Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Burmese Days 2: Decay at the Pegu Club, Rangoon

Dear Readers, this is the second in a series of posts on Rangoon, Burma. As I mentioned in the previous post, the title, "Burmese Days," comes 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. His novel is a scathing indictment of the corruption and incompetence of the colonial system (Orwell 1934). From Wikipedia:
Burmese Days is a novel by British writer George Orwell. It was first published in the UK in 1934. It is a tale from the waning days of British colonialism, when Burma was ruled from Delhi as a part of British India – "a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj." At its centre is John Flory, "the lone and lacking individual trapped within a bigger system that is undermining the better side of human nature." Orwell's first novel, it describes "corruption and imperial bigotry in a society where, "after all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but inferior people."
This leads us into the famous Pegu Club, the club for English officers, merchants, and soldiers of fortune. As written in another blog, "It was where linen-suited empire builders could relax and run a colony over cocktails." Built off Pyay Road in the early 1880s on what was then the outskirts of Rangoon, the club was a long teak building with shaded porches and deep overhangs to help fight the blazing summer heat.

Rudyard Kipling stayed there a few days in 1889 during his long journey home. In his collection of travel letters "From Sea to Sea," he wrote: "The Pegu Club seemed to be full of men on their way up or down, and the conversation was but an echo of the murmur of conquest far away to the north." (Kipling 1923).
The Pegu is easy to find. Ask your taxi driver to take you to the Russian embassy, and the Pegu is across the street behind a fence. An abandoned gatehouse provides access to the grounds. The monochrome view above is the back of the complex; the front, as shown in the colour postcard, is obscured by newer buildings and trees.
This may have once been the main entrance. Carriages brought officers, soldiers of fortune, and merchants to these elegant doors (but only if they were white, of course). A dog greeted us.

The Pegu Club mirrored Burma's troubled 20th century history. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, they used the buildings as a brothel. "Postwar, locals were allowed to enter the Pegu Club at last, but few did, perhaps because so little else about the place had changed. “Its long verandahs provided cool and silent shade,” wrote a Shan visitor in the 1950s, “while its polished teak bars never ran out of ice cold beer, Singapore slings, pink gins, or whisky. In the shadows were the Boys [Indian staff], still Boys even if they were 50 or 60 years old, who stood quietly in the background, always ready to anticipate a need and to refill an empty glass.” (Guyitt 2013).

Military dictatorship and socialism followed, and the buildings were commandeered as an army officers' mess. Paul Theroux tried to visit in 1974, but was turned away because a senior officer was having his dinner (Theroux 1975).
I was surprised that most of the glass panes in the windows were intact.
The formerly-elegant entry hall, parquet flooring peeling off, fans silent, no servant to offer you a whiskey with ice. Some children's toys were scattered about. The dog took off.
I can't tell how these wide open rooms were used. Were they ballrooms, billiards rooms, or sitting-rooms?
I assume the fans were added long after original construction. Electric ceiling fans were invented in 1882 in the United States and spread around the world through the 1920s, especially to countries that did not have the infrastructure and electric supply sufficient for air-conditioning.
The electrical equipment was rather marginal. At least as late as the 1950s, many Burmese buildings had exposed wiring, running along the walls and attached with porcelain clips.
Ah, ha, the toilets - these are more interesting. Some of the best minds of the Empire were out in force here.
Further back in the building, this might have been the kitchen.
The carport to one side is turning into jungle.
 The central courtyard is also reverting to jungle and has been used as a trash heap.
One of the stairwells was collapsing, but we found another stair that was safe. The second floor also had wide open rooms of unknown original purpose. Were these used as barracks rooms for club members?
Be careful wandering around because some of the porch floors are collapsing. But what surprised me is that for the most part, the buildings were swept and intact. There was little graffiti, and the kind of vandalism and malicious destruction that you would see in the United States was absent. The buildings molder on, awaiting eventual restoration. The Yangon Heritage Trust has vowed to lobby to place these buildings on a protected list. Despite their troubled past, they are an intimate part of Burma's history.
The main club buildings are deserted, but various out buildings have occupants. I think they may be Indians or Bangladeshis. Are they squatters? Possibly they unofficially watch over the site, preventing looting. They paid us little attention, but a few with whom we spoke were very interested when we showed them some copies of web articles describing the Pegu. An occasional dog, chicken, or duck wandered by. A taxi pulled into the grounds to await a customer, and the driver fell asleep.

A young lady from Hong Kong wandered in alone with a film camera. When she saw my Leica, she asked how long I had been "into" film. I responded since the 1960s. Some Tri-X film photographs of the Pegu club are at this link.

These photographs were taken with a Panasonic G3 camera with 9-18mm Olympus lens or a Fuji X-E1 camera with Fuji 27mm lens, RAW files converted to black and white using PhotoNinja software. Of the various RAW processing software packages I have tried, I think PhotoNinja extracts more details - it's amazing.

For another view of the Pegu Club, here is a blog by a visitor from Glasgow.


Guyitt, Wade (8 July 2013). "A toast to the past". Myanmar Times. (accessed 27 Nov 2014).

Kipling, R., and Balestier, C.W., 1923. The New World Edition of the Works of Rudyard Kipling: From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches. Letters of Travel. 2 V. in 1. (Nabu Press ed., 2014), 812 p.

Orwell, G., 1934. Burmese Days. New York: Harper & brothers, 300 p.

Theroux, P. 1975. The Great Railway Bazaar. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 342 p.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

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

Dear Readers, this will begin a series of posts on 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 still. The title, "Burmese Days," comes from the novel of the same name by George Orwell, who was a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma from 1922 to 1927. We can describe the book in more detail in a later post.

Burma was one of the British Empire's richest countries, an incredibly profitable exporter of teak, fish, petroleum, tea, 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.

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 (now off Kabar Aye Road). 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.

The photograph above 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 after 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 has been designated as
heritage status in 2014 by the Ministry of Culture, with the Archaeology, 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, either.

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

The 1957 photograph was taken on Anscochrome film 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 software.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Monreale - Monumental Norman Cathedral, Sicily

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 (and many Americans would be too fat to fit).
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 most (all?) 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.

These are digital images from a Panasonic G1 camera, with RAW files converted to black and white with PhotoNinja software.