Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Burmese Days 1: Very Odd: the Lim Chin Tsong Palace

Dear Readers, this will begin a series of posts detailing sights and architecture in Burma, now officially known as Myanmar. I lived in Burma in the 1950s and will use this familiar name, as do many locals to this day. I have borrowed my title from the book of the same name by George Orwell, who was a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma from 1922 to 1927. I will describe the book in more detail later.

Burma was one of the Empire's richest countries, an incredibly profitable exporter of teak, fish, petroleum, gem stones, and rice. Rangoon has some really odd architecture dating from its opulent days early in the 20th century. One of the strangest is the mansion/palace built by the flamboyant Chinese tycoon, Lim Chin Tsong, now off Kabar Aye Road.

Mr. Tsong inherited a business from his father in 1885 and promptly began to expand it, eventually forming a business empire of shipping, rice-export and petroleum agent for Burma Oil Corporation (historical note: in the late 1800s, Burma was one of the world's original major oil producers). In 1919, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his fundraising efforts during the Great War. In 1917, he began to build his lavish residence in the Kokkine area of Rangoon. The central part of the brick and tile mansion was designed to resemble the Fu Xiang pavilion in the Yihe Yuan (Summer Palace) in Peking (Zaw 2014). He imported materials and crafts from Italy and China, and British painters were invited to design the interior.
Here is a scan of a 1957 slide from the family archives. Then, the palace was in reasonably good condition. Notice the odd juxtaposition of an English country manor on the bottom with a Chinese temple sticking out of the top. The weather vane is English, and so are the windows. The gardens were still immaculately tended in the English manner. By coincidence, this was only a few blocks from where we lived.
Jump to 2014; the building is still intact, but in poorer condition.
Look at the gorgeous glass art nouveau cupola over the garden door, now unfortunately partly blocked by a steel cover over the walkway.
The main entry featured a colonnaded carport. Once, the cream of society, all elegantly-dressed, arrived in Rolls Royces or carriages.
Even after a century, the woodwork and plaster trim is mostly intact. But who knows what decorative arts have disappeared.
The center atrium was 3-floors high. The temple portion with the 2 upper floors is supported by the granite pillars and dome - impressive engineering for 1917. I tried to go upstairs, but the door was padlocked.
A second floor room still has original paintings (fresco?) and teak parquet floor. The ceiling panels are new.
This was the second floor balcony, with a view of the formal gardens. Unfortunately, Mr. Tsong had only three years to enjoy his view and magnificent house. His business concerns began to unravel in 1921, when the British government banned rice sales except to India, and soon he had to borrow money from friends. In 1923, only three years inauguration of the house, he passed away, a broken man.

After Mr. Tsong's death, the house went to a Japanese creditor and was used by the All Burma Broadcasting Station during the Japanese occupation of 1941-1945. It finally went to the Burmese government in 1950, who used it as a guest house. Currently, the Fine Arts Department under the Ministry of Culture maintains offices and an art and architecture school on the premises (Zaw 2014).
The afternoon we explored, the building was almost deserted. A few students were doing something on computers in some offices, but the drawing rooms were empty.
The porch adjacent to the drawing room is rather funky. Do they take baths and do laundry out there? I had fun exploring and taking pictures, but then someone told our guide that photography was forbidden. Oops, too late.

Fortunately, the the Lim Chin Tsong palace was designated as heritage status in 2014 by the Ministry of Culture, with the Archeology, National Museum and Library Department to take responsibility to maintain the building. This unique memory of an eccentric entrepreneur deserves some tender loving care.
Final note: on the approach driveway, workers had dug a deep pit to expose the sewer. Look at the construction: arched brick, just like the sewers in London in the 1800s. Also note: no hardhats, steel boots, or safety harnesses. Hmm, the walls are not braced.

Zaw, A. 2014. The House on an Island, The Irrawaddy, Vol. 21, no. 10, pp. 21-23.

The 1957 photograph was taken with a Leica 3C camera with 50mm f/2.0 Summitar lens. The 2014 photographs are from a Panasonic G3 camera with 9-18mm Olympus lens, with RAW files processed in PhotoNinja.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Monreale - Monumental Norman Cathedral

Monreale, a town 15 km south of Palermo, is the site of a great Norman Cathedral. It is endowed with rich ornamentation and six acres of amazing 12th century mosaics. You wonder what wealth the Norman kings were able to accumulate to undertake construction of such an ambitious project? We could barely undertake a project like this today.
The view north towards Palermo covers a sweep of bay, sky, and medieval rooftops.
To reach the upper levels of the towers, you get to ascend some tiny stairways with a serious dropoff to one side. In the United States, we would never let tourists have fun like this.
According to Wikipedia,
The Cathedral of Monreale is one of the greatest extant examples of Norman architecture in the world. It was begun in 1174 by William II, and in 1182 the church, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, was, by a bull of Pope Lucius III, elevated to the rank of a metropolitan cathedral. 
The church is a national monument of Italy and one of the most important attractions of Sicily.
As in the churches in Palermo, the stonework and mosaics are exquisite. The Moorish stone masons were absolute masters of their trade. The elegant cloister (in the two photographs above) were completed about 1200. They are well-preserved and one of the finest examples in Italy both in size and beauty of detail.

Photographs taken with a Panasonic G1 camera, with RAW files converted to black and white with PhotoNinaj software.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Elegant and Glorious Decay: Palermo, Italy

Palermo, Sicily's capital and main commercial city, is a delicious and haphazard hodgepodge of cathedrals, fountains, 1800s manor houses, palaces, early 20th century apartment blocks, trattorias, and ruins. "Like a smaller version of Rome, Palermo's centre is sprinkled with domes and dotted with pedimented fa├žades of churches rising above the rooftops of surrounding palaces and houses." (Duncan 1994). The palaces and churches have some of the most exquisite stonework, statuary, and mosaics you will see anywhere on earth, a legacy of the talented Moorish artists who worked for the Catholic kings. Palermo is not a sterile archaeological site; it is a vibrant city, just a bit grungy and "earthy." It is off the normal American tourist route (not one of the top five after which the rest of Europe is totally ignored), but the residents are friendly, and it is a short flight from Rome. In my opinion, Palermo is a must-see destination, and I fully agree with Duncan (1994), "This is still one of the most fascinating cities in southern Italy."
We stayed at a bed and breakfast in an old apartment building. They did not heat much, but there was plenty of hot water, and the breakfast had fresh croissants and pastry.
The view from the balcony was pretty interesting. The scaffolding over the church in the distance is typical of Palermo - long-neglected maintenance of an art masterpiece. The narrow lanes likely follow the same paths that have been here since the Roman era.
The merchants below sell odd items from their tiny shops.
I love to check out the market in any city that I visit. The Vucceria Market is at the Via Maccheronai. "Nowhere in Palermo do memories of the old souks survive with such intensity; this was the most disorderly, ramshackle, and chaotic of places even in Arabic days. Merchants, hawkers, bootleggers, and artisans of every description still cluster here." (Duncan, 1994). Well, the day we toured it was rather quiet, but still a great visit. The bootleggers must have been at siesta.
 This is an old apartment block at the Via del Cassari.
Another somewhat rough apartment at the Via dei Candelai.
And some more apartments on the main thoroughfare, the Via Vittoria Emanuele (the name of a former king).
We were warned that these little tourist scooters are a bit dangerous, but probably no worse than a tuk-tuk in Kathmandu.
The side streets are pretty interesting. The gents on the pink Vespa were on the Via Simone di Bologna.
Do you need to move your 4-wheeler somewhere? Put it in your Vespa 3-wheeler.
Earlier, I mentioned the legacy of art to be found throughout Palermo. One example is the Capella Reale, the royal chapel, built by Roger II between 1132 and 1140. Roger and the Pope had some real issues, and Roger wanted to make his capital, Palermo, the equal of Rome in art and culture. The interior of the Capella is one of the most amazing architectural sights in Sicily because it is lavished with brilliant polychromatic mosaic tiles. The ceiling is Islamic-style wood with intricate decoration. Duncan (1994) states the craftsmanship is without parallel in the Islamic world even today. The language of the mosaics is mostly Byzantine, but much of the decoration is Islamic, a legacy of the hybid nature of Sicily's Norman Kingdom in the 1100s.
Next, for a totally different type of art, this is the Fontana Pretoria, designed in 1544 by Francisco Camilliani and and Michelangelo Naccherino. The Piazzo Pretoria is also known as the Piazza della Vergogna (the "Place of Shame") because the forty nude statues (ladies and gents) look at each other most shamelessly. When it opened, the local residents were shocked, mortified. The statues were so realistic. They were anatomically correct. And they had no trousers. Actually, this fountain would still not be tolerated in most American cities, but we are known for hypocritical prudishness. Anyway, 450 years later, the fantastic statues and fountain are part of Palermo's art heritage.
An office building facing the Piazzo Pretoria.
The food is absolutely divine. Find a local place, guess at what is on the menu or the chalkboard, and dig in. This was the Trattoria Ferro Di Cavallo. Locally-sourced ingredients? Ha, Sicilians have always done it.
Ask a Sicilian beauty to share a bottle of grappa.

I took these photographs with a Panasonic G1 digital camera and processed the RAW files with DxO Filmpack 3 to simulate Tri-X film. Next time, I will take real Tri-X. Film is having a revival for its non-digital look.


Duncan, P. 1994. Sicily, A Traveller's Guide. John Murray Publishers, Ltd., 244p.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Hedy Does the Vicksburg Photowalk

Hedy does not get out often. She is very cranial and usually stays home and ponders the great topics of the day. But a chance to participate on the Worldwide Photowalk was just too good to miss. And who would not want to tour the metropolis of Vicksburg on a hot muggy day in company with other photographers?
We started out at the Old Courthouse Museum at 1008 Cherry Street. The museum is full of Vicksburg historical exhibits, and many early 20th century photographs taken by J Mack Moore are on display. Hedy likes the Corinthian columns and the view.
Even being only a head, Hedy occasionally needs to use the facilities.
Right across Cherry Street (address 1009 Cherry Street) is the Art Deco Warren County Courthouse. According to Mississippi Department of Archives and History:
The Warren County Court House, of Art Deco design, was constructed in 1940 with Havis & Havis as architects and W.J. McGee & Son as the general contractors. The rectangular three-story building features eleven bays on the first floor of the main stepped facade. Ornamental detailing includes decorative panels of floral and geometric designs, decorated parapet around the flat roof, and the decorated lintel of the window surrounds head. The verticality of this building, which is studded with relatively narrow windows of eight lights each rising vertically and one above the other on each successive floor in the central section, is emphasized by tall, rectangular panels of marble. 
Continuing north on Cherry Street near the junction with Main Street, and you are in the historic district.
Adams Street runs parallel to Cherry, but many of the houses are in rough shape. The pavement retained its brick surfacing.
This is an example, the cottage at 722 Adams. I hope someone restores it.
This is the old McIntyre elementary school, closed for decades. The Good Shepard organization uses most of the building.
Adams Lane is perpendicular to Adams Street. It formerly was lined with shotgun shacks, but there are only 3 or 4 left. Years ago, while taking photos here, an older lady told me that she remembered when it was a vibrant neighborhood. A truck would come around in the morning and the men would ride off to farms. Most of the women worked as domestics around town.
Around the corner at 1203 Openwood Street is the former Gore's Hardware. This is a well-preserved example of a late-1800s commercial building, of which Vicksburg once had hundreds. Look at the seven windows and the decorative trim along the roof line. The brick facade above the showcase windows was supported by cast iron beams, possibly brought here by barge from Pittsburgh or Toledo. Now we erect mass-produced sheet steel buildings designed to be a tax write-off in a minimum number of  years.
Mr. Gore passed away in 2014, and it appears that someone is cleaning up the stock in the former store. It was always said that he had every type of old-fashioned fitting, lock, or faucet in his storage rooms, although I was unable to buy suitable materials for my old house. Maybe the really old-fashioned fittings were used-up by the 1980s. I wonder if there is any lead paint left?
Hedy gets hungry when she passes Mamma's at 1209 Openwood Street.
Here is another interesting place on Openwood Street.
Across the street is an old filling station, now used as a repair shop (I think). The Vicksburg Art Association's Firehouse Gallery is in  the brick building to the right.
Head back to Cherry Street and head south. At 1411 Cherry is a brick building that formerly housed the Mutual Credit Union. JC's Barber Shop now uses one of the rooms.
This one interior view of the gorgeous Church of the Holy Trinity at 900 South Street. At the corner of South and Monroe Streets, it was designed by E.C. Jones and built in 1870. This was an experiment setting my Fuji camera at ISO 1600 and using the dynamic range function at 400 percent. I was surprised how well it handled the exposure range from dark pews to glowing windows.
Finally, time for lunch. Hedy had a sandwich at Martin's at Midtown, at 1411 Belmont Street. It was muggy and hot, and we were both tired. Hedy is too young for a cold beer.

Photographs taken during the Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk, hosted here in Vicksburg by David Rorick. I used a Fuji X-E1 digital camera. These are the jpeg files taken with the Astia film emulation.

Please click the link for some views of Vicksburg in the 1990s, taken with film.