town in 1755. The Holy Trinity Church opposite the Junction City shopping centre is likely the former home of a Chinese graveyard, described in an 1838 account by a British solider.

The Chinese were centred around a wharf at the end of what is now Shwedagon Pagoda Road, in a district called Tatgalay (with various different anglicised spellings), meaning ‘small guard post’. The British grid incorporated and preserved this Chinese enclave, and the British relationship with the Chinese community was generally free of drama. By the time the British were establishing themselves in Rangoon, the overseas Chinese already had experience living alongside them in Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, and Java.

A Chinese merchant and his wife, taken in Rangoon in 1895 (courtesy of the British Library)

The Chinese in Myanmar are not a single, homogeneous group. The ‘Mountain Chinese’, who came overland from Yunnan are clustered in the north of country, but rarer in Yangon. Here the community is mainly ‘Maritime Chinese’ from coastal China, and can be largely split into two further groups: Hokkien and Cantonese. Yangon’s Chinatown is actually divided into two parts: the north is Cantonese and the south is Hokkien. The line of division is Maha Bandula Road, previously named Dalhousie Street – or as the local Chinese community called it, Guangdong Dajie: Cantonese Grand Street.

Just visible in the newer photograph on this article, Kheng Hock Keong temple is one of the finest Chinese temples in the city. As this is in the Hokkien part of Chinatown, its design follows the style of their home province, southern Fujian. Built in 1861, six years after the main article image was taken, its location on Strand Road was highly auspicious: for a building to be facing a body of water is excellent feng shui.

Kheng Hock Keong temple c.1895 and 2018

So when the British built a warehouse on the other side of Strand Road in 1908, blocking the view of the river, the Hokkien community was understandably distraught. Negotiations began, and within a year it was agreed that the Chinese community would pay 7,950 rupees to the government for the warehouse to be demolished. Today the view is blocked again, this time by eight lanes of traffic, various stalls and the port buildings.

The main deity worshipped at Kheng Hock Keong is now ‘Granny’ Mazu, a sea goddess who roams the oceans saving her followers from disaster. She is sometimes taken to be either a devotee or reincarnation of the original deity of the temple: Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy. Guanyin is a Bodhisattva, which essentially means someone who has attained enlightenment and could escape the cycle of rebirth and reach nirvana (which is what Gautama Buddha did), but chose to stay behind to help other people also become enlightened.

Guanyin is hugely popular across China and South-East Asia

Guanyin has some remarkable stories attached to her. She was executed by her father for being so pure that animals would help her with her chores, and fire wouldn’t burn her. She voluntarily travelled to hell via a supernatural tiger, and got kicked out by its ruler for effortlessly turning it into a paradise. Back on earth, she gave up an eye and an arm to cure her father of illness, but was later rewarded with a thousand arms, and possibly eleven heads. She took three disciples: a disabled boy who she healed (and also made very handsome), the granddaughter of a water god called the ‘Dragon King’, and – last but not least – an especially filial parrot who Guanyin rescued from a deep depression following the death of its mother.

Kheng Hock Keong was actually the second major Chinese temple in the new city. The first was Guangdong Guanyin Temple, on the corner of Maha Bandula Road and Latha Street in the Cantonese part of Chinatown. Both temples benefited from free land and exemption from tax, something the British granted to various religious sites: American and Armenian churches, a convent, a synagogue, a Hindu temple and two mosques. From its very beginning, modern Rangoon was a diverse and cosmopolitan place.

Guangdong Guanyin Temple, is dedicated to Guanyin herself (photo from the excellent Architectural Guide Yangon)

Chinatown is still a distinct part of the city, though its borders are vague and undefined. The history of the Chinese community in Myanmar is fascinating and a relatively neglected area of study, full of interesting stories: secret societies that worried the British; personalities like Lim Chin Tsong, the tycoon who built himself a palace in north Yangon; and the Chinese community’s relationship not just with the British, but with the Burmese and Indian communities.

Sint Oh Dan street actually has its own long running YouTube channel, and uploads videos of the annual lion dance competition in their entirety. The below video starts at an especially impressive section of 2018’s show. Thank you to whoever is responsible for the uploads.

To learn more about the Chinese in Rangoon, I highly recommend checking out the work of Dr Li Yi, and the book Mapping Chinese Rangoon, by Dr Jayde Lin Roberts.

Published inBefore/after sliderDowntownShwedagonStrand Road

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