RANGOON, BURMA — Rangoon's downtown is an architectural time capsule, filled with distinctive century-old colonial-style buildings, many severely weathered by the tropical climate. Now that the country is opening up and new money and developers are coming in, the buildings could be knocked down to make way for skyscrapers and shopping malls. Will Rangoon choose modern replacements or its historic architecture?
One building in downtown Rangoon was built 98 years ago by Indian traders, seized by the government in the 1960s and then abandoned several years ago when the government moved the capital to Naypyitaw.
Now the cavernous mixed-use structure is used for everything from legal offices to government housing.
The once majestic marble entrance opens to a cob-webbed wrought-iron elevator shaft and an elevator that hasn't worked in decades.
The building is so poorly maintained that most taps leak, and its inner courtyard serves as a garbage dump.
After surviving two world wars, decades of military rule, and a devastating cyclone, it may finally fall victim to Burma’s building binge.
Daw Gyi has been living here for five years. Mom, daughter, grandchild, daughter’s husband. The government provides the family with free housing because the daughter is a civil servant. Daw Gyi worries about eviction. "It's old, it's not beautiful, somewhat ramshackle. It's not like when it was new. I think it would look good if you renovated it, the floor is all still good," she added.
Property prices have doubled in Rangoon in the last year alone, and the government has been selling off property to address its growing debt. Many of the buildings, some of which had been condemned, have already been torn down, displacing residents like Daw Gyi.
The Yangon Heritage Trust is one organization trying to assure that Rangoon's historic buildings survive the threats of modernity, but the group has not yet been able to secure actual legal protection for any of the buildings. Moe Moe is the co-director.
"We are racing against time," Moe Moe said. "If they have the foresight, they should realise by saving the heritage it will making more money or more attracting to the investors, or attracting tourists."
Some entrepreneurs have recognized the value of historic buildings, and have gone through the painstaking and expensive process of renovating these old buildings as a way of preserving them.
Anthony Alderson owns a bar in an old two-story building he refurbished on 50th Street in downtown Rangoon. He says he has had to wait for 15 years for his investment to start paying off, and thinks there simply isn't enough return on investment for other businesses to follow suit.
“It's an added value to any tourist coming to the country to go inside old buildings because they've seen them from the outside they often don't go inside. A lot of these smaller buildings will come down and give way to, unfortunately, a sky city, as it were. I think Yangon [Rangoon] is going to grow upwards rather than outwards," Alderson stated. "I think you'll see in this particular area in five years this will be one funny little building in amongst a lot of towers.”
Unless Burma's more monied businessmen can take the plunge to make enormous investments for sentimental value, Southeast Asia may lose its time capsule.