Yangon, the old capital of Burma, has had a hell of a ride. Just a little fishing village until the late 18th Century, it grew into Rangoon, one of the largest ports in the world by the 1940s. Under the Brits, who had characteristically taken charge in the mid-19th Century, some of the city’s most iconic sculptures were built. It has the highest concentration of colonial era buildings of any city in Asia.
The banks of the Yangon River are lined with huge government buildings, their imposing edifices built with cast iron and steel from Manchester, studded with giant Corinthian columns and topped with domes and spires.
However, a combination of damage during the war and neglect under the military government has left the city in disrepair. The buildings which survive have been on pause for 60 years, allowed to crumble and sprout ferns and trees from the cracks in the concrete. More alarming perhaps are the 1,800 buildings which were demolished between 1990 and 2011 to make way for bigger, more profitable development projects. Hideous aluminium-clad high-rises stand in the foundations of Victorian splendour, and vast air-conditioned malls now sprawl entire blocks where ghosts of the old city used to stand.
On a more domestic scale, the narrow, shaded streets of downtown were once entirely lined with rows of terraced four-storey houses, their huge domed windows surrounded by elegant wooden shutters. Plenty still remain between the cheap apartment blocks built in the last 20 years, but their future is in question. With the price of land at a premium, there is little incentive to maintain these decrepit buildings, their landowners hungry for the higher rents yielded by modern alternatives.
Happily, there are programmes in place to protect Yangon’s large public structures, and 189 buildings are officially listed for preservation. However there isn’t sufficient funding or capacity to include the smaller domestic buildings, leaving them to flounder on their own.
That was the case until Doh Eain (Burmese for “Our Home”), a local initiative spearheaded by Emilie Röell, started work to preserve and reuse these smaller heritage buildings in a bottom-up, citizen led way. They work directly with home-owners to conserve their homes in financially viable ways. Doh Eain puts up the initial capital and provides architects and builders to complete the restoration. They then operate a revenue share of the rental yield until the costs are paid off, and the owner ends up with a renovated asset, with its value unlocked.
“Our focus is on the sustainable development of communities based on their own strengths and potential,” says Emilie. “We want to help people become aware of the assets that surround them. To help them realise that they’re sitting on treasure.”
To date, Doh Eain has completed 16 domestic renovation projects, with three currently underway. They have also transformed six of Yangon’s rat-infested, rubbish clogged back-alleys into clean, healthy recreational spaces featuring gardens, street art and children’s playgrounds. Four more are under development. Again, these projects are community led, and partially community funded; rather than waiting for their heritage to crumble into urgent replacement, the neighbourhoods involved are inspired and incentivised by Doh Eain to care for their history.
“We urge people to stop looking at Yangon as a place of problems,” explains Emilie. “There are many challenges here to address such as traffic or bad sewage, but it is more empowering to look at Yangon as a place of opportunities. We want to focus people’s attention on the positive, instil pride in everything that makes this city so special and unique, on all the assets that we can further develop and protect.”
And she’s right. The future of Yangon, and of Myanmar is bright. There is a balance to strike between preserving heritage and promoting modernisation, but with sensitive handling and support, it could and should rise back up to be the jewel of Asia it once was.