“There is a Burmese saying that you will have your golden umbrella once in your lifetime,” says Daw Thida, who has lived all her life in a once all-teak wooden house called the Pinlon Lodge on Kabar Aye Pagoda Road.
Daw Thida’s formerly prosperous trading family bought the property in 1950 from a relative of the flamboyant Chinese tycoon Lim Chin Tsong.
When she was a girl, the house hummed with the noise and bustle of relatives, visitors, servants and nannies. But after the family’s import-export business was nationalized, gradually, “we seemed to become poor,” says the granddaughter of nationalist Daw Kyin Ein who was a founder of the Burmese Women’s Association in 1919.
Today, ceramic tiles dated from 1886 occasionally fall from the roof and the home’s intricate parquet flooring “sounds like a xylophone.” The mansion’s golden years are long gone, but for Daw Thida and her husband Professor Saw Tin, it is still a warm home; patched up and altered, but rich beyond any developer’s price with its dignified, modest routines and its trove of memories.
That sense of dignity and warmth pervades the new book “Yangon Echoes,” which collects, in their own words, the stories of residents living in many of the former capital’s gorgeous but frequently neglected old buildings.
Behind the facades of buildings of high architectural worth live families whose relatives were connected to the Mandalay Palace and Myanmar’s independence, and people barely scratching a living in structures that are little more than husks.
There’s the now empty and ghostly but still grand home of the ‘Stable’ faction of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League leader U Kyaw Nyein on University Avenue, whose visitors before Gen. Ne Win’s 1962 coup included U Nu, Chou En Lai and many other notables.
U Kyaw Nyein’s sons U Tun Kyaw Nyein and U Bo Kyaw Nyein were jailed for their part in protests over the funeral arrangements for U Thant in 1974 and eventually made successful lives in the United States. They now come back regularly and are photographed reminiscing in their childhood home which has been unlived in since 1992.
Former civil servant U Aung Pe, 70, lives with his family under open-sided corrugated iron on the roof of the historic Balthazar building on Bank Street. The perch might be leaky in the rainy season and the whole structure is falling apart, but they like living downtown. And, rooftop shacks have great views and a breeze.
Also downtown in a handsome but decrepit building slated for demolition are the family of a former longtime chef at the Strand Hotel who, when home, “would never explain a dish.” The family is beautifully captured here preparing to leave the mold and falling plaster of their much-loved home behind, after they eventually agreed to move out while a new apartment block is constructed.
Many of Yangon’s old buildings look set to disappear and with them will go the stories and memories captured with charm and empathy in this beautifully presented and timely book. Some century-old structures featured here have already gone, just a blink in time following the 18 months that the author and photographer spent finding them. One hopes that many more, and the resilient people in them, will find a way to survive.
“Yangon Echoes,” by Virginia Henderson and Tim Webster, is published by River Books this month.
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.