The large cluster of colonial architecture in the city center of Yangon is said to be among the largest extant collections in Asia.
The conservation and re-use of these structures are crucial to re-establishing the identity of the city.
Yangon Heritage Trust leads the effort to conserve that heritage and aims to guide the colonial quarter of the city into 21st-century sustainability.
A letter from Ms Kecia Fong, heritage volunteer working in Yangon, deserves to be shared. It was sent to me in reaction to my earlier column, “Burma’s splendid old buildings may go the ugly way of Manila” (Aug. 19):
“I read your article but did not recognize the Yangon I live in. While I have been here a short four months, I do feel that I have some familiarity with the city, and I wonder what long-time Yangonites would say of your depiction.
“I read about a ‘sad, abandoned’ and decaying city that is ‘deserted and silent.’ ‘Skeletons,’ ‘cobwebs,’ ‘dim lobbies’ and ‘dying structures’ were other descriptive terms used to characterize what I and many others experience as an incredibly vibrant, energetic and dynamic place.
“Yangon is a city of great history and diversity and a place many view as a site of unparalleled potential. Many of the Burmese diaspora and young people fortunate enough to have the occasion to study abroad are returning to take part in building the present and future of their country. This type of energy and the aspirations they bring with them for a new modernity is anything but moribund.
“As for the [heritage] buildings, it is true that they suffer from decades of use without maintenance; a harsh monsoon climate; limited financial resources; and a weak legislative infrastructure to guide preservation decisions about the architectural fabric and urban heritage of the city.
“These are things that the Yangon Heritage Trust is addressing in close collaboration with the Yangon City Development Corporation—the municipal authority responsible for the administration and management of the city.
“I might also suggest a couple of corrections to the captions in your photos. The building in image No. 4 is anything but empty. It is the former Ministry of Information and at present houses the Yangon Heritage Trust, among other businesses (Recaptioned photos are published—columnist).
“I think we do a disservice to cities and their inhabitants when we cloak them in nostalgia or romantic notions of decay. This is an accusation that has frequently been lobbed at the preservation community and all too often with reason.
“I would hope that during the conference you attended, ‘Investing in Heritage Cities,’ the discourse among the public and invited heritage practitioners was one of innovation, of heritage as a lynchpin for maintaining and promoting the unique diversity of one of southeast Asia’s great cities, and about the role heritage plays in sustainable urban development.
“I would have preferred to leave this as a public comment on the website for others to engage with as well.”
In keeping with Ms Fong’s preference for public comment on her letter, my response is reprinted below:
“We write about the same Yangon, but each of us writes about different layers of it.
“Although I did describe the [heritage] buildings as decaying, I am fully aware of the factors ranging from climatic to political that you point out as having caused their obvious physical decay.
“I am also quite aware of what procedures must be done for their physical rehabilitation. As we know, physical rehabilitation is the easiest of the conservation procedures to undertake; however, it is not enough without stakeholder rehabilitation happening as well, because in Yangon we deal with living heritage that is part of many stakeholders’ daily lives.
“Nowhere in my column did I attribute or imply ‘moribund’ to any of the people I met in Yangon, all of whom I found are in every way as dynamic as you describe them to be.
“Nor do I find ‘cloaking’ heritage urbanscapes in nostalgia a disservice. Nostalgia is among the many starting points, or among the many tools we sometimes use, to awaken citizens to take ownership of their heritage and get them to conserve it.
“Heritage is to be conserved not for nostalgia’s sake, but because it is a catalyst for improved intangible and tangible benefits for local residents.
“However, in the process of awakening apathetic stakeholders to do something about their heritage, one never knows what tool to pull out of the box to start the conservation process. If nostalgia will work, then nostalgia it must be, but just to start the process of conservation, continue it until it reaches the point where the local population understands and values conservation, and participates in the process.
“Admittedly nostalgia is a weak tool to use against development, but it may work in uniting local residents. In Yangon’s case, it may not work at all, but I am not a Yangon resident, so you would be the better judge of that.
“It is true that during the ‘Investing in Heritage Cities’ conference we attended in Yangon, the focus was on heritage as a resource for urban development and investment. Little was said about the spirit of the place that waits to be recovered. I wonder if nostalgia might contribute to the psychic reward of rediscovering spirit of place.
“Your letter shows how good an advocate you are. Please accept my admiration for your commitment to conserving Yangon heritage.