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Category: The World Wars

Special feature: Mawlamyine Time Machine


Surtee Sunni Jamae Mosque


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).


The Strand Hotel



“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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Boundary Road



“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



“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.


The New Law Courts



Recently freed from the scaffolding that hid it for much of the last few years, the New Law Courts building we see today was first completed in 1931. The building housed the city’s district and local courts – part of the rapidly expanding colonial bureaucratic and legal systems, and the Police Commissioners office. Part of a second wave of British construction in the city, it replaced the original court in the older photograph.


Tiger Alley

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“A tiger presents greater difficulties. If he doesn’t run away when you wave your arms and shout, you should poke your stick through his eye into his brain, or get on his back, out of reach of his claws, and throttle him. If that fails, pretend to be dead; if that even fails, you must die.”
– Beth Ellis, An English Girl’s First Impression of Burmah, 1899

In his 1939 History of Rangoon, B R Pearn included the two original photographs above as a before and after, so thanks to his foresight we have our first ever set of three images. Though the location of the first two is unlikely to be exactly the same, the area that became Doopley Street (and today Myaynigone Zay Street) will have looked identical – thick with jungle, with only small paths leading through the green towards the town of Kemmedine and the western river.

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Holy Trinity Cathedral



“We fought through the f’ing rain: it’s only right that we parade in the f’ing rain”
– attributed to a soldier of the 14th Army at the parade

This photograph was taken on the 15th of June, 1945, during celebrations for the defeat of Japanese forces in Burma. In heavy rain, troops paraded through the city holding British, American, Burmese and other allied flags. Large guns were towed by military trucks, and the RAF performed a dramatic fly past. On the podium, taking and giving salutes, was Lord Louis Mountbatten, then the Supreme Allied Commander for South-East Asia.

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Fytche Square



Named for the Chief Commissioner of Burma, Fytche Square was a last minute addition to the design of Rangoon. The plot was left empty following its reclamation from the swamp that preceded it, and it became a public park around 1868. The initial design seems to have been a fairly low effort piece of work. The terrain was uneven, and a rickety wooden fence ran around the perimeter. The south-east quarter of the park was taken up by an ugly water tank that preserved the original atmosphere of swampland.


Rowe and Co. Department Store



“..the man being totally ignorant of the shop I wanted, and quite incapable of confessing himself to be so, took me to Rowe at a venture, that place being a large general emporium much frequented by Europeans.”
– Geraldine Mitton, A Bachelor Girl in Burma, 1907

Completed in 1910, this building was the third incarnation of the Rowe and Co. department store in Rangoon. The first had been on Moghul Street (now Shwe Bon Thar), around 1866. The building was a modern marvel, with a steel frame, ceiling fans, and a basement – an unusual feature given the swampy foundations of the city.


Rangoon University: Convocation Hall



“There’s no friend like wisdom”
– Yangon University motto (clearly someone never owned a dog)

Rangoon College was first founded by the British in 1878, became Rangoon University in 1920, and finally Yangon University when the city’s name was changed in 1989. Its style of instruction was modeled on old-world British universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and aimed to instill their values and attitudes into young Burmese elites – but instead became a hotbed of anti-colonialism, and an engine of protest.

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