“At my hotel two people had been poisoned by tinned food a few weeks earlier, but whatever the table lacked in quality it made up in pretentiousness…Canapes aux anchois. Potage la Livonienne. Barfurtasauce Ravigotte. Filets mignons la Parisienne.” [Author continues for some time]– George Bird, Wanderings in Burma, 1897
Of the two main buildings visible here our focus is on the rightmost: the Strand hotel, most famous of Yangon’s colonial period hotels. It was built in 1901 and bought soon after by the Sarkies, four Armenian brothers responsible for some of the most famous hotels in Southeast Asia, including the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
The Sarkies were originally merchants and traders, with no experience of owning or running hotels – but their establishments were luxurious and well run compared to competing hotels in the region. Where possible they also placed them at the waterfront, close to the ports that would bring their guests. ‘Strand’ is an old British term for a riverfront – hence the road in London called simply The Strand, and various other Strand Roads in colonial British cities, including Mawlamyine.
The Sarkie’s actually owned a hotel in Rangoon before the Strand. In 1892 they bought the British Burma Hotel, which was somewhere on Merchant Street. This fact seems to be frequently omitted in histories of the family, which is perhaps something to do with the conditions described by one visitor to the city: “The hotels are an abomination. ‘Sarkie’s’, which is called the best, would in dirt and squalour put to shame any of the hotels of India, or the worst post-houses of [Central Asia]. The orgies which go on there after dark are a disgrace to the authorities that allow such a state of affairs.”
The visitor goes on to describe their exhausted arrival at midnight, only to find that the dining room served alcohol through the night, and as a result was in a state of chaos: “Each of these establishments possesses a barmaid, and the one at Sarkie’s had ascended from below stairs, celebrating her entrance by striking an unoffending man over the head with a soda-water bottle. A fight ensued and raged all over the place.”
The bar staff at hotels like the this were traditionally European women, as they generally were back in the drinking houses of England. However in Burma there were limited opportunities for European men to socialise with European women, so the presence of female bar staff was a particularly strong selling point the for hotels.
The employment of women in such establishments became the focus of a campaign by Christian groups in Rangoon, which eventually saw a ban put into place in 1901. However the government of Burma had forgotten to consult with that of colonial India first, and so the question of banning European barmaids eventually made its way to the desk of Lord Curzon, Governor General and Viceroy of India.
The hotel owners made their opening argument: their establishments allowed a rare opportunity for male and female Europeans to socialise, and were the origin of many respectable marriages. Their opponents responded with the case of a Miss Matheson, who they asserted had become so degraded by her time in such places that she openly solicited local labourers. The opposition responded that Miss Matheson was a nymphomaniac who would have solicited them no matter what, and that her reputation was already bad long before she had stepped foot in a drinking house.
Taking a break from managing the entire government and military structure of British India, Curzon considered the case of poor Miss Matheson, and decided that the ban on barmaids would stand. Similar campaigns back in England had been unsuccessful, but succeeded in Burma. Why? Likely because in truth the motive for Curzon’s decision was not to protect women from vice and degradation, but to prevent them appearing subservient to non-European customers. In a time when the government was seeking to protect the colonial hierarchy of coloniser and colonised, even the serving of drinks by a British woman to non-European men was a dangerous dynamic.
The Sarkies’ second hotel fared much better than their first attempt: The Strand soon became known as the premier hotel in the city, thanks in part to its prime location for arrivals by sea, and direct access to the tram line outside. That said, the Strand website and various articles from its reopening make use of a quote from John Murray’s 1911 Handbook for Travellers in India, Burma and Ceylon, declaring it ‘the finest hostelry East of Suez’. I have a copy of that book and haven’t been able to find any trace of that quote. Indeed, the only opinion on hotels in Rangoon that Murray offers is a rather terse: ‘None equal to good Indian Hotels’.
The hotel was sold by the Sarkies in 1925 and renovated in 1937, just a few years before the second World War and Japanese occupation of the city. At least two bombs fell directly on the Strand during the initial attack, one of which crashed straight through the roof and damaged the lobby. After the Japanese secured the city, the hotel was briefly inhabited by Japanese troops, and then became the Yamato Hotel.
Yamato is a historic and slightly romantic name for ancient Japan, deriving from a province that had been the cradle of Japanese civilisation. However Yamato was also the name of one of the two largest and most powerful battleships Japan produced during the war, possessed of the largest guns ever mounted on a ship. The Yamato was hugely culturally significant in Imperial Japan, a symbol of its naval power and engineering skill, so it’s also possible that it may also have been a factor in the mid-war naming of the hotel. In a further piece of synchronicity, due to its comparatively luxurious living conditions (including air conditioning) the ship was also itself given the nickname ‘The Yamato Hotel’.
Both Yamato hotels met their end in 1945: the British retook Rangoon in March, and in April it was the turn of the floating hotel to have bombs crashing through the roof. The Yamato’s final mission was to beach itself on the shore of Okinawa island, becoming an unsinkable defensive fortress. Their radio transmissions were overheard however, and American bombers intercepted and sank the imposing battleship. We can only hope for the sake of a strong narrative that the day it was sunk was the same day that British troops finally got around to taking down the Yamato Hotel sign in Rangoon.
This long history means that the Strand has been in business for nearly 120 years, though with some disruptions along the way. It was recently refurbished again, and is certainly one of the premier and most well-known of the hotels in Yangon. Inside the lobby you will find a nice collection of prints of old photographs, some of which you might recognise from this project.
Other famous hotels from the same era as the Strand were less lucky: Minto Mansions was completely demolished at some point after the war, and is now the site of a section of the Brazilian embassy. Others have a new purpose: the Royal Hotel on Bogalazay is now a shopping mall, and happily is being kept in good condition.
Returning to our photographs, next to the Strand is the Myanmar National Airlines building, previously the home of the Bombay-Burmah Trading Corporation. One of the many Scottish companies operating in Burma, the BBTC focused on exporting tea and then teak to India and Europe. Interestingly it was the BBTC that provided the British with a pretext for their final invasion of northern Burma, thanks to a dispute between the company and King Mindon over taxes on teak.
The BBTC actually still exists today as a wholly Indian owned company, and is supposedly the second oldest listed company in the country. Tea and coffee is the core business of the company and it still owns huge plantations, though it also trades in spices, plastics, car parts, dental products and so on. One financial commentator compared navigating this probably intentionally confusing tangle of subsidiaries to hacking through the Amazon jungle.
Both BBTC and the Strand have survived as brands, and their colonial era history is part of that brand. The East India Company, perhaps the most famous and controversial of colonial companies, was dissolved in 1874, but its corporate brand has since been purchased by a British Indian businessman and is used to sell tea, chocolate and silverware. The branding of the company, and that of hotels like the Strand, harkens back to images of colonial luxury. But it was the East India Company who plundered the Indian sub-continent and forced opium into China. The Strand at the time did not allow Burmese as customers, but employed them to fan British visitors to cool them down.
This project frequently celebrates the preservation of colonial buildings, and obviously wouldn’t criticise the Strand for attempting to recreate the equally attractive colonial era design of its interior. But certainly those of us dealing with colonial legacies need find a way to celebrate those elements of value – buildings, stories and characters – while ensuring that the barbarism and racism of the period is recognised and communicated.
These complexities aside however, I think we can all agree that an Italian clothes brand probably got it wrong in 2018 with its ‘Colonial Deal’ collection, which advertised linen ‘rough like the faces consumed by the sun’ and a jumper emblazoned simply with ‘colonialism’, like a brand of sportswear.
Thanks to Dr Ashley Wright for her brilliant paper on European barmaids in Calcutta and Rangoon. If I could magically will any book into reality, I think it would be Miss Matheson’s autobiography – with a happy ending of course. Finally, those interested in the history of the Strand might want to track down a book written by Andreas Augustin, who seems to have carved out an interesting niche writing books about famous hotels.