Still Lifes from a Vanishing City
Still life with panel door, plastic bag, and clothes hangers. Built as the capital of British Burma, no expense was spared when constructing Yangon. Hand-pressed ceramic tiles were imported, teak travelled down the Ayeyarwaddy by the boatload, wrought iron was used for elevators and stained glass for foyers and entryways. In February, this turn-of-the-century apartment building found its way onto the junta’s auction list. The building has long been mixed-use, with the first stories serving as small commercial operations and the upper stories partitioned into residential spaces. The family who lives in this apartment, and runs a shop downstairs, has resided here since the 1940’s. Because of the auctions, they will soon have to leave.
Still life with hair accessories and lucky owls The apartment photographed here is built out around a stairwell outlet on the rooftop of a colonial-era embassy. A sign posted in the stairwell asks that all of the inhabitants leave so that the government can redevelop the site. The grandfather of the young boy in the photograph was employed by the embassy some sixty years ago and was granted the right to occupy this peripheral space as job perk. He slowly relocated his entire family here. When I asked his son how he felt about leaving he was quiet for a moment then spoke. ‘I was a boy here,’ he says, ‘so naturally, I do not want to leave.’
Still life with calendars Surrounded by jungle in which tigers, elephants, and crocodiles roamed, the British laid down something familiar in downtown Yangon, a grid. Throughout the late 1800s, military engineers Fraser and Montgomerie and the British-run Public Works Department redesigned Yangon, controlling every aspect of city’s spatial development from block length to water supply and sewer drainage. This building, located in the Pabedan Township in central Yangon, sits in middle of Fraser and Montgomerie’s imagined city. Today the apartment serves both as a printing press and a residence. In February, it appeared on the list of buildings up for auction.
Still life with sacks of coal The residents of this building are being approached for redevelopment by international companies. This two-story apartment, inside a colonial-era building is inhabited by four generations of a single family. Those of the youngest generation are eager for redevelopment while the older generations are opposed. While the grandmother directs my attention to the thickness of the building’s walls and its inherent ability to withstand earthquakes and cyclones, her grandson imagines a house with big glass windows and more natural light. ‘I just want something more modern,’ he says. This is an image of their kitchen. The sacks of coal lining the wall are used to fuel the family’s stove.
Still life with statuary, manger scene, and aquarium Property rights in Yangon are precarious and it is often unclear who has the final say in whether redevelopment will happen. To most it seems inevitable. This family has been fighting for their right to occupy this space for decades. Despite the fact that the family has all required paperwork, the government has declared the building unsafe for habitation and is threatening to knock the structure down. ‘We keep our bags packed,’ says Hla, the family’s matriarch, ‘in case we suddenly have to flee.’ Her great aunt purchased the colonial-era flat in 1960 with the salary she received from her teaching job at a nearby Catholic school.
Still life with medicine bottles, fly swatter, and portrait of deceased accordion player Roughly 80 per cent of the colonial buildings I entered were, for some reason or another – be it auctions, safety, or overt redevelopment – soon to be demolished and built again. This two-room apartment, which has housed the same family for over sixty years, will soon be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The image of the family’s patriarch, who long since passed away, hangs on the wall. He was one of Burma’s most renowned accordion players.
Still life inside the postman’s apartment Yangon makes a display of the impermanence of all things. This building, erected in the early 1930s by an Indian merchant, was originally used as an Indian and English language school. From the 1960s until 2006, when the junta relocated the capital eight hours north to Naypyidaw, it housed the Ministry of Taxation. Today, half of the building is abandoned while the other half is occupied by a handful of families who have lived in their respective apartments for over half a century. Rumours of redevelopment circulate amongst the inhabitants. Before I leave, a woman running a tea stall dislodges an antique tile from the floor and hands it to me. ‘A souvenir,’ she says.
Monday morning still life after discussing mosquitoes and Helen Keller Daw Khin Yee’s recently deceased husband ran a cooking supply company out of their living room. They went on their honeymoon on one of the ocean liners his company serviced, a photograph from which hangs on the far wall. Today Daw Kin Yee is deaf and relies on her extended family to care for her. I visited her soon-to-be-redeveloped apartment on a Monday morning and the place was bustling with activity – babies crying, neighbors stopping by for visits, monks chanting and in-laws simply keeping her company.
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Yangon, in Myanmar, was once the most cosmopolitan of Southeast Asia’s cities. Now, it is practically forgotten. Under British rule in the 1920s and 30s, Yangon was the second busiest immigration port in the world, trailing only New York City. After World War II Great Britain pulled out, the economy faltered and a military dictatorship attempted to reassemble and unite the country. In a single century, Myanmar went from being the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia to one of the poorest in the world.
Over the last three years, as the state prepared to transition from a military dictatorship to a parliamentary system, they sold over 70 per cent of their assets – everything from ice factories to petrol stations. Through this wholesale offloading of resources and property, the junta hoped to secure control over the future economic development of Myanmar. The last spate of auctions, in February, saw roughly sixty of Yangon’s colonial-era apartment buildings on the auction block. These poorly-maintained, centrally-located and currently economically stagnant buildings will soon be torn down to make way for high-rise condominiums.
Yangon has the most intact colonial city centre in all of Southeast Asia, but money from the outside promises to alter Yangon’s historic skyline. This is why I have come to Yangon, because I know it may be my last chance to sit with this city – a city well beyond what those who built it would have ever imagined, a city no longer focused on hubris but on humility, not on progress but survival and quiet tenacity. ‘Still Lifes from a Vanishing City’ is an archive of sorts, an assemblage of the rich, full lives people built in the wreckage of an abandoned empire. In the upcoming decades we may find ourselves looking towards Yangon to gain insight into how we might live in a city that was built by an unsustainable system, and how those ‘less-than-fortunate’ people have made their lives out of what others have left behind.
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