State Fine Arts School

Formerly:   Lim Chin Tsong Palace
Address:     131 Kaba Aye Pagoda Road
Year built:   1915-1919
Architect:    Clark & Greig (contractors)

The State Fine Arts School now uses the palace built by Lim Chin Tsong on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road. Lim Chin Tsong was perhaps Burma’s most famous pre-independence business tycoon. He led a flamboyant life, obvious in this eccentric five-storey residence with its wild mix of Chinese and Western architecture. The tall pagoda-like central tower rises above a main reception hall. The rooms are laid out in a star shape, reached by a central staircase. The balcony above the grand portico overlooks Yangon. In 1919, Lim Chin Tsong would have enjoyed a view stretching downtown all the way to the river. His family name is printed in Chinese above the balcony roof. A large teak wall divider, painted in red and gold and about 10 meters wide, separates the dome from the balcony area. Some of the walls feature large murals. These were painted by Dod and Ernest Procter in 1920, whom Chin Tsong met on a famous tour to London the year before. They mainly depict Chinese landscapes. As Sarah Rooney notes in her 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon, these murals “are nicely executed but unremarkable, and contain no hint of the artistic talent the couple would exhibit in their later years”.

Two heavy sets of wooden stairs lead up to a large hall

The interior was lavishly furnished and decorated. Allegedly Chin Tsong spent over 30,000 British pounds, or more than 1 million in today’s money, during a shopping spree at Harrods in London. The 1924 Seaports of the Far East (also quoted in Rooney’s book) described how

“the magnificence of [the house’s] equipment in rare and valuable furniture, in statuary, pictures, articles of gold, silver, ivory, curious of every description and in the richness and novelty of its electrical illumination, is in keeping with (…) the carving of the woodwork, the marble floors and staircases (…) and the greatness of the perspectives of halls, corridors and noble apartments, where the old and the new, the East and the West are expressed of a harmony that is remarkable and unique”.

A wooden staircase at the far end of the building connects the two main floors

Born to Chinese Hokkien parents in Rangoon in 1867, Lim Chin Tsong took over his father’s rice trading business at the age of 21. Soon he would expand into many other sectors, most importantly oil. He became the main agent for the Scotland-based Burmah Oil Company, causing frequent headaches at headquarters with his creative accounting techniques. Although he could not read or write Chinese himself, his company books were written in Chinese so as to evade the control of the Scottish company. Running behind on payments, his financial fortunes often hung in the balance. The BP Archives (as BP took over Burmah Oil, company files are in its possession) state that “one week Chin Tsong would be desperately hard pressed, with the ominous word bankruptcy ringing in his ears; the next he would strike it rich with a big steamer freight — or the promise of one. On several occasions he was, said Rangoon, ‘at the height of his tether, shedding copious tears;’ at other times he was in the millionaire bracket, entertaining lavishly at the Rangoon race track.” He died from influenza in 1923. The legend goes that when the phone company threatened to disconnect his line for non-payments, the bedridden Chin Tsong finally expired in frustration.

Chinese elements are freely mixed with classical styles

His funeral on 8 November brought out every community in Rangoon. Thousands lined the streets between his palace and the Hokkien cemetery. He was, the Rangoon Gazette wrote, “the most popular resident of Rangoon”, remembered not only for his lavish lifestyle but also for his philanthropy.

After Chin Tsong’s death, his wife continued to live in the palace. Perhaps due to a meagre inheritance from her husband, she lived there in poverty by 1938. The Japanese ran a radio station out of the palace during the war. The building escaped unscathed despite nearby fighting. After independence, the palace was used as a hotel and renamed the Kambawza Palace. It was also used as a ladies’ hostel for students of the Institute of Economics.

Pupils attend class with open doors and windows

From 1971 to 1974, the commission that drafted the country’s socialist constitution under General Ne Win used the building as its headquarters. This constitution was in force until the 1988 uprisings, then suspended, and the country went without one for 20 years. (The 2008 constitution is the source of huge public debate at the time of writing which, if nothing else, shows the political environment is freer than it has been for some years.)

A wooden stair leads up to the central tower

The palace was later repurposed as the Ministry of Culture. The minister’s office was at the top of the tower. Following the government’s move to Naypyidaw in 2005, the State Fine Arts school became the only remaining tenant, leaving much of the building unused and in need of repair. Fortunately, Lim Chin Tsong’s palace received heritage status in September 2014. It is expected to receive a full renovation with government funds. Its heritage status may herald a public use for the building.

Chin Tsong’s legacy is bound up in other iconic buildings around the city. He was a (popular, naturally) alumni of St Paul’s High School, today’s BEHS 6 Botataung. He also owned the Rangoon Turf Club, today’s Kyaikkasan Horse Race Course.

Singapore Myanmar Vocational Training Institute

Formerly:   Technical High School
Address:     123 Natmauk Road
Year built:   1954-1956
Architect:    Raglan Squire

This simple, elegant school building lies in a sorry state today, although the Singaporean government plans to renovate it. Its history is not well known but tells of a time when, despite all its post-independence problems, Burma’s future looked bright. Technical education for the young generations was a top priority of the new government and, thanks to extraordinary investments at the time, this high school became the country’s pride and joy and the top vocational institution in Southeast Asia.

The school is a large, low-rise complex, with the main building standing just off Natmauk Road. The British architect, Raglan Squire, does not say much about it in his autobiography—perhaps because he thought the school paled in comparison to his Engineering College, today’s University of Medicine-1. Interestingly, the most detailed description of the project is found in Soviet publications of the time, perhaps because the American “class enemy” was involved in plans for the school. (The Soviet Union would eventually send some of their best designers to Yangon to build the Inya Lake Hotel and the Institute of Technology.)

An elegantly arched canopy cantilevers all the way across the driveway

The semi-circular roof elements and curved entrance canopy lend the street-facing main building an almost playful appearance. It contained the main assembly hall, designed for 600 people. Its parquet floor was made from local teak wood. For ventilation purposes, the windows were covered with louvres instead of glass. Other windows in the complex were simply covered with metal mesh. This simple design was perfectly suited to the climate. And to ensure that such openness would not lead to excessive noise pollution, the ceilings in classrooms and workshops were fitted with acoustic plates. Most inside walls were painted with distemper paint, only a few with oil-based paints. Some concrete surfaces were not painted at all.

The rest of the complex adheres to a simpler and more sober form. The two wings containing the classrooms are raised on stilts, with car parks and a common area right beneath the western wing. Like the loggia-like corridors on the first floor, this was a way to accommodate the strong heat and regular torrential rainfalls during the monsoon. The fourth wing, completing the structure towards the north, housed vocational workshops, remnants of which are still visible. Further north were the hostels for boarders. Behind those, further north still, are two tall interconnected eight-storey tower blocks, seemingly housing boarding students as well. They are unusually high for Yangon’s architecture of this period. The whole school complex was mostly built using reinforced concrete.

Propped up on columns and beams sits a wing of the building with an open arcade

Be sure to admire the several large mosaic murals within the main compound, if you are able to enter. They portray idyllic and optimistic displays of traditional life in an independent Myanmar. Besides Squire’s Engineering College (where, according to his autobiography, the murals were created at his behest), similar artwork also adorns the Government Technical Institute in Insein, the Institute of Technology and the University of Education. As most of the Technical High School lay abandoned at the time of writing, it is a small miracle that these important 1950s artworks remain in such good shape. Some of the artists involved in this initiative—Kyi Winn, U Khin Maung, U Nann Waii, Bagyi Aung So and U Thein Han—are among Myanmar’s most celebrated artists of the 20th century.

The Technical High School opened in July 1956. It was built with Burmese government funds and cost 2.5 million US dollars (or more than 20 million US dollars in today’s money). The Ford Foundation paid for instructors from Dunwoody, a Minnesota vocational college, to help develop a curriculum. About 600 students, half of them boarders, combined artisanal vocational training with high school diploma programmes.

Large mosaics depict rural life in Myanmar

The school was resolutely state of the art. The Ford archives reveal that the decision to support the school was the matter of some debate: could a project so ambitious, catering to a relatively small number of students, be replicated on a national scale? The Foundation’s final report on the project tries to acquit itself thus:

“It was undoubtedly an extravagant undertaking—many Burmese admitted as much, and none expected that it would be duplicated on such a scale elsewhere in Burma. But the school was designed to enhance the reputation of technical education in Burma [… and] viewed in that light, the decision to commit such relatively great resources to a single school may not have been so unwise.”

The two building blocks are connected by a staircase and bridges

Later the high school was used as a branch of the Radiation Protection Department, an organisation under the Department of Atomic Energy.

The Singaporean government has committed funds to renovate the school and return it to its original use as a vocational training centre. A tender was issued in late 2014. If successful, this project could help create awareness of post-independence architecture in discussions of the city’s built heritage—a subject usually monopolised by the city’s colonial buildings. And perhaps soon, the school may again produce very successful graduates. As Myanmar’s economy roars ahead, skilled technicians and engineers may become in high demand.

Villa “Goethe”

Formerly:   AFPFL Headquarters
Address:     8 Komin Kochin Road
Year built:   1920s
Architect:    Unknown

Off a short, sloping driveway stands this stately villa from the early 1920s. Judging by its overall appearance, the building was probably commissioned by a European—what we do know for certain is that a wealthy Chinese businessman, Chan Chaw Paing, acquired it shortly after its completion and added a number of Chinese characteristics. Chan Chaw Paing’s wife was none other than Lim Chin Tsong’s daughter. (Read more about the larger-than-life tycoon in the section about the Lim Chin Tsong Palace.) The villa was largely built from stone and steel and is hence in decent structural condition today. Goethe-Institut, the international German cultural organisation, has leased the property as a base for its growing activities in Myanmar. A full-scale renovation is planned, which will see the building restored to its former glory while becoming a multi-functional cultural space. It will also host a courtyard restaurant.

The residence is set back from the street, at a good distance from the noisy thoroughfare. The exclusive feel of the villa is accentuated by the large porte-cochère in front of the main entrance. Inside the building, one finds details revealing the second owners’ roots. There are Chinese characters on the entrance’s half-round transom. The teak room dividers are also clearly Chinese. Above the porte-cochère, a generous balcony overlooks the leafy yard and beyond the tall palm trees, the tip of the Shwedagon Pagoda comes into view. On the second floor, a light well provides natural lighting to the spacious hallway connecting all rooms.

Neo-classical and Chinese influences can be found on the outside

The villa is a typical example of a wealthy residence built in this period. Colonial Rangoon was booming in the 1920s, leading to a lot of construction activity. Not much is known of its owners’ later life. It can only be speculated that Chan Chaw Paing and his wife left Yangon with the onset of the war, before or during the Japanese invasion in early 1942. This was the case of many other ethnic Chinese residents who often crossed the land border into Yunnan province. Thousands decided to return to Burma after the war. They rebuilt their communities in Chinatown, where about a quarter of the housing stock was destroyed during war-time bombing. Many, however, did not come back. Perhaps they were lost in the vagaries of war, or found their fortunes elsewhere.

The real historical significance of the Villa Goethe stems from its use at the end of the war and the immediate post-war period. General Aung San and the Thakins, or nationalist Burmese leaders, chose this building as the headquarters of their Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO). The AFO was renamed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) after the war. It became the main political party working for Burmese independence. Under the leadership of General Aung San, it united the various factions into which Burma’s independence fighters had by then split. It is said that General Aung San even lived in the building for some time, in the annex at rear of the building. After his assassination, followed by independence, the AFPFL became the young country’s main political party. Its leader U Nu was the country’s prime minister for much of the immediate post-independence period. The group’s headquarters were here, on what was then Churchill Road (now Kaba Aye Pagoda Road and its southern prolongation called Komin Kochin Road). The place remained a centre of Burmese political life until the liquidation of the AFPFL under General Ne Win in 1962.

The walls of the villa are frequently used for art exhibitions (photo © Christian Schink)

Around 1968, the building became the State School of Fine Arts and served as such until 2003. From that point, the former AFPFL headquarters was used for occasional art exhibitions organised by the Ministry of Culture. But the building gradually fell into disrepair and Cyclone Nargis in 2007 caused further damage. Thanks to some basic repairs led by the Myanmar Artists and Artisans Organisation, art continued to be shown here.

The Goethe-Institut was offered the property by the Ministry of Culture during negotiations on a cultural agreement between Myanmar and Germany. The house’s historic aura, inviting location and beautiful grounds seduced the Institut immediately. The lease agreement was approved by President Thein Sein’s cabinet in early 2015.

The building was inaugurated by German President Joachim Gauck during a state visit in February 2014. The Goethe-Institut in Yangon offers German language classes at all levels and facilitates cultural exchanges between Germany, Myanmar and the world. With this new venue in the old villa, the institute also aims to provide young Burmese artists with a space for innovative forms of expression and creative experiments. It also offers training programmes and support for young people in the fields of music and film, as well as workshops about the use of media in education.

This book was made possible thanks in part to the Goethe-Institut’s generous support.

Bogyoke Aung San Residence

Address:     25 Bogyoke Museum Lane
Year built:   1921
Architect:    Unknown

The Bogyoke Aung San Residence is a beautiful teak villa dating back to the early 1920s. Today it is a museum commemorating the father of Burmese independence. It is well preserved and a fine example of the houses built by the wealthy in what was then a suburb of Yangon, east of Shwedagon Pagoda. Down the street from the German Embassy, a covered outside stairway leads to the two-storey house, protecting visitors from the torrential monsoon rains that inundate the city for part of the year. The villa features a wide veranda on its front and an elaborate turret on the side, facing the entrance. Upon entering the museum, the visitor arrives in the dining room, adjoined by the reception and living rooms. The bedrooms and library are on the second floor, as is a small Buddhist altar room. The museum displays family memorabilia and photos from Aung San’s short but tumultuous life.

Aung San was born in 1915 in Natmauk, in central Myanmar. He left for Rangoon to study English Literature and History at the University of Rangoon and quickly became a prominent student leader. In 1938, he quit his studies to join the Thakin, a Burmese nationalist group founded in the early 1930s.

The villa sits inside a generous compound

The following nine years of his life are a remarkable tale of cunning, courage and vision. He visited the Indian National Congress Assembly in Rangarh in 1940, where a protest against India’s forced participation in the Second World War galvanised India’s independence movement. While travelling in China in 1940 to seek assistance from Chinese communists, he was picked up (some say, apprehended) by the Japanese authorities and sent to Tokyo. Japan wanted to bankroll the Burmese nationalist movement and rout Britain out of the country, offering military support and assurances of independence. Aung San accepted. Between 1940 and 1941, Aung San and his now legendary “Thirty Comrades” received Japanese training and assistance in Hainan, China. With Japan’s support, they became the Burma National Army, fighting alongside Japanese forces and growing in numbers as they invaded their own country from Thailand. In 1943–44, as the Japanese occupation strained under British counter-incursions, Aung San grew disillusioned with Japan’s military ability, distrustful of their promises and unhappy with their treatment of Burmese forces. In 1944, he turned his back on Japan and threw his lot in with the Allied forces. Aung San’s finest hour was perhaps his visit to London in January 1947, when he negotiated the terms for Burmese independence with British Prime Minister Clement Attlee. But Aung San was never to reap the fruits of his hard work. On 19 July 1947, while he was sitting in the Secretariat with his provisional cabinet and no doubt running over preparations for Burma’s official independence in January 1948, gunmen barged into the room and mowed everyone down with sub-machine guns. The entire cabinet was killed.

Roof-covered stairs lead up to the main building from the driveway

The residence became a museum in 1962, the same year the first Martyrs’ Mausoleum, later bombed, was inaugurated. Military dictator Ne Win, who was one of the “Thirty Comrades” himself, wanted the national narrative to place more emphasis on Aung San’s companions, including his own role. Following the pro-democracy protests co-led by Aung San’s daughter, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in 1988, the military junta decided to repress “the cult” of Aung San and neglected the building for years.

A golden statue of Aung San doing gardening work can be found in the garden

After a major five-year renovation that saw walls strengthened and roofs and stairs repaired, it reopened to the public in 2012. Visitors can again walk freely inside the villa. The grounds feature a statue of Aung San doing gardening work. The small pond is where Aung San Suu Kyi’s older brother drowned in 1953. This tragedy prompted the now-twice bereaved family to move to the famous house on University Avenue. This is where “the Lady” lives, and spent much of her life under house arrest.

Ngadatgyi Pagoda (Seated Buddha)

Otherwise: Seated Buddha
Address:     Shwegondaing Lane
Year built:   Early 20th century
Architect:    Unknown

You may want to approach this vast monastery complex (called Ashay Tawya) from the south, by following the Bogyoke Aung San Museum Lane. Its peaceful setting offers a respite from traffic-choked Yangon. Between its winding pathways and scattered buildings, visitors are likely to encounter monks in meditation. There are teak and stone buildings; one stone edifice is painted a striking pink. Inside the central Ngadatgyi Pagoda, the impressive seated Buddha statue rises 20 metres high (which explains why this Buddha is known as the “five-storey Buddha”). The statue has the Buddha doing the Bhumisparsa Mudra or “earth witness” hand gesture, which he made while achieving enlightenment under the Bodhi tree: at that moment, the demon Mara tried to intimidate the Buddha with an army of monsters; the Buddha made this gesture to beckon the Earth to bear witness to the moment. Mara cowered away and the Buddha realised enlightenment.

Worshippers pray in front of the 20 metre high sculpture

The seated Buddha statue was at, or near, its current location when the pagoda was constructed in the early 20th century. A photo from 1895 shows it in a partially ruined state, surrounded by the pillars of a former pavilion.

The pagoda and the Buddha statue were renovated during the early 1990s by the SLORC junta. The building or renovation of Buddhist religious structures was one of its favoured tools to try to mobilise public support.

The top of the pagoda can be seen from neighbouring Kyauktatgyi Pagoda

Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda (Reclining Buddha)

Otherwise: Reclining Buddha
Address:     Shwegondaing Lane
Year built:   1907-1912, 1957-1966
Architect:    Unknown

This massive structure houses one of the largest reclining Buddha statues in Myanmar, which dates back to the early 20th century. From Shewgondaing Road the red roof of this vast indoor structure is visible from afar, but the best views are probably enjoyed from around the nearby Ngadatgyi Pagoda as you arrive or leave. The enormous 65-metre long Buddha is in the reclining position of his last dying days. The donor of the original Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda and the Buddha statue was a man called U Po Tha. Born in 1857, he became one of the country’s leading rice merchants and a generous benefactor. (His funds also built the northern main praying hall at the Shwedagon Pagoda.)

The immense steel structure can be seen from the entrance of neighbouring Ngadatgyi Pagoda

The tall and shiny steel girders bear the inscription “Lanarkshire Steel”, indicating that they were produced in Motherwell, just outside Glasgow. Steel produced in Britain was shipped halfway around the world and used in countless buildings of Rangoon. “Falkirk Iron Foundries”, “Cowie Bros., Glasgow” and “Cargo Fleet, Middlesbrough” are only some of the inscriptions you find across town. Some steel was also cast locally, for example at DD Coath Foundry, which produced the steel staircases for archival stands inside the legendary Secretariat. In this pagoda, the use of steel enabled a new Buddhist architectural style, bigger and utilitarian, making space for a Buddha statue of monumental dimensions.

Worshippers chat and pray under the eyes of the reclined statue

Major repairs and alterations to the Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda were carried out between 1957 and 1966. During that process, several metres were added to the statue, making it the third largest of its kind in today’s Myanmar. Unusual for a statue of this size, this Buddha’s eyes (measuring 1.7 × 0.5 metres) are made of glass. A one-day festival is held in the pagoda grounds every December. Instead of walking through the streets for alms, monks are brought food by the people living in the neighbourhood.

Colourful lights adorn a golden fence that runs along the full length of the Reclining Buddha

Kyaikkasan Race Course

Formerly:   Rangoon Turf Club
Address:     South Race Course Road
Year built:   1926
Architect:    Unknown

This racecourse was once home to the Rangoon Turf Club, a famous racing stable and social institution of the colonial days. It was founded in 1887, using a racecourse in Maidan, and moved to these facilities in 1926. Unlike virtually every other club established during the colonial administration, the Turf Club was open to non-whites—provided, of course, they were of a certain social status: Lim Chin Tsong, a larger-than-life ethnic Chinese tycoon who recurs throughout this book (you cannot miss his very own Lim Chin Tsong Palace) was at one point the club’s chairman.

Stairs lead up into the main stands and down into the catacombs

Racing was a very popular source of entertainment in the colonial days. As a British publication reviewing the colonies’ myriad delights wrote in 1910:

“There is now no lack of racing in Rangoon. The policy of the present executive has been to popularise the sport as much as possible, and extra meetings are held practically every fortnight throughout the year, with the result that (…) racing has never been so popular at the present time.”

But the racecourse gradually fell into disuse after the war, although the socialist regime that came to power after the 1962 coup used it for various official rallies, on Union Day (12 February), Peasant Day (2 March) and May Day. In those days, some of the buildings were used as conference halls for government representatives.

The catacombs are home to several families

When the remains of former UN Secretary-General U Thant arrived in Yangon in 1974, the coffin was placed here for “public” viewings—in reality, these were highly restricted by the military junta. When students protested against the lack of an official ceremony for U Thant, who was one of post-independence Myanmar’s most cherished figures, they overran security at the Kyaikkasan Race Course and took the coffin to Yangon University. More about this incident, and its tragic aftermath, can be read in the section about the U Thant Mausoleum.

An elevator led from the ticket counters to the stands above

You won’t hear any galloping sounds or cheering crowds nowadays. Its most recent successor, the Yangon Riding Club, moved to new facilities in Dagon township in 1996. The vast grounds of the racecourse host student dormitories and sports facilities. The bowels of the stadium are now inhabited, possibly by the families of groundskeepers.

The grounds are not open to the public and it can be difficult to charm your way inside, but the space’s open-air expanse and overgrown colonial relics feel faintly magical. It would be a worthy candidate for a redevelopment project to return the place to large-scale public use.

The interior has been largely stripped, however the gratings of the ticket counters have remained