Address:     42 Strand Road
Year built:   1959/2012
Architect:    Unknown/Spine Architects

On a busy Friday night, to step inside the Union Bar & Grill is to forget about Yangon almost completely. The pacey lounge music, the hum of expat conversation, the tinkling cocktail glasses … The scene is always a far cry from the dark and quiet stretch of Strand Road right outside, not to mention the loud, lurching movements of the cargo docks opposite, which continue well after the bar closes. In daylight, the venue reveals itself to be a straightforward, modern take on the colonial genre: white brick walls, high ceilings and dark wood finishings bathe in sunlight from large windows. The space was designed by local architects SPINE.

Entrance to the Union Bar and Grill

What is most striking, though, is the contrast between the bar and the building it occupies. This is a burly, tired six-storey edifice with Art Deco leanings, home to the headquarters of the Myanmar Red Cross Society. (In fact, the space now used by the bar was once a warehouse for disaster supplies.)

The Red Cross in Myanmar operates at the forefront of several humanitarian challenges. It has a special division dedicated to Rakhine State, which runs along much of the country’s western coast. Rakhine often makes headlines. Stark poverty there has escalated into recurring episodes of deadly sectarian (and often anti-Muslim) violence.

Inside this six-storey building lies a world of luxury and another one of humanitarian aid

When the British colonial administration decided to separate Burma from India in 1937, so did the Burma Red Cross Society (BRCS) peel away from its Indian counterpart. As a newly-independent entity, the BRCS joined the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in 1946. It changed its name to the Myanmar Red Cross Society (MRCS) in 1989. Today, the MRCS occupies several floors of the building and lease the others to the IFRC as well as some public companies. The income from the rent helps to fund Red Cross activities.