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.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful photography and thank you for the link to my blog about this historically troubled but wonderful place. I have put a link to this page on my piece. Alex