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 Sofaers Building. The main focus of this article however will be on something else missing from the older photograph: cars.
The first motorcars in Rangoon started showing up around 1905, and a bus service began eight years later. By 1915 there were eight buses, 28 taxis, 426 private cars, and 139 motorcycles: altogether Rangoon had a mere 601 automobiles on its roads. Today there are more than 800,000.
Despite the relatively small numbers of vehicles back in 1915, the city’s roads struggled with the strain. Most early roads were actually paved with the ballast from ships arriving at Yangon’s docks. What is ballast? I’m glad you asked: If a ship isn’t already carrying heavy cargo, it adds extra weight to its lower levels to help it stand upright in the water. Called ballast, this would typically be piles of brick and stone.
Extra ballast wasn’t needed on the return journey from Burma, as the cargo would be full of teak and rice, so it was offloaded in Yangon and later used to make roads. Beneath Yangon’s modern roads are bricks and rubble from old British buildings, carried here in the holds of ships.
This crude material built crude roads, and over the years various other methods were experimented with, with limited success. The thin wheels of overloaded hand-carts cut the roads like blades; cars could do the same while travelling much faster. When buses began service they had to avoid several routes, as weak foundations meant that nearby houses would vibrate violently when they passed by. It wasn’t until after the first world war that a full reconditioning of the roads was undertaken and driving conditions began to improve.
As cars were introduced while Burma was a British colony, they were originally driven on the left side of the road. This changed on the 6th December 1970, after a surprise edict from the Ne Win government. There is no accepted explanation why this change was made, and so it is usually attributed to Ne Win’s passion for astrology and mysticism.
Despite the apparent success of the switch over, it did create a serious problem that remains today. The majority of cars in modern Myanmar are imported second-hand from Japan, which drives on the left side of the road, with the driver on the right. The driver seat is therefore on the wrong side of the car for Myanmar.
This may change in the future thanks to import restrictions, but for now has produced a rather dangerous situation in which drivers in Myanmar seeking to overtake (as they very often are) can’t see the opposite lane before they pull into it. But pull out they do, honking wildly and relying only luck and sometimes a miniature Buddha on the dashboard to protect them.
The number of cars in Yangon has increased dramatically over time, and this has led to an unfortunate but typical urban planning response. Instead of seeking to control the number of cars, the city is made more car friendly at the expense of pedestrians. The most obvious and unpleasant of these is the widening of the roads, destroying much of the pavement. This change is also linked to a general effort after the 1988 protests to make it harder for crowds to congregate.
Either way, the loss of this public space fundamentally changed the liveability of the city. Electricity boxes, generators and telephone poles interrupt what little space remains for pedestrians. These crowed pavements force people to walk in the road, and are completely unusable for more heavily disabled residents. Double parking on vertical downtown streets has left no room for pedestrians at all. This has also created problems for businesses that rely on the use of pavement space, such as street hawkers and restaurants with external seating.
Motorbikes also remain banned in Yangon, since an incident in 2003 where a young motorbiker pulled up alongside a general’s car and made a gun gesture with his fingers (there are other rumours, but I have it on reasonable authority that this one is accurate, and that the perpetrator now lives happily in Australia). Though motorbikes bring their own set of problems, they would certainly have helped avoid the level of traffic congestion we see today in the city.
Ultimately what is needed are efforts to reduce congestion while investing in public transport, like buses and trams. Though buses remain on the roads of Yangon today, trams have disappeared.
The first modern form of transport in Rangoon, steam-powered trams were introduced in 1884. The early trams were poorly maintained, and sparks from the coal furnace used to set passengers clothes on fire. Much more satisfactory electrical trams begin to replace them in late 1906, but the system was seriously damaged during the war. There may have been some limited service following its repair, but it seems to have stopped running completely within a decade of its nationalisation in 1953.
The tram was actually brought back to Strand Road in January 2016, with Japanese funding and assistance. Unfortunately Strand Road is no longer an important pedestrian thoroughfare – this was before even the relocation of the food markets there. As a result the tram was barely used, and closed after just six months.
The raised platforms of the stations can still be seen along the port road; grave markers to a rather embarrassing failure. The circular railway of Yangon is also being upgraded with Japanese assistance – let’s hope this next project is a little better thought out than the tram.
Before we end, let’s take a quick look at the Sofaer building, a firm favourite of many residents of Yangon. Built in 1906, it’s named for two Baghdadi Jews, one of whom was an architect partly responsible for the design of the building. It hosted the Sofaer’s food and alcohol import business, along with a diverse array of other businesses, ranging from a British bank to a Filipino hairdresser.
Today, many of the street-facing sections have been restored and refurbished. Upstairs is the well known Lokanat gallery, and beyond that lots of small businesses and residences in less gentrified conditions. Someone actually lives under the dome on top of the building; in the newer photo above you can just make out a veranda that has been added to it.
Throughout the building are distinctive floor tiles, and thankfully most properties seem to have retained them during any refurbishments. The tiles apparently came all the way from Manchester in the UK, and I once met a Scottish visitor in the building who swore he had the same tiles in his family home growing up.
The further into the building you go, the more apparent the need for a full renovation becomes, but the distinctive personality of the building shines through. Hopefully the building can be restored to its former glory before too long, and without pushing out the local businesses and residents.