Photo Essay

Still Lifes from a Vanishing City

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A hundred years ago, Yangon was the most cosmopolitan of Southeast Asia's cities. Under British rule in the 1920s and 30s, this was the second busiest immigration port in the world, trailing only New York City. Laborers and merchants - from India, China, Europe, and the Near East - arrived in astounding numbers, hoping to make their fortunes in Burma. Hand-pressed ceramic tiles were imported from Europe, teak traveled down the Irrawaddy by the boatload, wrought iron elevators were installed in all of the department stores, and stained glass strung up in foyers and entryways. After World War II Great Britain pulled out, the economy faltered and a military dictatorship attempted to assemble that which only the threat of violence could unite. The outside world shrugged and turned away. In a single century, Myanmar went from being the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia to one of the poorest on earth.

In 2010 and 2011, as the junta prepared to transition from a military dictatorship to a parliamentary system, they sold over 80 percent of their assets - everything from petrol stations, to rice mills, cinemas, ports, and soy sauce factories. Through this wholesale offloading of resources and property, the state hoped to secure control over the future economic development of Myanmar. The last spate of auctions, in February of 2011, saw roughly sixty of Yangon's colonial-era buildings on the auction block. In addition to the state-held auctions, the Yangon City Municipal Committee carried out a city-wide inspection of all buildings over sixty years old. Those deemed unfit for habitation were branded with a red sign, declaring the building dangerous. Once the telltale marker goes up, inhabitants have thirty days to find somewhere else to live. These poorly-maintained, centrally-located, economically stagnant homes are being torn down to make way for high-rise condominiums.

Still Lifes from a Vanishing City is more than a record of Yangon's disappearing colonial architecture. It is an archive of the rich, everyday lives people built in the wreckage of an abandoned empire. Here is a portrait of Yangon's intangible heritage - the comfort, sanctuary, monotony, and delight that accompanies domestic life no matter the circumstance. As Yangon is demolished and built again, the heart of the city and the history of its subtle resolve are partially preserved in these photographs. The remainder of the story resides in the memories of those who made their lives here, transforming this architecture that was just something someone else left behind.

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