This month I visited Yangon for the first time since I went in 2008, back when I was still researching for my PhD. I enjoyed the city hugely the first time I went, despite illness, a ‘traffic incident’, and a bomb scare. It felt like a smaller, calmer Kolkata, partly because of the crumbling colonial architecture. After re-learning how to cross the roads, re-igniting my addiction to Burmese tea, and renewing my readers card at the National Archives, I felt like I was just picking up where I left off with the city four years ago.
In the six weeks I spent in the city previously, following the monks’ protests and the devastation of Hurricane Nargis, the only other Western visitors I bumped into were NGO workers. For a couple of weeks at least I was the sole guest in my city-centre guest house. This time around, things had changed. There was a small but substantial number of tourists in the city. There is also a growing number of Americans and Britons living in the city teaching English. The guest house was full. I was less conspicuous as an outsider. These differences are no doubt attributable to the ‘opening-up’ of Myanmar this year, to use the Neo-Liberal parlance of our times. I remember just after new year picking up a copy of the Metro on a bus in Bristol and reading that Myanmar was one of the paper’s recommended holiday destinations. These are ambivalent markers of social change, and are certainly not to be taken as signs of ‘liberation’ as the media in Britain reads them. Nevertheless, it was great to meet people contributing to what seems to be an expanding cultural space in the city.
In 2008 the Pansodan Art Gallery had just opened. Now it is thriving. Whilst I was there it had an exhibition on Myanmar Women which contained some brilliant photographs from the early-twentieth century. I also had enough time out of the archive to visit the new Nawaday Alley Gallery, which also has a great collection.
Other than a REALLY productive time in the archive, the highlight of my trip was a visit to the Pegu Club, once favoured by British imperialists. It was not, as its wikipedia page currently states, burnt down during the Japanese occupation in the Second World War. It is, however, in a sorry state. To be honest, I was less than confident that the floors would manage even my meager weight. They did though. Despite its dilapidated condition it still conveyed the grandeur in which the highest echelons of the colonial regime had once lived. What struck me most was the size of the place. It is vast and cavernous, now that it is bereft of what would no doubt have once been equally grand furniture, fixtures and fittings. Every room could have been a ballroom.
It is a strange thing to walk about buildings like this. The architecture still manages to display something of its originally intended effect: a show of luxury and power. But its emptiness and decay gives the building a distinctly melancholy feel. In its heyday the club was the epitome of the arrogance of imperial rule, and yet I felt conflicted about its current structural deterioration. There has recently been a concerted effort to protect and preserve the colonial-era architecture of Yangon. How this will be achieved is yet to be determined, but it is good thing that these buildings might be saved. However, the current state of the buildings perhaps tells us more about the history of British colonialism in Myanmar: the infrastructure was not designed to survive without the Empire. Whilst much has survived, many of the nineteenth-century buildings have been put to new uses. The more structurally sound colonial buildings around the Pegu Club are now homes for local people. Its teak pillars and bannisters are used as drying racks for laundry. As the city moves into what looks like a new spell of greater global interaction, the fate of these buildings may prove revealing. It is not hard to imagine an enterprising entrepreneur seeing in what remains of the Pegu Club the opportunity for an exclusive, luxury tourist-trap. The colonial echoes of such a commercial endeavour, for me at least, would be troubling.