Monday, December 29, 2014

Burmese Days 9: Yangon Central Station in Tri-X film

Dear Readers, the Yangon Central Railroad Station is such an interesting site for people-watching, I returned with my Leica M2 camera and Tri-X film early one morning to record the scene in black and white.
This huge building was built after World War II between 1947 and 1954 to replace an earlier building that had been destroyed by the fleeing British when the Japanese forces entered Rangoon in 1942. Unfortunately, I could not find any family photographs from the 1950s showing this station. Maybe we never came here.
The ticket booths are old-fashioned and manual.
This is the waiting area for passengers on long-distance trains. We read several accounts that the train to Mandalay is a bumpy and rather uncomfortable overnight trip.
If you plan to take the local commuter Circle Train, you cross the tracks on a crossover and descend to tracks 3 and 4. The guard will direct you if you look confused.
The Circle Train is popular with tourists, and at less than 600 Kyats ($1), it is a bargain. Take water and be ready for humidity, although as of October 2014, there is at least one air-conditioned train.
Pansodan Street crosses the rail yard on an overpass. There are good views of the rail yard from the overpass.
Some of the rail yard looks only partly used. Surely it was much busier in the British era. The men in the lower photograph may have been waiting for work assignments. They all had shoulder bags - possibly lunch or work clothes?

If you visit Rangoon, the Central Station is an interesting stop for people photography. Highly recommended. Please click the link for my earlier post on the Circle Train.

All photographs taken with a Leica M2 rangefinder camera with 35mm or 50mm f/2.0 Summicron lenses. The 35 was the 7-element type 4 Summicron from the late 1990s. I exposed the Kodak Tri-X film at ISO 250 and developed it in Kodak HC110 developer, dilution B for 4:30 minutes. I scanned the negatives at 3,600 dpi with a Plustek 7600i film scanner using Silverfast software.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Burmese Days 8: The Botahtaung Jetty in Tri-X

Dear readers, for my recent trip to Asia, I decided to do black and white photography the traditional way and take real photographs with film. I had not used Kodak Tri-X in a 35mm camera in at least 15 years, but ordered some rolls and brought them to Asia along with my Leica M2, 35- and 50mm Summicron lenses, filters, and a Luna Pro light meter.
The Rangoon waterfront along the Rangoon River is now mostly commercial, with limited water views. But the map shows that a ferry crosses from the Botahtaung Jetty to the town of Dala on the south shore. While the rest of my group explored the Botahtaung Paya, I wandered down to the shore for the view. I thought the ferry would be a barge with a diesel tug but instead consisted of wood boats with outboards. (Note, you can click any photograph to enlarge it.)
This is the view from the ramp looking north into town during a rainstorm.
The ferry operators take people, dogs, bicycles, and motor scooters. I did not see life jackets or lights.
These guys were loading concrete blocks of a size that I know I could not lift, let along hoist into a boat. Notice the fellow's bare toes.
Here are two photographs from the family archives from when we lived in Burma in the 1950s. No one was able to identify the exact location, but it may have been somewhere near the Botahtaung. The banks are sloughing off in the current. In the lower photograph, the temple on the left is being deconstructed to reuse the blocks.

Notice how much the 1957 photographs look like the 2014 ones in tonality and feel. Will our digital files will be viewable after six decades?

Using film is a commitment. You can't casually take a thousand snaps and hope a few are meaningful. And you do not see the results until the film is developed, which may be a few weeks later. If you do not know the craft, you will need to practice. As James Conley wrote in his f/11 blog:
"Shooting film is hard. Compared to a modern digital camera, exposure with the Leica is unintuitive. "Focusing" is a goal rather than a consistent possibility. Restricting oneself to a maximum of 36 exposures is a serious limitation (though in a later post I'll talk about why it's a creative answer). Not being able to see in the viewfinder the effect of various camera settings seemingly distances the photographer from the moment."
Several people I met in Asia were fascinated that I was using a Leica film camera. At the airport X-ray in Hong Kong, the agent asked if I had a Leica M2 or M3 (I responded M2). All X-ray operators were accommodating when I asked for hand inspection. The hotel clerk in Hanoi asked if he could look through the viewfinder and said his father used a Leica. Our friends in Hong Kong had a Leica in the house somewhere. Slowly but surely, many serious photographers are returning to film. I developed my Tri-X in Kodak HC110 developer at dilution B, at 4:30 minutes at 67 deg. F, with 5 sec. agitation every 30 sec. We will look at more black and white examples in later posts.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Burmese Days 7: The Rangoon Heritage Tour, continued

In the previous post, we started on the Rangoon Heritage Tour. Let's continue down Pansodan Street south towards the Yangon River. During the colonial era, Pansodan Street was one of Rangoon's major commercial thoroughfares. Many of the great commercial firms built their offices along this street. The architecture was bold, solid, and strong, meant to project the power and success of these fabulously wealthy concerns. Walking here, you might almost think you were in London (except for the tropical climate and a degree of dilapidation and mildew).
Rupert-Angus Mann (2014) wrote about Rangoon in M My Magical Myanmar:
By 1900, Yangon’s tree lined streets channelled a huge diversity of cultures through what had become one of the great cosmopolitan centres of the region. A brief walk around the downtown of Yangon today will reveal the incredible and enduring diversity of its cultural makeup. Churches of all denominations such as Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, Methodist, Chinese Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Anglican sit alongside Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Parsi temples. Sunni and Shia mosques, Buddhist temples, pagodas, prayer halls and monastic complexes such as Thayet Taw peacefully co exist. The breadth and diversity of religious practice seen in the downtown’s one square mile is remarkable.
During the early 20th Century Yangon’s port was the second busiest port in the world just after New York. Hundreds of thousands arrived at the docks and stepped into an exciting metropolis. People such as Mahatma Gandhi, George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Pablo Neruda, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover and many others all spent time here.
Paul Theroux (1971) noted the grand architecture in his 1971 article in The Atlantic.
The decrepitude of the buildings in Rangoon is almost grand. The surfaces are shabby, but the shapes are extravagant, and the workmanship is obvious (Corinthian columns support one veranda; another, very graceful, is of wrought-iron lyres); their dereliction has splendor. Some have spires and others a score of ambitious balconies with pockmarked balusters or flowery balustrades, peeling yellow shutters, and lines of motionless wash hung out to dry—the clotheslines strung from the blossom of a cornice to the studs of that ornate pillar. Dates and names are given in medallions at the top of each building: 1903, 1914, 1922, 1927; Irrawaddy Chambers, Dawson's Bank, and The Chartered Bank (both painted out but legible). 
The Burmese Translation Society (or Sarpay Beikman, literally "Palace of Literature") occupied this building in 1947. The goal of the society was to translate great world literature into Burmese and to encourage Burmese authors. Many early politicians encouraged the effort, such as former Prime Minister U Nu, who was an enthusiastic promoter. U Thant, United Nations secretary-general in the 1950s, won an award for his translation of Robert Browning’s ode, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” The society never achieved as much as it wanted, but it remains open and funded by the government.
The High Court building is a handsome Queen Anne-style red brick building, occupying much of a city block. It was designed by architect James Ransome and constructed between 1905 and 1911. It formerly housed the highest appeals court of Myanmar, but the court moved to the new capital in Naypyidaw in 2006. I tried to casually walk into the grounds, but a guard politely indicated no.
The British Lion still looks out over the empire from one of the towers. The building was an amazing architectural achievement, but needs a lot of work.
One of the most famous buildings on Pansodan Street was Sofaer & Co., named for the Sofaer family, Jewish merchants from Baghdad (another example of Rangoon's cosmopolitanism). In its heyday, the Sofaer building housed shops that sold imported liqueurs, cigarettes, fashions, and even ice cream. It housed a Viennese coffee shop and the Reuters news agency (The Economist, 2014). The wealthy had their parties catered by the specialists at the Sofaer. Cernea (2007) wrote a fascinating description of Baghdadi Jews in Burma in the early 20th century.
The building is dark and smelly now, but I walked in one of the entrances, and no one seemed to care or even be particularly curious. This must now be a regular destination on the alternative tourist route. There is a tea shop on the second floor. I am not sure if these people are squatters. Look at the handsome floor tiles.
The central courtyard has some brick work in progress. And the new blue sewer piping suggests some degree of maintenance. Regardless, it would be staggeringly expensive to renovate. I wish I had had time to go to the third floor.
On the west (Pansodan Street) side, there is an office in use.
The electric service is a bit questionable.
There was a new bamboo bicycle in one of the doorways.
This elegant gate leads to the Irrawaddy Chambers, formerly the offices of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Founded in 1865 by Scottish merchants, by the early 20th century, the Flotilla's steamboats served much of Burma, carrying millions of passengers per year and valuable cargoes of teak and other bulk materials up and down the Irrawaddy. Kipling wrote,
"Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay;
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin'
From Rangoon to Mandalay"
Before World War II, the Flotilla's fleet of 600 vessels was one of the largest in the world. The vessels were scuttled to prevent their falling into Japanese hands. Many of the wrecks are still in the river.

Half a block further south is the Yangon Heritage Trust, at 22-24, Pansodan Street on the second floor. They have an active program to advocate for historic preservation and reuse. The waiting room has a fine display of historical photography. They had a clean toilet (relief) and offered us cold water (more relief).
This is the corner of the Accountant-General's office. During the colonial era, the Accountant-General was responsible for collecting all revenue in Burma, which then was  opium, salt, and teak. The back of the building (to the right of the tower) was bombed by the Japanese at the beginning of World War II and never rebuilt. Clearly, this is another gem in need of tender loving care. This is the view from the Heritage trust's window.

At the end of Pansodan Street, you reach the Strand, which now no longer has a waterfront view because of the high walls surrounding the cargo terminals. And the traffic is horrendous. So turn left and go have a coffee in the historic Strand Hotel. It has the best espresso in Rangoon for now, the lobby is air-conditioned, and the toilets are clean. I stayed in the Strand Hotel in the 1950s for a few months. My mother remembers the mice and questionable food back then.
Turn up 37th Street , and you can see some more old British buildings. The workmen in the first picture are rebuilding one of the storm drains. Most Rangoon streets have a storm drain under removable paving blocks. The blocks can be lifted to clean out the drains. (In Kathmandu, the blocks are often missing, so you have to watch out not to fall into one of the trenches.)
This is the Mogul Shiah Mosque on 30th Street, which may have been founded by the Iranian community. I am not sure if there are many Shia in Rangoon any more, but the ornate building is another testament to the cosmopolitan character of the old capital.
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue is said to be the last synagogue in Rangoon and possibly in all of Burma. It is located at 85, 26th Street, in a neighborhood occupied by Indian and Muslim merchants. We met the caretaker, Mr. Moses Samuels, who graciously showed us around. He said they have good relations with their neighbors, and when some work needs to be done, the Muslims down the street gladly help out. Early in the 20th century, the synagogue served thousands of Jews who had come from India, but many left when the Japanese occupied the city in World War II. An Economist article discussed the history of this last remaining synagogue.

This article is getting long. We will continue our tour of Rangoon in upcoming articles. Thank you for reading, and if I made some errors, please comment.

Online articles on Rangoon's rich architectural legacy

Here is a well-written blog on the Yangon heritage tour by a Swiss writer.

Travel + Leisure had a 2012 article on Rangoon's Rich Architecture.

National Public Radio (NPR) aired an article in June 2014 titled, "As Myanmar Modernizes, Architectural Gems Are Endangered."

Time Magazine had a 2012 article, "As Rangoon Races Forward, a Push to Preserve Its Architectural Past."

The Irrawaddy described how the "Heritage Tour Offers Insights Into Rangoon’s Illustrious Past."

The Economist described architecture in a 2014 article, "The way the old capital crumbles."

The Economist described "Myanmar’s last Jews, Burma’s bimah, A tale of conservation, faith and a surprising survival" in a 2012 article.

The Financial Times wrote about Rangoon's Forgotten Treasures in a 2011 article.


Cernea, R.F.,2007. Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma. Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 177p.

Mann, Ruper-Angus. 2014. Yangon: A City at A Turning Point, M My Magical Myanmar, Logistics Media Company, February 2014, pp. 65-67 (accessed 14 Dec. 2014)

Theroux, P. 1971. "Burma." The Atlantic, (Accessed 27 Nov 2014).


The wide-angle photos were taken with a Panasonic G3 camera with Olympus 9-18mm lens. The longer views were with a Fujifilm X-E1 camera with various lenses. I processed the RAW files with PhotoNinja software (highly recommended).

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Burmese Days 6: Sule Pagoda and Rangoon Heritage Tour

Rangoon, now officially known as Yangon, is the largest city in Burma and was the capital until the military government relocated the capital to the newly-built city of Naypyidaw in 2006. Rangoon is still the commercial and cultural center of the country and has a population of more than 5 million (some estimates are 7 million).

The British came to Burma in the early 1800s and captured the city, then known as Yangon, during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–26). Much of the city was destroyed by fire in 1841. After the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, the British seized Yangon and began to transform it into the commercial and political hub the colony. Based on a design by an army engineer, they rebuilt the city on a modern grid pattern, with east-west and north-south streets centered on the historic Sule Pagoda. According to Wikipedia (citing various sources), "Colonial Yangon, with its spacious parks and lakes and mix of modern buildings and traditional wooden architecture, was known as "the garden city of the East." By the early 20th century, Yangon had public services and infrastructure on par with London."

The photograph above shows the Sule Pagoda in 1957, when the streets were tree-lined and had little traffic. Back then, only diplomats and Americans had cars. This is a scan from a Kodachrome slide taken with a Leica IIIC camera. The view is looking south along Sule Pagoda Road, with City Hall on the left.
The map (from University of Texas Libraries) shows Rangoon in 1914 (click the map to enlarge it, as with all the photographs). The Shwedagon Pagoda is on the hill in the northern suburbs, while the newly laid-out city grid has the Sule Pagoda as its center origin. The thick black lines are railroads.
This is an aerial photograph from the family archives. The Shwedagon is in the center left, while the Sule Pagoda is near the bottom. The large building to its right is the huge City Hall. In 1957, Rangoon was a flat city with buildings no more then 3 or 4 floors high. I do not know why none were higher. I wonder if the lack of fire-fighting ability or undependable electric supply (meaning undependable elevators and air-conditioning) might have been reasons?
This is the Sule Pagoda today, with more traffic and some modern tall buildings in the background. The City Hall is to the right. This photograph was from the second floor of the historic Emmanuel Baptist Church. According to legend, part of the Sule may be 2,500 years old, but most of what we see is less than a century old.
This is a 1957 photograph of the City Hall. It was built between 1926 and 1936 and was designed by Burmese architect U Tin, who was also responsible for the huge Central Railway Station. The tiered roofs are called Pyatthat, common in many Buddhist structures. The size of the City Hall and the amount it must have cost gives an idea of the importance of Rangoon to the British Empire. They assumed the empire would last and wanted to be prepared with appropriate administrative and structural infrastructure. But war was to follow in a few years, and the British fled Rangoon in early 1942 under the onslaught of the Japanese Imperial Army. The British returned in 1945, only to grant independence to Burma in 1948.
South of the Sule Pagoda is a 1931-vintage British building, still in use but pretty rough.
This is the interior of the handsome Emmanuel Baptist Church. The original church was built in 1885 by American Missionaries but destroyed in World War II. The present building is from 1952.
35th Street runs behind the Emmanuel Church. It was dead end and looked crowded, so I could not resist. The old British building had seen better days.
Closer-up, the building is really rough, and there is a lot of trash strewn about. It's a real pity. The red brick wall to the right is part of the High Court Building.
Proceed a couple of blocks, and there is a brass sign indicating the telegram office. Is it possible?
There IS a telegram office, and even an employee or two present. I do not know if you can send a cable to the USA any more (I should have tried). Who would deliver a telegram to your house? A small sign at the end said, "Internet."
A couple of blocks north on Bo Gyoke Road are many more old British flats. This one also needs a bit of work.
This is the former Myanmar Railways Headquarters. The land has been bought by a developer who will build towers but restore the old brick building.

Rangoon is becoming an architecture destination. Numerous journalists have recognized Rangoon's amazing colonial architecture, and a Google search will bring up plenty of references. As an example, The Independent wrote how the "Colonial past could be the saving of Rangoon."

Thant Myint-U (2011) in a Financial Times article, wrote, "It’s one of the best preserved colonial cityscapes in the world. Rangoon’s unique architectural heritage has survived decades of war, dictatorship, isolation and economic decline. Whether it survives a transition to democracy and renewed prosperity remains to be seen."

To be be continued....


Thant Myint-U, 2011. Forgotten treasures, Financial Times, Dec. 2, 2011.