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Author: Will

Special feature: Mawlamyine Time Machine

1942

Surtee Sunni Jamae Mosque

2018

Other than Yangon, Mawlamyine is my favourite city in Myanmar. It’s actually the fourth biggest in the country, and before the construction of Nay Pi Taw was the third. That fact surprised me – the city has a slightly sleepy feeling, much less frantic than the crowded urban grids of its larger siblings (Naypidaw being a very eccentric cousin in this analogy).

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Special feature: Bagan Time Machine

c.1900

Ananda Temple

2018

This article kicks off a trio of pieces on other locations related to the history of Myanmar. Each has multiple then-and-now sliders, though some are less well aligned than usual as I was frequently short of time. First will be Bagan, then Mawlamyine, and then the Dali area of Yunnan Province, China.

Though the historical record is murky, we can say with some confidence that Bagan was founded around the 9th century by the Nanzhao people. The Nanzhao had migrated there from what is now Yunnan province in China (hence our journey there in a future article), and are the origin of the Bamar ethnic group today. Most historical sources refer to the city as Pagan, so I’ll use the terms interchangeably throughout this article.

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Custom House

1922

2017

Visitors arriving from the sea would soon experience the two underlying reasons for the existence of Yangon. As the ship approached the city along the Yangon river they would spot Shwedagon Pagoda, resplendent in gold and overlooking the city. Soon after they would reach the bustling docks, where each day ships unloaded goods, tourists and new workers. Shwedagon may have been the town’s original claim to significance, but ultimately it was its port and year-round access to the sea that allowed the town to grow into the city we see today.

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The Strand Hotel

c.1925

2018

“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.

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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.

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Phayre Street, Lower

1895

2018

This is one of the oldest images we’ve looked at, and pre-dates the colonial buildings we can see in the modern photograph of Pansodan Road: Grindlays Bank, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, and one of everyone’s favourites: the Sofaer Building. The main focus of this article however will be on something else missing from the older photograph: cars.

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The Secretariat

c.1920

2018

Behind these overgrown trees the Secretariat remains the most impressive colonial building in the city. The grand dome and most of its towers were destroyed nearly a century ago, but the scale of the building alone is still staggering. What truly makes the building special though is how deeply tied its history is to that of Myanmar: almost every chapter of the country’s modern history is reflected in the story of the Secretariat.

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The Church Ruins at Syriam

1892

2018

A short drive to the east of Yangon is the town of Thanlyin, once called Syriam, and the remains of a once impressive catholic church. Already abandoned when the early photographers of the late 19th century began to arrive, its red brick walls represent the earlier stage of European arrivals to Myanmar – long before the British laid out the modern design of downtown Yangon. Today the church is often incorrectly referred to as being Portuguese, due to Syriam’s history as a Portuguese settlement.

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Boundary Road

c.1900

2018

“In Kokine there was not a single house until about 1874, when Mr. Alexander Watson of the Chartered Bank built a small bungalow there, though his action in living ‘so far out in a thick jungle’ was viewed with astonishment by his friends”
– B.R. Pearn, A History of Rangoon, 1939

Dhammazedi Road was originally known as Boundary Road, because it defined the upper limit of the city. Past this point was jungle, with just tracks leading to other nearby villages and towns. Through the 20th century new developments expanded the city past Boundary Road, eventually filling the gaps between these various urban centres, and making them part of the present day sprawl of Yangon.

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Arthur Phayre statue and Rangoon Zoological Gardens

c.1910

2018

“He never really bit anybody, but the engineer felt it was safest to get rid of Lala. He got off one day at the village near the defile and took the bear a mile and a half away into the jungle and “lost” him. Soon after the villagers petitioned the engineer to take the bear on board again. It seemed that Lala was haunting the village and stole chickens persistently. So there was nothing for it but to take him on to the steamer again. Then he gave him to the Rangoon Zoo.”
– Alfred Hugh Fisher, Through India and Burmah with pen and brush, 1911

The statue visible in the older image is Sir Arthur Phayre, the first Chief Commissioner of Burma. In this article we’ll trace the journey of the statue across Yangon, from Myanmar’s first museum to its first zoo, and then its current home today.

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