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As Myanmar Modernizes, Architectural Gems Are Endangered

Jun 4, 2014
Originally published on June 4, 2014 11:08 am

Decades of socialism and military rule kept Myanmar — or Burma, as it was known — poor and isolated.

There was one upside, though. The economy was so lousy, there was no drive to demolish the big British colonial buildings in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, and replace them with the glass and steel towers that now define much of the skylines in East Asia.

Today, downtown Yangon looks refreshingly different from practically every other sizable city in Southeast Asia. It's a colonial time capsule with block after block of old buildings featuring columns, domes, balconies, art deco trim, even a clock tower.

Myanmar has opened up its political system, improved its relationship with the West and ushered in a real estate boom in the past several years. That's mostly good news for Yangon, but not for its remarkable architectural heritage, which has come into the cross hairs of developers trying to cash in on rising land prices.

"These buildings are priceless," says Tint Lwin, who has taught English in a colonial-era building along the city's Pansodan Street for more than three decades. The building, constructed by a Baghdadi Jewish trader around 1906, has ocher-colored walls and Corinthian columns.

Tint Lwin loves the atmosphere of the neighborhood, but worries it won't last. A modern mid-rise is going up across the road. The walls in his building are pitted with black mold, and rain has saturated some ceilings, leaving gaping holes.

"I feel very unhappy because of the negligence," says Tint Lwin, who, like most Burmese men, wears a longyi, a traditional wraparound skirt. He says if the building's roof isn't fixed properly, "the rain will leak and destroy the whole structure."

The British, who ruled Burma for decades, constructed most of these buildings in their own image. But Tint Lwin doesn't see them as symbols of oppression; he sees them as part of Myanmar's heritage.

"You can't be xenophobic," he says, echoing the pragmatism of many here. "These are our assets. This British architecture is a unique one. Almost all in Myanmar like these buildings."

That includes Maung Nyan, a 19-year-old punk rocker, who lives on the building's fourth floor. He's sitting on the floor of his apartment, wearing a black My Chemical Romance T-shirt and playing the Ramones' "I Want to Be Sedated" on an electric guitar. Maung Nyan is rebellious by Burmese standards, but when it comes to construction, he's a traditionalist.

"Because of the valuable architecture, I prefer this kind of old building to new buildings," says Maung Nyan, whose apartment is really a cagelike, cavernous stall with a wire-mesh door. "I'm also proud to live here. If it's possible, I'd like to stay here until I die."

Yangon is a rarity in a part of the world where breakneck growth has transformed skylines within a generation. Earlier economic booms led to the destruction of most colonial-era buildings in cities like Hong Kong and Singapore in favor of modern office and apartment towers. In Hong Kong, for instance, a forest of glass and steel has risen around the old domed Legislative Council building, such that the one-time colonial icon is now hard to spot.

"Yangon has captured a sense of time that has been lost in Singapore and Hong Kong," says Ian Morley, an assistant professor in the history department at Chinese University of Hong Kong. "You have this downtown environment, which is relatively intact. It's got a sense of historical integrity as it was built from the late 1800s and early 1900s."

But there is no guarantee it will last. In recent years, soaring real estate prices have also driven the destruction of scores of old buildings in Yangon. That's why historian and best-selling author Thant Myint-U founded the Yangon Heritage Trust in 2012 with other preservationists.

"The reason I got involved in this issue is because I saw some of these buildings were being knocked down for really no reason," says Thant Myint-U. "A developer, who could easily have built something a few blocks down, decided to knock down an old building because there was no sense of the value of these buildings."

The Yangon Trust is working with the government to develop a zoning plan — the city didn't have one — and designate more buildings for protection. But preservation costs a lot of money. So, Thant Myint-U says, the city needs to tap private investment and turn old buildings into moneymakers such as hotels, museums and restaurants.

That's what the owners of Gekko are doing. The Japanese restaurant opened in March in the same building where Maung Nyan, the punk rocker, lives. After decades of neglect, the restaurant's renovation required a lot of work. When, for the first time, co-owner Nico Elliott opened the back door onto an interior courtyard, the scene was disgusting.

"We were up to about there, a meter and a half high, in sewage," says Elliott, pointing to a spot partway up a wall. There was also, he says, "a large colony of rats running around."

Elliott and his partners sunk more than $300,000 into the place. He says the government approval was time-consuming and focused on fees.

"They weren't really interested in what we were doing," says Elliott, 34, who is from the United Kingdom. "It seemed they were more interested in how much cash was coming their way."

The result, though, resembles an upper-end restaurant you'd find in London or New York, with exposed brick and preserved colonial touches, such as the century-old exposed I-beams from Scotland.

Both labor costs and rent in these dilapidated buildings are low. So, Elliott says, a well-run business can make a profit margin of more than 30 percent, which would be considered terrific anywhere.

"I hope these kinds of projects are the beginning of more people coming in and realizing that spending a little bit more than you'd spend on a new build is worthwhile to actually preserve something and sustain this place and these buildings," he says.

Yangon city officials insist they support preservation, but say working with public opinion is tricky.

Some people in Yangon have opposed renovation projects on historical grounds, including hundreds of lawyers who staged a protest in 2012 to oppose turning an abandoned courthouse into a luxury hotel. Others instinctively distrust any deal between the government and private business because of a long history of corruption and cronyism. And some residents actually want their buildings knocked down so they can get new, modern apartments.

"We have to take time to change their minds on this, and we have to take time to preserve," says Toe Aung, who runs the city's new urban planning division. "But we can't take much time, because these [buildings] will be ruined in a short period."

Thant Myint-U of the Yangon Heritage Trust says the city has to enact zoning and conservation laws this year to protect buildings — even in the face of developer opposition.

"The next few months, the next year, is going to be absolutely critical, not just to what Yangon is going to look like over the next several years," he says, "but to what Yangon is going to look like over the rest of the 21st century."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's an upside of living in an isolated country. It preserves your old-school architecture. Myanmar was disconnected for decades from much of the global economy. While other Asian cities built giant, glass office towers, Myanmar's largest city did not. Yangon still has many British colonial-era buildings from when the city was called Rangoon. Now Myanmar is opening up, which means its architectural heritage is at risk. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This is a Pansodan Street, in the heart of Yangon. And right now I'm looking out over several blocks of big colonial buildings. They've got tall Greek columns, domes. At the end of the street, there's a tower with a red tile roof. There's also a lot of Art Deco trim and balconies. And as you look around, you feel like you're back in the 1920s.

TINT LWIN: These buildings are priceless.

LANGFITT: Tint Lwin has taught English here for more than three decades. He works in the building along the street with ochre-colored walls and Corinthian columns, which dates to 1906. He loves the atmosphere, but worries it won't last. A modern mid-rise is going up across the road. The walls in his building are pitted with black mold. And rainwater has soaked through the ceilings, leaving gaping holes.

LWIN: I've been very unhappy because of the negligence. If the roofing leaks out and then deteriorated, the rain will leak and destroy the whole structure.

LANGFITT: The British constructed most of these buildings in their own image when they ran the country. But Tint Lwin doesn't see them as symbols of oppression. He sees them as part of Myanmar's heritage.

LWIN: You can't be xenophobic. These are our assets. This British architecture is a unique one. Almost all of Myanmar like these buildings.

LANGFITT: Including the punk rocker, who lives on the fourth floor. Muang Nyan is wearing a black My Chemical Romance t-shirt while he practices a Ramones tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO BE SEDATED")

MUANG NYAN: (Singing) Twenty, 20, 24 hours to go. I want to be sedated.

LANGFITT: At 19, he's rebellious by Burmese standards. But when it comes to construction, he's a traditionalist.

NYAN: (Foreign language spoken).

LANGFITT: Because of the valuable architecture, I prefer this kind of old building to new buildings, he says. I'm also proud to live here. If it's possible, I'd like to stay here until I die.

THANT MYINT-U: My name is Thant Myint-U. I'm the chairman and founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust.

LANGFITT: Yangon is a rarity in a part of the world where fast economic growth has transformed skylines within a generation.

MYINT-U: What we have, especially in downtown Yangon, is one of the last remaining intact 19th and early 20th-century urban landscapes anywhere in the region.

LANGFITT: The Trust is trying to prevent Yangon from following the path of Singapore or Hong Kong, where most of the colonial architecture has been obliterated. Thant Myint-U says in recent years, soaring real estate prices have driven the destruction of scores of old buildings here.

MYINT-U: The reason I got involved in this issue is because I saw some of these buildings being knocked down for really no reason. I mean, a developer, who could easily have built something a few blocks down, decided to knock down an old building because there was no sense in the value of these buildings.

LANGFITT: The Trust is working with the city to develop a zoning law - Yangon didn't have one - and designate more buildings for protection. But preservation costs a lot of money. So Thant Myint-U says the city needs to tap private investment and turn old buildings into moneymakers such as hotels, museums and restaurants.

That's what the owners of Gekko are doing. The Japanese restaurant opened this year in the same building where the punk rocker lives. After decades of neglect, renovation took a lot of work. When co-owner Nicco Elliott first opened the restaurant's back door onto a courtyard, it wasn't pretty.

NICCO ELLIOTT: We were up to about there, a meter and a half high in sewage, with a large colony of rats running around.

LANGFITT: Elliott and his partner sunk more than $300,000 into the place. The government approval process was time-consuming, mostly focused on fees.

ELLIOTT: They weren't really interested in what we were doing. It seemed that they were more interested in how much cash was coming their way.

LANGFITT: The result, though, resembles an upper-end restaurant you'd find in London or New York, with preserved colonial touches like the century-old exposed I-beams from Scotland. Both labor cost and rent in these dilapidated buildings are low. So, Elliott says, a well-run business can make a profit margin of more than 30 percent, which would be considered terrific anywhere.

ELLIOTT: I hope these kind of projects are the beginning of more people coming in and realizing that spending a little bit more than you'd spend on a new-build is worthwhile, to actually preserve something and sustain this place and these buildings.

LANGFITT: City officials insist they do support preservation but say working with public opinion is tricky. Some people have opposed renovation projects on historical grounds, like these lawyers who were protesting turning an abandoned courthouse into a luxury hotel. Some residents, on the other hand, want their buildings knocked down so they can get new modern apartments in exchange. Toe Aung runs the city's new urban planning division.

TOE AUNG: We have to take time to change their minds on this. And we have to take time to preserve. But we can't take much time because these will be ruined within a short period.

ELLIOTT: Literally, the next few months or the next year is going to be absolutely critical.

LANGFITT: The city has recently drafted its first plan to limit the height of new buildings. Thant Myint-U of the Heritage Trust says the government has to enact zoning and conservation laws this year to protect buildings, even in the face of developer opposition. At stake, he says, is not just what Yangon will look like in a few years, but how it will appear in the decades to come. Frank Langfitt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.