Myanma Economic Bank Branch 2

Formerly:    Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China
Address:     27–41 Pansodan Street
Year built:   1939–1941
Architect:    G Douglas Smart (Palmer & Turner)

This was one of the last edifices built during colonial rule and was originally the headquarters of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China, which later became part of Standard Chartered. Its cut-stone tiles used for flooring, steel frame and reinforced concrete made this the most modern building of pre-war Rangoon. Beneath the building is the city’s first underground parking garage. G Douglas Smart, who was the Rangoon partner of the regional architectural firm Palmer & Turner, had already designed the nearby Reserve Bank of India. Like other buildings on the west side of lower Pansodan Street, there used to be a portico at the entrance beneath the pagoda-shaped hexagonal tower. All that remains is a cut-back roof over the steps to the entrance, decorated with potted plants. It is painted in baby blue and white, the typical colours of the current occupant, Myanma Economic Bank (MEB). Long vertical slits in the corner towers contain slim windows. The stylised Greek ornamentation and columns create an Art Deco impression that is rare for Yangon. Try to take a peek behind the main entrance door, where a decorative metal gate references a spider web.

A rare Art Deco building amidst its neo-classical neighbours

The Chartered Bank arrived in Burma around 1860. Founded in London only a few years before by shipping merchants involved in the trade between Britain and its colonies, it focused on foreign exchange transactions and credit. These devices underpinned long-distance trade back then, as they do today. The bank also engaged in direct agricultural financing. While other institutions relied on middlemen like the Chettiar community, Chartered Bank lent against the security of stored commodities such as rice, sesame and groundnuts. This was innovative at the time and remains a key aspect of agricultural reform programmes around the world today. Bank staff held the only keys to the warehouses. They also employed their own security guards.

The columns, capitals and entablature feature a stylised Ionic order

The building was abandoned before Japanese troops entered Rangoon. For a short period it served as the local branch of the Yokohama Specie Bank. After independence, Chartered Bank continued to operate in Myanmar. But like most other foreign banks, it scaled back its operations until it was nationalised in 1963.

Some of the offices in the building were rented out. For example, the United States Information Service (USIS) Library occupied the ground floor. Some time after Ne Win’s coup, the research department of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) took over the premises. During this time, the underground car park was used as a guarded storage for bank notes in transit from the currency presses in Warzi, in central Myanmar. After the BSPP’s disbandment in 1988, the building reverted back to the Ministry of Finance and Revenue. It later became a branch of the state-owned Myanma Economic Bank.

Planters decorate the entrance

Foreign banks are planning their return to Myanmar. Standard Chartered is thought to be interested in purchasing the historic building. For now though, they have relatively few Yangon-based staff working in nearby Centrepoint Towers. To the surprise of observers, the bank did not apply for a limited banking licence in 2014, casting doubt over its plans for long-term engagement in the country.

Yangon Divisional Court & Department of Pensions

Formerly:    Accountant-General’s Office and Currency Department
Address:     1 Pansodan Street
Year built:   1900–1907
Architect:    AC Martin & Co. (contractors)

This grand, tired and loveable building lies at the southern end of Pansodan Street. It was first the Currency Department and the Accountant-General’s Office. In other words, it was the beating heart of the colonial state. While the former oversaw trade customs, the latter handled taxes on production and sales. Together they ensured that the colonial enterprise remained profitable. All revenue collected in Burma belonged to the Government of India and the Secretary of State. But a degree of devolution granted power to provinces in revenue collection and expenditure. To ensure order in these matters, Calcutta (and from 1911 onwards, New Delhi) appointed an Accountant-General. This was a very prestigious position.

The overgrown building marks the beginning of Pansodan Street

Some revenues were strategic and thus under colonial control. Salt, customs, railways, postage, telegraphs and opium for example. The colonial policy for opium was particularly interesting. The government permitted opium sales in India, citing strong local demand. They raked in considerable revenues. In Burma however, the government forbade the sale of opium to ethnic Burmese. This echoed a crude racist stereotype that was common in travelogues and encyclopaedias. Here, Burmese were often portrayed as “weak, child-like, self-indulgent, and peculiarly vulnerable to ‘over-doing’ opium consumption”, as Ashley Wright notes in his study of opium in colonial Burma. Officials were also alarmed by the increase in opium-related crime among young Burmese men.

Parts of the walls of the destroyed northern wing can be seen next to to tower

The other function carried out in the building—the Currency Office—provided Burma with both paper and coin currency. As part of British India, Burma used the Indian rupee. Still today, people use the Indian measures lakh (100,000) and crore (10,000,000) in business transactions. While special Burmese rupee notes were printed here, no coins were minted in Burma. They were brought in from India, England and Australia. The Currency Office became obsolete with the establishment of the Rangoon branch of the Reserve Bank of India in 1937.

The space in front of the building is occupied by the seats of a food stall

The site has not changed much since the Japanese bombings of 1942. Through the trees on Bank Street, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the remains of the wing once attached to the tower. Today this side of the building hosts one-storey shacks with tea and copy shops, as well as legal offices. The original building resumes further along Bank Street, where a third octagonal tower stands. Its adjoining wing is on the corner of Mahabandoola Garden Street. If they are lucky, visitors can peer into the tower on the corner of Strand Road. Inside is a beautifully ornate spiral staircase. (A stunning example of colonial-era architecture interiors, often hidden from the public and thus overlooked.) Unfortunately the building is in poor condition today. Some of the windows are shuttered with pieces of wood and painted over. Others are just broken. Even the sidewalk is in worse shape here than on the rest of Pansodan Street. The upper levels of the Bank Street tower are almost completely conquered by weeds, but open windows and flying curtains suggest that they are still in use. From a conservation standpoint, however, this building is definitely not beyond repair—just like most other seemingly derelict colonial-era buildings across town. While they suffer from neglect and lack of maintenance, they remain mostly in their original form and are in surprisingly good structural shape.

The street in front of the entrance is being taken over by children playing football

The three original, asymmetric wings of the building were built in stages between 1900 and 1907. The eastern side of the building, on Mahabandoola Garden Street, was first erected in 1900. Further building works took place later in the decade along Pansodan Street. The Currency Department and Accountant-General’s Office were built entirely with bricks, causing structural problems. In 1908, a portion of the façade facing Strand Road collapsed. In 1930, a long wall was badly damaged.

After independence the building housed a small claims civil court and later a juvenile court. Today, the complex houses the Yangon Divisional Court. The section separated by the Japanese bomb damage—and which is in slightly better shape than the court—is an office of the Department of Pensions.

Balthazar’s Building

Address:     Bank Street
Year built:   1905
Architect:    Unknown

This faded but beautiful red brick building occupies a stretch of Bank Street that was once downtown Yangon’s most desirable address. Its lot is not square: the 34th Street façade is slightly longer than the one on 33rd. A small (and rat-infested) courtyard allows air and light into the inner rooms. Like Sofaer’s Building, Balthazar’s was once state-of-the-art and featured an electric lift. The building’s steel framing was supplied and erected by Howarth Erskine Ltd. The tiles are Italian imports. After decades without maintenance, the inside of the building is in a sorry state: the lift has not worked for decades; the inner courtyard is overgrown with weeds; the staircase is crumbling. Most of the ironwork is rusty. Some offices have attached plates of corrugated iron to their ceilings in order to prevent plaster from falling down. Others have installed plastic sheeting to protect against water leakage. The building’s higher floors are partially squatted. Given the short walking distance to the nearby former New Law Courts Building, lawyers’ offices have traditionally used Balthazar’s Building and several still do so today. There are some tea and copy shops on the ground floor and up the darkened staircase, which curls around the lift shaft.

Lawyers, clerks and tea shops can be found in an around the building

Samuel Balthazar, an Armenian businessman born in Isfahan, Persia (now Iran), arrived in Rangoon in 1866 after making his name in his father’s business. The Burma branch of Balthazar & Son became a reputed import-export, real estate and investment management firm in Rangoon. “Balthazar’s Building” was its elegant calling card, a short walk from the port and Sule Pagoda. It also housed the offices of other companies, including the German engineering firm Siemens. The Balthazar family was active in public life. Samuel Balthazar held leadership positions on the Municipal Committee and in the Chamber of Commerce. With his brother, Carapiet, the family donated a statue of Queen Victoria that stood in Fytche Square (now Mahabandoola Square). The statue was removed by the Japanese during the war.

The staircase is eerily lit by fluorescent lamps

The Armenian community was travelling to Burma as early as the 17th century (and like the Balthazars, traces its roots to Persia). In fact the Armenian Church is the oldest Christian church in Rangoon today. Another Armenian family, the Sarkies brothers, built and ran the Strand Hotel. Basil Martin (Martirossian), the last “full” Armenian of Burma, died in 2013. It isn’t rare to hear Burmese people claim Armenian lineage. (Mr Martin’s brother fled to Dhaka in 1942 following the Japanese invasion. He still takes care of the Armenian Church in the Bangladeshi capital. Similarly, he is often described as the last Armenian of Bangladesh in news reports.)

A room facing the street has been sub-partitioned into different residences

Yangon Stock Exchange

Formerly:    Reserve Bank of India
Address:     24–26 Sule Pagoda Road
Year built:   1937
Architect:    G Douglas Smart (Palmer & Turner)

An impregnable aura surrounds this heavy cut-stone edifice on the corner of Sule Pagoda Road and Bank Street. Two pairs of Ionic columns dominate the recessed entrance. Imposing iron doors bear the inscriptions “Banking Department” and “Issue Department.” Window grilles at the centre further enhance the vault-like impression. Except for two tall patterned windows flanking the entrance, there are no openings on the façade.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) was founded in 1935 as British India’s central bank. The Rangoon branch opened in 1937, the year Burma separated from British India and legally became a dominion of Great Britain. The separation did not lead to the creation of a central bank for Burma; instead, the RBI had to fulfil this function for both countries. The rupee was maintained as Burma’s currency, although distinct banknotes were issued for Burma. This parallel system did not operate for very long: the Second World War broke out only a few years later. The RBI’s Rangoon branch fell into enemy hands in March 1942, the only one to do so. The bank’s staff had time to prepare: all vaults were empty when the Japanese marched into the city. Securities were shipped to Calcutta, coins and notes sent up north (where most were sunk in rivers or burned). After independence, the RBI returned to its former offices. Conditions were tough: the Japanese had used explosives on the vaults and, after their retreat in 1945, lootings occurred. There were no water or electricity supplies. Telephone lines were cut. With independence in 1948, the Union Bank of Burma (UBB) was created and took over the RBI building; however, Burma only achieved monetary independence from Britain in 1952. At that time the post-war currency board, seated in London, was abolished. The UBB then became Burma’s central bank, later renamed Central Bank of Myanmar (CBM). In 1993, the private Myawaddy Bank took over the building as the CBM moved to Yankin township.

Heavy cut-stone walls make this building seem impenetrable

As of late 2014, the building was under renovation. It is slated to host the Yangon Stock Exchange, which is currently being set up—in a twist of history—with Japanese help.

This grandiose building is unique in Yangon’s cityscape and well placed (in all senses) to serve a financial function in the future. The architects and contractors, Palmer & Turner, later built the Chartered Bank building on Pansodan Street. The Hong Kong-based firm continues to operate in the wider region. Both of these historic Yangon projects feature proudly in their online portfolio.

Yangon Division Office Complex

Formerly:    New Law Courts Building, Police Commissioner’s Office
Address:     56–66 Bank Street
Year built:   1927–1931
Architect:    Thomas Oliphant Foster (architect), United Engineers Ltd. (contractors)

The photos show this monumental building, which occupies an entire city block, covered in scaffolding in late 2013. After the renovations, pedestrians will once again be able to enjoy the huge arcade covering the pavement along Strand Road. The complex recalls the architecture of Lutyens’ Delhi, a part of New Delhi designed by and named after British architect Edwin Lutyens. There is a good reason for this: Thomas Oliphant Foster previously worked in Delhi under Lutyens, whose classicism and monumental tastes inspired many architects. During Foster’s time in Delhi, he was also John Begg’s assistant. Is it a coincidence that both Begg and Foster moved to Rangoon later?

This monumental building occupies a whole building block along Strand Road

The renovation of the building is due to transform the Yangon Division Office Complex, as it was known until recently, into a 229-room luxury hotel operated by the international Kempinski chain. Initial designs were drawn up by DP Architects, a Singaporean firm. It has since left the project. The plans will no doubt be altered given the involvement of new architects and the passage of time. However, they give us an idea today of how the more ambitious projects involving a heritage building might look. DP foresaw two basement car parks extending away from the building underneath Sule Pagoda Road and Bank Street, to protect the foundation’s structural integrity. On the ground floor, a 1,000-seat ballroom, restaurants, cafes and retail shops would be publicly accessible. The private areas of the hotel, including its reception and lobby, start on the first floor. The proposal also foresaw the installation of glass roofs to cover the two spacious atriums (see the sketch printed alongside this text). The fifth and top floors were chosen as the location for the hotel amenities such as its gym, spa and swimming pool.

The colonnaded façade along Strand Road has a pedestrian arcade covering the sidewalk

The company behind the project, JL Family Group, won the tender for the site’s 60-year lease in 2012 with a bid of 14.4 million US dollars. It also promised to pay 7 per cent of annual hotel revenue as rent. JL operates several hotels in Myanmar and Singapore, but none in the five-star property league. To stem the construction cost, the project will be partly financed by Siam Commercial Bank, a Thai bank. Besides Kempinski, another partner in the project is the Thai furniture manufacturer Kanok. Purcell, a UK- and Hong Kong-based firm of heritage consultants, has been hired to draw up the conservation management plan. Construction is slated to be finished in 2016.

Yangon residents walk past the construction site in the morning light

The project has attracted major criticism since its announcement in 2012. The Lawyers’ Network, a local organisation, says the city would gain from keeping the building as a court. They have fought the project at every opportunity, including through attempted lawsuits. So far the Yangon Region High Court has refused to hear the case. If it does end up becoming a luxury hotel—which seems likely—it would be one with a sinister backstory. The Japanese occupiers used the top floor as torture chambers during the Second World War, as did the military regime in the 1960s and 1970s.

State House Hotel sketch (illustration © DP Architects)

Custom House

Address:     132 Strand Road
Year built:   1912–1916
Architect:    John Begg

The Custom House is one of the few colonial buildings still fulfilling its original function. Thanks to continued use in the post-independence era, it is well maintained. It sits on a wide plot on Strand Road, facing the port area and its wharfs. The imposing red brick building, with its towering bracket clock and columned portico, reflects the importance of trade customs to the colonial economy. The window designs are a great example of colonial-era architecture adapting to local weather conditions: note the awnings attached to most first floor windows at street level. The offset oval openings directly above are mainly there for ventilation. They also protect the interior from direct sunlight and torrential rainfalls. A loggia surrounds the second floor, which also features shuttered windows. Again this arrangement offers protection from the harsh sunlight while ensuring good ventilation. The semicircular windows on the third floor feature prominent wooden shutters.

An unusual construction is used to make the clock face up the street

The Custom House was designed by John Begg (1866–1937), Consulting Architect to the Government of India. Along with the Custom House, he designed the Central Telegraph Office and the Printing and Publishing Enterprise. Begg was one of the main architects of “the Raj” and a leading proponent of the Indo-Saracenic style (essentially a mix of Mughal architecture with Gothic revival and British neoclassical styles). In Burma, however, his works were European in form only.

Officials working in Rangoon’s Custom House collected duties and excise taxes from commercial shipping. Although customs in the British Empire were low (even zero for intra-India trade), they were an important source of revenue. Besides collecting customs, officials also tried to prevent smuggling. Some staff were on call 24/7 and assigned apartments on the top floor. Sarah Rooney, in her 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon, explains the role of the “rummaging staff” who searched for contraband on ships. The ingenuity of smugglers was astounding, although the officials also knew their trade. Drugs, gold, gems and other contraband goods “were hidden behind bulkheads, inside ventilators, lifeboats, lavatory cisterns, bath and washbasin drainage bends, in remote spaces in cargo holds, the list is endless and they all had to be looked into”. As the Custom House continues its work today, there are usually droves of people on the pavement waiting with paperwork in their hands.

Myanmar National Airlines

Formerly:    Bombay–Burmah Trading Corporation
Address:     104 Strand Road
Year built:   1920s
Architect:    Unknown

Besides rice, the grand prize of colonising Burma was teak, a tropical hardwood endemic to South and Southeast Asia. The most successful company in the trade was the Bombay–Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC). Its Burma headquarters once occupied this building on Strand Road. Built during the 1920s, it replaced an earlier two-storey building. Today’s building, slightly taller, has been stripped of its ornamentation. Yet the prominent and covered arcade does lend it some grandeur, and matches the adjacent Strand Hotel. So does a recent paint job of the first floor and arcade, imitating the Strand’s light ochre shade.

The sidewalk on this stretch of Strand Road varies widely in width and use

Teak production grew tenfold between 1859 and 1900, and more than doubled from then until the 1920s. Most teak extracted in Burma was destined for export to India, but was also sent to Europe where it was put to any conceivable use. Just before the onset of the Second World War, Burmese teak accounted for 85 per cent of world teak exports. The cultivation and extraction was mainly undertaken by five European firms, led by BBTC. The company was founded as the Burma branch of Wallace Brothers, Scottish merchants with their roots in Edinburgh. In the 1860s, William Wallace secured a licence from Burmese King Mindon to extract timber in Upper Burma. A dispute over taxes gave the British a pretext to annex this part of the country in 1885. At times, the income derived from taxing Burmese teak accounted for a sizeable part of all colonial income from British India. Teak camps depended in large part on timber elephants and their skilled handlers. They also required the right level of rainfall to feed the small tributaries of the country’s larger rivers, for these were the main transport arteries.

Arcades span the whole length of the buildings of Myanmar National Airlines and Strand Hotel

BBTC was nationalised after independence in 1948. The company still exists to this day and is listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange. Despite its name, it no longer operates in Myanmar. During the 1950s, Union of Burma Airways took over the old BBTC building. As the nation’s flag carrier, it mainly operated domestic routes and connected provincial towns with Yangon; some international routes, to Bangkok and Singapore, were maintained throughout the years. The international network was taken over by Myanmar Airways International (MAI) several years ago. MAI is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kanbawza Group, a conglomerate with close relations to the former military regime. It regularly adds more international destinations. But domestic carriers compete with an ever-increasing number of foreign airlines flying to the country.

The arcades offer shade during the hottest hours of the day

Strand Hotel

Address:     92 Strand Road
Year built:   1901
Architect:    John Darwood (architect), Catchatoor & Co. (contractors)

With its convenient location and glamorous pedigree, the Strand was the hotel of choice for affluent visitors to Rangoon in the early 20th century. Its owners, the Sarkies brothers, built and managed two hotels in Penang (in then Malaya, now Malaysia) as well as the iconic Raffles in Singapore. Expanding to Rangoon was a logical choice; the city was booming under British rule. The hotel faces what was then the fast-growing port, but a high wall across the street now hides the docks from view. Like the Balthazar family, the Sarkies traced their origins back to Isfahan, in Persia, where their ancestors were active traders on the Silk Road.

At night the arcade spanning the sidewalk is being illuminated

While the hotel retains its elegant aura today, its façade has long been stripped of the rich ornamentation seen in old archive photographs. Windows are combined and the grid structure has been broken up. The hotel’s moderate size—it only has three floors—underscores its exclusivity. The 31 rooms are simply but elegantly decorated with Burmese teak furniture. A butler, stationed on each of the two accommodation floors, is on standby at all hours of the day and night.

Plants obfuscate the view underneath the hotel’s driveway

Outside the hotel, a large portico completely takes over the space where a sidewalk should be. Some pedestrians do pass through, but hotel staff seem to keep the passage relatively clear, save for taxis. Also an effort, perhaps, to preserve the hotel’s genteel atmosphere in an otherwise heaving city: the worsening traffic is leading to greater noise and exhaust pollution on its doorstep.

Inside, the hotel revolves around a large atrium. In the lobby, several hotel staff take turns playing a Burmese harp or a pattala (a xylophone-like instrument made of bamboo) when they are not needed elsewhere. The hotel restaurant is to the left of the main entrance: a light, airy space with large windows, mirrors, rattan furniture and white walls. (Archives show that the restaurant’s menu in 1932 was French, and written in French, serving the likes of roast lamb and buttered cauliflower. Not everyone’s choice in tropical weather …) The Strand Bar is on the right of the entrance, with its dark wood panelling, thick columns and heavy leather seats. It is a quiet venue save for Friday nights, when expats from across town hurl themselves at the cheap beer and cocktails for happy hour.

The Sarkies Bar offers classic cocktails and secluded corners for their patrons

At the far end of the atrium is a large, sumptuous dining hall with a skylight. To its right, a hallway stretches along Seikkantha Street, containing a souvenir shop and hotel offices. Don’t miss the art gallery at the end of the hall, which features paintings from local artists. (If you are just strolling, you can exit the hotel from a side entrance in the hall and land on Seikkantha Street.)

Today the Strand has again become one of the best, if not the best, address to stay at in Myanmar’s former capital. Before a major refurbishment in the early 1990s however, the Strand was a shadow of its former self. In 1963, the hotel was nationalised and the property deteriorated as tourists to the country became rare.

The lobby stretches across all the three stories via a light well

Tony Wheeler, the founder of the Lonely Planet guides, writes this mesmerising description in his first Southeast Asia edition, published in the late 1970s:

“Staying at the Strand is full of amusing little touches—beside the reception desk there is a glass-faced cabinet labelled ‘lost and found’. Most of the articles were clearly lost half a century ago, not many ladies carry delicate little folding fans around these days. The lift is ancient but smoothly operating. The waiters call everybody sir, male or female. Both the bar and the restaurant close at 9pm, but a small cache of Mandalay Beer from the People’s Brewery is kept behind the reception area if you wish to continue drinking. By 11pm you are likely to be feeling pretty lonely in the lounge area, just the occasional Strand rat scampering across the floor to keep you company. On the last day of one Burma visit, to my utter amazement hot water came from the shower when I turned on the tap.”

Behind the Tea Room lies the spacious Banquet Hall

The authoritarian SLORC government naively wanted to attract tourists to Myanmar after the slump caused by the 1988 bloodshed. In 1989 a mere 2,850 visitors came to the country. (The number reached more than 3 million in 2014, following the country’s opening-up in 2011.) To prepare for international arrivals, the military junta approached legendary hotelier Adrian Zecha, founder of Aman Resorts, in 1990. Though Zecha was only interested in renovating the Strand, the junta insisted he refurbish the Inya Lake Hotel and the Thamada Hotel too. After more than USD 10 million worth of renovations, the hotel reopened in 1993. The entire wiring and plumbing was redone. Many walls and ceilings were partially replaced and strengthened. It is the best example of a successfully restored colonial-era property in Yangon.

The hotel also boasts a large “Strand Hall” on the opposite side of Seikkantha Street for functions and other events.

Bureau of Special Investigation

Formerly:    Tubantia Building
Address:     57 Seikkantha Street
Year built:   1909
Architect:    Unknown

We recommend a detour up Seikkantha Street to take a look at the Tubantia Building, built by the trading company Stork & Co. in the early 20th century. Its gable and storage facilities on the ground and first floors reflect the original owners’ Dutch roots: Frederick Stork was the consul of the Netherlands. The name “Tubantia” is the Latin version of the province of Twente, near the German border, where Stork grew up. His family ran a successful machinery business there, exporting various tools for the textile and sugar industries in the Dutch East Indies. Before the British annexed Burma in the 19th century, the Dutch were already an active presence in the country, particularly during the 17th century. Dutch business ties with Burma remained active during British colonial rule, given their own nearby colonial possessions. As aeroplanes made frequent refuelling stops back then, the Dutch flag carrier KLM was also the first airline to offer regular flights between Rangoon and Amsterdam in 1929 as part of its service to Batavia (Jakarta).

The top part of the building can be seen rising above nearby warehouses

The Rangoon-based Stork & Co. imported “longyees”, sarongs, metals, sundries and liquors. The Burmese longyi is traditionally worn by men. Counter-intuitively, it is actually a foreign import. Stork & Co. was just one of the companies importing these textiles from India. Even before the arrival of Europeans, textiles made here fuelled regional trade. The historian Sunil Amrith writes that “in the 16th century ‘age of commerce’, cotton from Gujarat, Coromandel, and Bengal was traded across South East Asia. (…) Indian weavers’ products targeted diverse markets, their weaves, patterns, colours, and designs were all adapted to local tastes.” Knowing that Stork & Co.’s mother company in Twente manufactured textile-producing machinery, one can assume that they helped to standardise the cheap production of longyi for export to Burma.

A rare Dutch influence can be found in the gable

Today the Tubantia Building is used by a branch of the Bureau of Special Investigation (BSI), one of Myanmar’s many secretive security agencies. The origins of the BSI date back to Burma’s period of post-colonial democracy. Then-Prime Minister U Nu founded the BSI’s predecessor (the Public Property Protection Police, or P4) to—in his words—“eradicate termites from the bureaucracy”. With the scale of change now sweeping the country, one wonders whether the security apparatus will change too—and whether it will continue to occupy these crumbling heritage buildings, renovate them or move to modern premises.

The smaller building next door also belonged to Stork & Co. It was the company’s headquarters before the Tubantia Building opened. Today the BSI occupies it as well.

British Embassy

Formerly:    J & F Graham Shipping Co.
Address:     80 Strand Road
Year built:   1900
Architect:    Thomas Swales (architect), Robinson & Mundy (contractors)

Thanks to its wealthy, diplomatic ownership, this building is in immaculate shape. Its fine lattice windows and entrance awning, covering the sidewalk, give it elegant airs in a stretch of Strand Road full of impressive buildings. The British Council operates here and offers English language classes. The back of the building is rather unattractive, facing a parking lot that separates it from the Strand Mansion. Both 37th and 38th Street are blocked at the Strand Road end for security reasons.

Diplomatic ownership ensures the building’s immaculate shape

The building, completed in 1900, was first the Rangoon headquarters of Glasgow-based shipping and insurance company J & F Graham. The company already had branches in Bombay and Calcutta when they came to Burma at the end of the 19th century. Like most companies of its kind, J & F Graham Shipping Co. had a litany of exclusive distribution deals with companies from other parts of the Empire. They imported and exported most imaginable products.

The Royal Court of Arms can be found above the entrance

The British Embassy took over the property after Burmese independence in 1948. Ironically maybe, it became a popular venue for students in the 1980s. They were attracted by the country’s only English language library, which offered a regular supply of uncensored Western media as well as the free use of a photocopier. By contrast, the mere possession of an unauthorised typewriter outside the embassy was a punishable offence. On 8 August 1988, dockworkers walked down Strand Road from the port until they reached the embassy. In the present-day lore of the 1988 events, it is said they stopped at the embassy and laid down their tools in symbolic protest. This simple act was the beginning of a national strike that led to the historic uprisings.