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Entering Homes: A Year Inside Yangon’s Dangerous Buildings

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Elizabeth Rush shares her experiences inside post-colonial Yangon, a failed empire being rebuilt and in need of preservation.

Standing in a building being broken apart is profoundly unsettling. The ground isn't stable. Concrete, brick and mortar—the very materials that were once combined in such a way as to epitomize stability—no longer serve their intended purpose.

On my first morning in Yangon, I walked into a demolition site on Merchant Street and climbed the stairs to the building's middle level. A gaping hole had been smashed in the ceiling. Every minute, a woman walked over to the edge and tossed down an armload of bricks. Upstairs the roof was gone. And the walls were coming down piece by piece. Piles of rebar, beams, abandoned prints of pilgrimage destinations, and dust surrounded me. I told myself to be careful. And then I told myself again. Still, when I tried to walk I fell over. I stepped gingerly amid the deconstruction and worked my way through this site that had once been someone's home. It felt like riding the wake of a cataclysm without having lived through the event.

In 2010 and 2011, as Myanmar's military junta prepared to transition to a parliamentary system, they auctioned off over 80 percent of the country's state owned assets. Some of downtown Yangon's disintegrating colonial row houses were on the list. Surely, those who won these properties would be interested in their central location and not in the crumbing buildings themselves. When I heard about the auction, I knew that a particular iteration of a city I loved would soon disappear so I bought a plane ticket.

...it is possible to fashion a life out of what others left behind, to live fully in an abandoned empire.

The situation on the ground was far more extreme than I initially anticipated. At least one building per block was being demolished. The sound of sledgehammers rang out from every corner of the city. As I descended and looked at what remained of the stairs on Merchant Street that first morning, I knew that I would spend the upcoming year documenting the insides of Yangon's colonial buildings. But I wasn't interested in the architecture so much as the lives that took place inside that architecture. I loved Yangon from my very first glimpse because it taught me a unique lesson: that it is possible to fashion a life out of what others left behind, to live fully in an abandoned empire.

With over two hundred rolls of Provia slide film, a Dictaphone, and a carefully compiled map of the auction sites I set out to document the homes that were being torn down as Myanmar prepared to open, for the first time in fifty years, to western investment. Quickly I discovered that not only were the auctioned properties being demolished, so too were hundreds of buildings declared "dangerous" by the Yangon City Development Council (YCDC), as well as other random sites that developers had snatched up on the eve of this ever more exciting era. All around me, Yangon's skyline was collapsing.

"This will always be my home," U Tun tells me. U Tun is a retired journalist who has lived on the first floor of the century-old Bombay Burma Press building for over fifty years. Layers of turquoise paint fall off the facade in thick sheets. Most of the stained glass Palladian-style windows are missing and those that remain are coated in a thick layer of water-stiffened grime. Still, the inside has the air of a home deeply loved. The teak furniture is all polished to shine. Above the seating area in the living room is an 11 x 14 inch print of a young man. "That is my son. He would have been 38 this year. He had a Ph.D. in physics and he did most of his studying there," U Tun says as he motions to a back room where the printing press was once housed. "You may find this hard to believe but I am sad to leave," he said. Last month U Tun's building was declared dangerous by the YCDC. He and the three other families who live in the Bombay Burma Press building have been given 30 days to leave. I photograph the two red and yellow striped beach chairs in front of U Tun's tube television and I also take a family portrait. "You can call me old-fashioned," U Tun says as I pack up my camera gear, "I know we have been promised an apartment in the 9-story condominium that will replace this building but I can't help it, I will miss this place because it is where I have lived most of my life."

Over half-a-century ago, as Myanmar began its economically disastrous "path to socialism," many of the buildings in downtown Yangon were seized and the space inside of them was distributed amongst all different classes of people. Teachers, mohinga sellers, accordion players, journalists, accountants, and tea shop workers all lived alongside each other in colonial-era gems—buildings that would have belonged only to the extremely wealthy in almost any other city in the world. U Tun was given a space on the corner of Merchant and 30th Street. Above him a seamstress lives and above her a sailor and his family of six. At the beginning of the military dictatorship, a remarkably egalitarian city emerged. And for much of the past half a century, Yangon has remained unchanged, held at an arm's length by an isolationist government and the sanctions that followed wide-ranging human rights violations.

All around me, Yangon's skyline was collapsing.

On Schwebon Tha street Ma Htike Htike urges me to sit. She hands me an orange all the way from Taunggyi, a small town nestled in the foothills near Inle Lake. She pulls down a photograph from the wall and holds it in her hands. It is black and white and the man pictured in it plays the accordion. "This is my husband," she says. "He died four years ago, but he and I lived here together for nearly sixty, raising our children." When I ask about the building proper, she responds as most do. Ma Htike Htike tells me that it is structurally sound, then steers the conversation back to her family and her life here. "My husband was one of the best accordion players in the country—you should have heard him," she says without remorse. A neighbor stops by to settle a debt and Ma Htike Htike's daughter practices her English with me. After two cups of milk tea and some vegetable samosas I am back out on the street, the jasmine smell of Ma Htike Htike's immaculate apartment lingers for what feels like hours. Her home was one of sixty homes the government auctioned in February of 2011 and as such it will join the legions of old homes razed to make way for an oddly less egalitarian Yangon.

On the roof of the old Indian Taxation Office, the night watchman lives in an apartment his father built around a stairwell bulkhead. "First my father slept in the stairwell. He worked in the office during the day and then came up here at night." U Aung Than tells me. "Over time my father expanded out around the bulkhead, brick by brick. Eventually he got permission to move the family here. It was hot at first, so we experimented with different materials." Today the walls are mostly made of concrete and the ceiling is fashioned from corrugated tin and long plastic sheets strung between posts. During the day, U Aung Than runs a sidewalk tea stand, in the evening he polishes jade to sell, and in the middle of the night he roams the halls of the old Indian Taxation office and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries on the first floor, guarding against intruders.

"The government wants to redevelop the building," U Aung Than says. He points to a sign in the stairwell ordering him, and the two other families who have lived on the roof for much of the last half-century, to leave. "But where to?" he asks me rhetorically. "I was a boy here so naturally I do not want to go." Two months later I return, bringing with me the images of U Aung Than's home that I captured on my first trip. U Aung Than and his family are still living on the roof. His mother sits on a low stool peeling garlic. Her granddaughter is busy studying ecology. Boxes have replaced plastic bags of papers. "We are preparing to go," U Aung Than says. His voice is run through with regret. That night he and I watch Thadingyut festival fireworks explode over the Yangon River from the highest point on the roof. It is the first time in over a decade that Yangon's residents have been permitted to openly celebrate the Buddhist Festival of Lights and the last one U Aung Than will celebrate in his childhood home.

Since I first started working on this project in 2011, the changes that have come to Myanmar are profound. A parliament replaced the military dictatorship (although 25 percent of the seats are reserved for military.) Aung San Sui Kyi, the country's most famous political dissonant, was released from house arrest and elected to the afore mentioned parliament. Over six thousand political prisoners were freed. President U Thein Sein halted the controversial Myitsone Dam project. The government instigated a "cash for clunkers" plan. Turn in a car built over 40 years ago and receive a voucher halving the exorbitant import taxes that make a new car unattainable for most. It may not seem democratic, but "cash for clunkers" attempts, in a small way, to begin to level things.

For nearly a hundred years, Yangon was a rare and forgotten city—a city no longer focused on hubris but humility, not on survival but quiet tenacity.

Much of the world, the United States included, has eased sanctions. Foreign capital once again flows in the streets of Yangon. A property boom has catapulted land value in Yangon to rates equal with nearby Bangkok. But it is not U Tan or Ma Htike Htike who have benefited. Those who reaped the rewards of the junta's longstanding punitive economic restrictions are precisely those who have privately purchased most of the country's assets. This simple fact is infrequently discussed.

When I left U Aung Than's rooftop perch, I made my way to a long prohibited street fair in the Pazundaung Township. For much of the past half-century, public gatherings of more than five people were banned, which is what made the Festival of Lights especially magical that year. The last time Yangon's residents had taken to the streets en masse was during the Saffron Revolution in 2007, when walking outside meant risking your life.

But Myanmar had come a long way in a short time. The October evening air was balmy. Thousands of people flooded the streets, with grins as big as the full moon above them. It looked as though they were celebrating ten New Year's Eves all rolled into one. Yangon's residents were so excited. When they saw a foreigner celebrating openly alongside them, their joy turned to awe. It was as if my presence made people believe that change had finally come to their country. I bought a glowing pair of moon-shaped spectacles and walked back and forth on Myang Gyi Street for hours. All around me people snacked on deep fried gourd fritters, donned glow sticks, purchased balloons and real tattoos, and rode the most amazing man-powered Ferris wheel.

For nearly a hundred years, Yangon was a rare and forgotten city—a city no longer focused on hubris but humility, not on survival but quiet tenacity. Almost overnight, it became the latest in a long line of development meccas. As with every radical change, the process is both disruptive and transformative. Many of the buildings I photographed are already gone. The people who lived in them lost their homes as part of Myanmar's rebirth. And while they have gained some very important basic human rights, they are not well positioned to enjoy those rights. Most of Myanmar's residents lack the skills and education necessary to succeed in the global world their country has entered. On the corner of Merchant and 30th Street, a Korean-owned multiuse skyscraper is rising. Yangon is already being rebuilt by money from beyond the country's borders—even shinier this time, taller, and new all over again. Keeping Yangon from becoming what it has already been—the capital of someone else's empire—means requiring education and skill-building as pre-requisites to any further easing of sanctions; and it means advocating for preservation that maintains the accessibility and equitability of one of South Asia's fairest cities. The most difficult work remains.

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