Siyin Baptist Church

Formerly:   St Philip's Church
Address:     152 Bo Myat Tun Road
Year built:   1887
Architect:    Unknown

This compact church with its stout, concrete dome is best admired from 49th Street, which it squarely presides from the southern end of the road.

Today the church serves Yangon’s ethnic Chin population. The mountainous Chin State runs along Myanmar’s border with India. Like many of the country’s ethnic groups, the “Chin” label is fluid. On the Indian side, Chin people are known as Kuki. Under British rule, the colonial administration adopted the compound term “Chin-Kuki-Mizo”. Some people from the region today self-identify as Mizo, rejecting the two other terms. To complicate things, a Kuki-Mizo ethnic conflict in India cost hundreds of lives in the mid-1990s. A further 13,000 people fled their homes. The name of the Church, “Siyin”, refers to a sub-group in Chin State—they reside in the Siyin valley. They possess their own distinctive traits, including their own language.

Dome of Siyin Baptist Church at the end of 49th Street

The standardised labels of “Kuki” and “Chin”, in India and Burma, are due to the success of American Baptist evangelical missions in the early 19th century. A large section of the Chin population today identify as Baptists. Several plaques around the church paint a colourful version of this tale, recounting the journey of the “Chin (…) from headhunters to soul winners”. Besides these plaques, the church is sparse. Inside, the pastel-coloured walls have few adornments.

Compared to other churches in Yangon the interior is rather bare

First built in 1887 (there have clearly been renovations and alterations since), the building was originally an Anglican church called St Philip’s, adjoined by a St Philip’s School. At some point after independence, the church was nationalised. It was leased to the Rangoon Christian Chin Association 100 years after its construction, in 1987, and became today’s Siyin Baptist Church. (The school was fenced off and became Botataung Basic Education High School No. 2.) The church was bought by the association in 2002. In spite of goodwill gestures such as these, Christian groups have had extremely difficult relations with the Burmese authorities. To name but one example connected to this very building, in the early 2000s authorities detained its former pastor, Lian Za Dal, in the infamous Insein Prison after he had been previously warned not to preach to Buddhists.

Today the church has an active community with its own lively Facebook page. Refugee Chin populations in the US and Australia have founded their own Siyin Baptist Churches there.

Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)

Address:     263 45th Street
Year built:   1960s/70s
Architect:    Captain Kyu Kyaw

A stone’s throw from the Secretariat, the YMCA occupies this large modern complex on the corner of Thein Phyu and Mahabandoola Roads. The entrance itself is in the narrow alleyway behind the petrol station on Thein Phyu Road. Supposedly, a kickboxing centre on the ground floor is the only one in Yangon where anyone—local or foreign—can watch or even join a session.

The English YMCA arrived in Burma in 1897; an American branch was set up two years later. These were led by, and gave priority to, the expatriate community rather than the local Christian population. There was a dedicated branch, however, catering to Indians. The YMCA had a number of buildings around town and moved premises several times.

Latticed windows angled towards the North protect the interior from the sun

A national leadership emerged in the 1940s, before independence. Several other YMCA chapters were set up throughout the country during that period. After independence, the National Council of YMCAs joined the global YMCA structure in 1953.

The organisation survived many hardships over the years. It faced generalised mistrust stemming from its colonial origins. (A Young Men’s Buddhist Association, or YMBA, emerged a short decade after the YMCA in 1906. A General Council of Burmese Associations, borne out of the YMBA, became a potent vehicle for anti-colonial sentiment in the 1920s.) During the war the Japanese turned one of its buildings into a “comfort station”. Their military coerced women from across occupied East Asia here—including some 500 Burmese. As a result of the Second World War, according to YMCA International records, “the damage to YMCA property was devastating; all of the buildings and records were destroyed”. The organisation had to begin again from scratch. In the 1960s, the YMCA lost several properties all over again, as a result of the dictatorship’s nationalisation programme.

A petrol station occupies the plot towards Thein Pyu Road

Today there are about 25 YMCA chapters throughout the country—predominantly in Kachin, Chin and Shan states, which have significant Christian populations. The YMCA also operates charitable programmes for young people and the elderly. They raise awareness of human rights and environmental issues as well.

The building contains a church on the fourth floor. In Yangon, a second YMCA hostel is located on Lanmadaw Road.

Myanmar Red Cross Society / Union Bar & Grill

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.

Botataung Pagoda

Address:     Strand Road
Year built:   5th century BC, rebuilt 1954
Architect:    Unknown

By the ever-busy river docks of Botataung Pagoda Road lies this revered Buddhist temple, which lends the township its name. Legends regarding the pagoda’s origins abound, all involving various stories of how, and when, relics of the Buddha arrived here. One of them holds that two brothers, Tapussa and Bhallika, landed here after an arduous journey from India about 2,500 years ago. (Although various countries’ Buddhist legends have staked a claim to the brothers, archeological findings suggest that they originally hailed from what is today’s state of Odisha in India.) Their arrival was a triumphant one, for they carried with them several of the Buddha’s hairs. King Okkalapa, who ruled these shores, ordered the construction of the Shwedagon Pagoda to enshrine these hallowed relics. In the meantime they were to be kept here, at the site of the brothers’ landing. Once the Shwedagon was completed, King Okkalapa returned one of the hairs to the brothers in reward for their long and arduous voyage. They decided to erect a pagoda on this site. The 1,000 warriors who were drawn up as a guard of honour to welcome the hair relics from India are what gives the pagoda its name: in Burmese, “bo” means troop and “tataung” is a thousand.

The riverside is bustling during a religious festival at the pagoda

Botataung Pagoda, and its tale, became well-known only after it was almost completely destroyed in 1943, in a British bombing raid during the Second World War. During clearance works five years later, several precious artefacts were uncovered, and these seemed to corroborate the ancient legends. The story of these discoveries has a mythical aura of its own: a relic chamber was excavated at the heart of the pagoda. Inside, astonished workers found a treasure vault containing a stone casket in the shape of a pagoda, measuring 60 cm in diameter and 100 cm in height. Within the casket they found almost 700 ancient objects, ranging from precious stones to jewellery. Among these artefacts was a terracotta plaque. Once translated, it helped establish a connection between the Mon people (thought to have built the pagoda, who reside in Myanmar’s Mon State today) and the South Indian Brahmi script. After the ceremonial opening of a second, smaller stone casket found inside the first, a golden pagoda-shaped vessel emerged. Within it was a small golden cylinder. When they opened it, Buddhist dignitaries identified two small body relics—each the size of a mustard seed—and a sacred hair of the Buddha.

A worshipper is taking a rest in the shady arcades

Rebuilding works ensued over following years; they were complete in 1954. As a result, today’s pagoda combines traditional temple architecture with post-war construction techniques. It mimics its original shape, at a height of 40 metres, covering a square of 29 × 29 metres. Unusual for a pagoda of its kind the main stupa is hollow, thanks to the extensive use of reinforced concrete. A circular walkway leads through a sequence of angular chambers. These surround the gold-covered central chamber, where the Buddha’s relics lie.

The entire interior of the pagoda is covered on gold leaf

The pagoda brings a steady stream of visitors to the adjacent stretch, along the river. This is where passenger ferries dock. Traders’ boats can be seen unloading bag after bag of rice, while children play football here until the sun sets and bathes the place in shades of pink.

Unobstructed views of the pagoda can be had when approaching from the waterfront

Printing & Publishing Enterprise

Formerly:   Government Press Buildings
Address:     228 Thein Phyu Road
Year built:   1906-1912
Architect:    John Begg

This large, low-rise complex stands on the northeastern edge of the Secretariat. Built from red bricks, the Government Press’ ornaments were cast from concrete—instead of the more usual stone —as a cost-cutting measure. The Secretariat-facing wing, on Thein Phyu Road, features an elegant entrance with Greek columns. Note the continuous loggia across the width of the second floor.

The location on a street corner is adjacent to the Secretariat

At first, the building was a distribution point for official publications arriving from India. Soon after, printing facilities arrived here to produce colonial gazettes and journals. In these publications, the British documented their prized possessions and announced the latest news and official acts. By 1962, 1,300 staff were squeezing into the building. Many travelled abroad to learn the latest printing techniques and worked here with the latest imported machinery. The building later became known as the Printing and Publishing Enterprise, which the Ministry of Information still runs today. It continued to print gazettes and other official publications until 2005, when the facilities, like the rest of the government, moved to Naypyidaw. Like many former government facilities in Yangon today, the Printing and Publishing Enterprise is now mostly vacant. Ideas for future use include a public library—and fittingly, the Myanmar Libraries Foundation already have their offices here.

The main entrance leads to an inner courtyard

Ministers’ Building

Formerly:   Secretariat
Address:     300 Thein Phyu Road
Year built:   1889-1905
Architect:    Henry Hoyne-Fox

Welcome to the Secretariat, Yangon’s iconic colonial building: an epic symbol of British rule; a haunting monument to the broken dreams of Burmese independence. The sight of those glowing red bricks, obscured by forbidding barbed wire, transfixes legions of locals and visitors alike—such that its historic name still sticks, despite being officially known as the Ministers’ Building today. As the country launches into a spectacular and uncertain period of change, so will this vast, vacant and delicate complex search for a role in the new Myanmar.

Despite the broken and boarded-up windows, the approach remains impressive

Built in several stages between 1889 and 1905, it became the administrative centre of British Burma. Britain annexed Lower Burma in 1852 and Rangoon became the main commercial and political hub for its new colonial possessions. With the annexation of Upper Burma in 1886, the bureaucracy grew such that a vast new building became necessary. (A previous Secretariat stood on Strand Road at the time.)

Tower at the northwest corner

Burma was to remain an administrative subdivision of British India until 1937, when it became a dominion of Britain. The colonial bureaucracy was infamously expansive. It established a firm grip on all aspects of life through its myriad departments and divisions. Policing, prisons, asylums, finances, education, health: The colonists left nothing to chance. Inside the building, rows of officials and clerks hammered away at brand new typewriters.

The southern main entrance features a double helicoidal wrought iron stair case

Though a symbol of colonialism, the Secretariat is also central to Burma’s independence struggle. The country’s first prime minister, Ba Maw, took office here in 1937. This was prescribed by the Government of Burma Act, which led to the separation of Burma from British India. The following year, student protesters in Mandalay demanded the release of anti-British activists. The movement escalated and reached Yangon. When mounted police tried to disperse the protesters, they killed a young man called Aung Kyaw. The street west of the Secretariat bears his name today.

The derelict ruins of a two-storied building stretch along the northern perimeter

Nine years later, the Secretariat bore witness to modern Burma’s defining moment. In the morning of 19 July 1947, gunmen entered the Secretariat. They were looking for independence leader General Aung San. They found him on the first floor—along with six other ministers—and murdered them all. A low-key shrine (a table, some flowers and incense) now stands in the Secretariat’s northwestern wing, which has been maintained even as the building became derelict. At the time of writing, the room had clearly been renovated, unlike the rest of the complex.

Though only 32 years old at the time of his death, Aung San had already become a legend. He was a driving force behind the 1938 protests and later fought against the British, on the side of the Japanese, in the early years of the Second World War. Later in the war, he threw his lot in with the British and ended on the victors’ side. In early 1947, he travelled to London to negotiate the terms of independence, but died in the Secretariat only months later. (For a more detailed account of his life, please see the section on the Bogyoke Aung San Residence.)

On 4 January 1948, a few months later, the Secretariat became the stage of another historic event. At 4.20am (an auspicious time, chosen by astrologers) the Union Jack descended from a flagpole to the sounds of God Save the King. The flag of the Union of Burma rose. Thousands of Burmese thronged the streets on the day that marked the end of British rule.

The post-independence government used the Secretariat, as did Ne Win’s junta post-1962. However, they forbade residents from strolling in the park and declared the place off limits. In 1972, civil servants were placed more firmly under the control of army-appointed ministers. The complex was renamed the Ministers’ Office. In the eyes of some, the buildings’ structural decay, accelerated by the government’s move to Naypyidaw, symbolises the decline of the rule of law in Burma.

Henry Hoyne-Fox, an engineer at the Public Works Department, was responsible for drawing up the plans. He had ample space: The administration earmarked an entire city block measuring 16 hectares. (Hoyne-Fox also designed the Yangon General Hospital.) Baboo Naitram Rambux, a contractor with roots in northern India, oversaw the construction. He had taken over the business from his father (who began the works on the Secretariat, but died in a train accident in 1894). Rambux remained one of the most prominent builders in colonial Rangoon and was still listed in the local trade directories in 1956, aged 74, long after the country’s independence.

The Secretariat was built in stages, with the south wing erected first between 1889 and 1893. Soggy ground and torrential rainfalls during the monsoon seasons complicated the work and massive timber logs were used to stabilise the soil underneath the building. Drainage problems continue to plague the south wing, with huge puddles forming here during the rainy season. As a result, the building looks slightly uneven in places. Work resumed on the east and west wings in 1903. This time, construction took just two years: The Secretariat as it stands today was thus finally completed by 1905. There was now a veritable colonial palace in the heart of Rangoon: 18 ornate towers marked the corners of both east and west wings. A large dome rose above a majestic staircase along the west wing.

The building’s structural integrity has been frequently tested by natural disasters. An earthquake reaching magnitude 7.3 on the Richter scale shook Rangoon in the early afternoon of 5 May 1930. Among the government buildings, the Secretariat fared the worst. Twelve pillars supporting the main dome were cracked; several others of the west and north wings were shattered. The cupola and 10 of the 18 towers could not be saved. Ornaments adorning the original southern wing were also badly damaged and some had to be removed. Here, too, the ceilings had to be dismantled and the fissures in the western wall of the south block were widened. More recently, Cyclone Nargis, ravaging Yangon in 2008, damaged various sections of the roof that have only been repaired with rudimentary fixes.

Despite this, the Secretariat continues to impress through its scale and massing. It is more of a complex than a single building. The three wings are complemented by the staff quarters on the northern side. The authorities later added a modest building in the courtyard. It served as Burma’s parliament following independence. For the Secretariat’s design, Henry Hoyne-Fox drew on various architectural currents, with official colonial-era architecture from Calcutta among them. Materials were sourced from various locations: The terracotta roof tiles came from Marseilles, France. Large steel beams came from Britain, while smaller steel furnishings were cast locally.

The area around the Secretariat is unusually calm: No street vending is allowed on either side of the fenced-off building. After the government’s move to Naypyidaw, the military allowed some of its staff to live here with their families.

Today, the future of Yangon’s most iconic colonial building is slowly taking shape. In 2012, a new and little-known entity called Anawmar Art Group was awarded the lease on the building. It aims to spend a sizeable amount of its own funds on restoration works, but will require additional outside investment to bring the 40,000 square metre building back to an acceptable state. Estimates for the total price tag differ widely, with the highest being more than USD 100 million. The group states that it plans to return the Secretariat to public use. Current plans feature museums, galleries and a cultural centre. Big questions surround the commercial viability of such a huge undertaking.

Basic Education High School No. 6 Botataung

Formerly:   St Pauls's English School
Address:     Anawratha Road / Thein Phyu Road
Year built:   1885-1922
Architect:    Thomas Swales (extensions)

The school’s dry name belies its significance in the history of Burmese Catholicism. Then again, it looks the part. Built in 1885, St Paul’s English School (as it was known) was the choice of the European and Anglo-Indian elites. The language of instruction was English.

From the south entrance, the school looks deceptively small. The length of the building is revealed from the east, where a football field runs along the side of the road. Beyond the wrought iron fence, commuters at the bus station watch the students kick up clouds of dust during their matches.

The school’s crest features on the school gate

The school was built by an irrepressible French missionary named Paul Ambroise Bigandet. He became the first Catholic bishop of Burma in 1856, when Rome entrusted its efforts to the Foreign Mission of Paris. Bigandet had first set foot on Burmese soil in 1837. He travelled from Penang, Malaysia to the Mergui peninsula at the southernmost tip of Burma. Starting his new assignment in the country, Bishop Bigandet began what became a legendary effort to convert the Burmese over 40 years, until his death in 1894, aged 81. In his first year he travelled back to Mergui and onward to Moulmein and then Rangoon. He then ventured further northward. (On a separate trip he went as far north as Yunnan Province in southern China.) He was less than enthused by what he found: despite a century’s worth of efforts, there were just a couple of thousand faithful in Burma. Rangoon at that time only possessed a chapel made of bamboo and an unfinished brick church.

The school is set amidst lush greenery

Bishop Bigandet embarked on a number of ambitious projects, especially building schools, and St Paul’s was the apex. Prior to that, he entrusted the construction of a school in Moulmein to three members of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, a Catholic order dedicated to education. He asked them to build another near his home in Rangoon. After several expansions and relocations, it reached its present location. It was later expanded by architect Thomas Swales in the early 1900s. (Swales’ other buildings in Yangon include the former Fytche Square Building, and Sofaer’s Building.) A science laboratory was added in 1922.

Although the school was nationalised in 1965 and given its present name, the wrought iron gate still features the Brothers of the Christian Schools’ motto, Signum Fidei (Sign of Faith). In the classic 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon, Sarah Rooney points out that the symbol of the order, “the five-pointed star of Bethlehem which led the wise men of the East to the Birth of Christ”, here features a six-pointed star. Presumably a mistake.

Students playing football on the school grounds

The Old Paulians’ Association convenes alumni who attended the school before its nationalisation. It continues to meet often, fundraises for charitable activities and holds an annual event at the school. Historically, alumni of the school have included many of the country’s upper echelons. These include ethnic Chinese tycoon Lim Chin Tsong (apparently a favourite of Bishop Bigandet’s, see Lim Chin Tsong Palace) and Deedok U Ba, who perished at Aung San’s side in 1947.

Even since nationalisation, BEHS 6 continues to attract the better-off classes of Yangon society. One recent alumnus is Zayar Thaw, a rapper-turned-parliamentarian close to Aung San Suu Kyi.

St Mary’s Cathedral

Address:     372 Bo Aung Kyaw Road
Year built:   1899-1911
Architect:    Jos Cuypers

The Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin is Yangon’s biggest Roman Catholic church. Its neo-Gothic style is reminiscent of cathedrals built around the same time in northern Europe, but the inside sets it apart: The colourful bricks offer a livelier feel than its often austere contemporaries. St Mary’s was one of two major Christian churches built at the turn of the 20th century. The other is the Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral in nearby Pabedan Township.

The church is set amidst a well-manicured garden

Though consecrated in 1911, St Mary’s history goes back to the late 19th century. The main Catholic church had by that point become too small for the congregation and Rangoon’s energetic first bishop, Paul Ambroise Bigandet, wanted a cathedral. He successfully lobbied the Government of India (in other words, the British colonial authority over Burma) for the funds. Henry Hoyne-Fox—who built the iconic Secretariat—made designs for a Byzantine-style cathedral.

The interior features brightly painted brickwork

However, the grounds purchased on what is today’s Bo Aung Kyaw Street were initially too swampy; the foundations needed to be strengthened using vertical logs pushed into the ground. As the preparatory work dragged on for longer than expected, Hoyne-Fox abandoned the project and took a long leave of absence. Meanwhile, Bishop Bigandet passed away. His successor, Alex Cardot, commissioned Jos Cuypers to continue the work. A Dutch architect whom Cardot had met during a trip to Europe in 1895, Jos was the son of Pierre Cuypers, who designed the Rijksmuseum and the central train station in Amsterdam.

A view from the side shows the neo-Gothic style

Cuypers submitted two different designs for the Rangoon assignment. The first one represented a mixture of his Saint Bavo Cathedral in Haarlem with added ‘oriental’ influences as understood at the time. (Dutch architecture during that period made frequent references to a romanticised image of the country’s colonial possessions in Asia.) The second—successful—proposal was a more conventional, European-style cathedral in Gothic Revival style. As he had never set foot in Rangoon, Cuypers’ designs required revisions for local conditions. Father Jenzen, who studied with Cuypers in the Netherlands, oversaw these adaptations in Rangoon. His close supervision of the untrained staff ensured the foundation’s successful stabilisation. The cornerstone of white marble was laid in 1899. Later Jenzen felt confident enough to add spirals to Cuypers’ towers, placing significant additional weight upon the existing structure.

The main entrance is topped by a stained glass rosetta

Crippled by an accident during construction, Father Jenzen lived long enough—just—to see the cathedral’s dedication in 1911. As proof of its structural soundness, it survived the 20th century almost unscathed. The 1930 Pegu earthquake only inflicted minor damage to several vaults and two arches. Aerial bombs dropped on Rangoon during the Second World War missed the cathedral, though nearby explosions did break its glass windows. The damage to the cathedral from Cyclone Nargis in 2008 was similarly limited to shattered windows.

The Catholic Church in Myanmar remains split into three archdioceses. (Yangon is the headquarters for the Southern Burma Vicariate.) In January 2015 Pope Francis named Myanmar’s first cardinal, Charles Bo, also the Archbishop of Yangon. He is a leading voice of tolerance in response to anti-Muslim sentiment in parts of the country.

Botataung Township

In the east of Yangon’s downtown, Botataung is home to the city’s iconic colonial-era building, the Secretariat. As it occupies several street blocks and is difficult to access, this side of the city is quieter than its western counterpart. A very walkable part of town, several other interesting buildings make it worth the journey.