Some call it romantic, others rustic – the way mildew covers the façades of hundreds of fading historic buildings of Myanmar’s largest city.
Many of the structures – originally built as depositories, libraries, malls and hospitals – still stand as they did when they were built about a hundred years ago, and to most passers by, not much seems to have changed, a few high-end new projects aside.
But with swathes of new small and medium-sized businesses looking to make a home in Myanmar, the pickings for a suitable home are slim. For many, their only choice is to get creative with existing space by transforming the old and unsavoury buildings into something modern.
Decorated with refurbished teak chairs, fashionable Thai-imported ceiling fans and traditional Japanese seating, the Japanese yakitori-style restaurant, Gekko – which opened in March – represents a growing standard for modern taste in a city once closed off to the world.
“The first time I walked in I was taken. There was something about it,” said Nico Elliot, managing director of the restaurant. “We’ve got this floor with its early 1900s caustic tiles from Manchester. I was caught by the mezzanine and you’ve got these wicked steel beams.”
Though Gekko has quickly become a fixture in Yangon, it like many new shops did not open overnight.
“When we first came in, everything was clad in cheap plywood and plastic and there was no lighting – plenty of rubbish, plenty of dirt and plenty of rats,” said Mr Elliot, adding that he and his partners poured more than $200,000 into the 100-year-old building that was once a stationery shop.
“It’s very difficult when compared to places such as Hong Kong and Singapore,” he said. “It is difficult to arrange the licences – you have to know the right people.”
In an effort to protect Yangon’s historic central business district, the city has deemed nearly 200 of its buildings protected, while the heritage status of hundreds of others has yet to be determined.
Nevertheless, the emergence of renovated commercial spaces is on the rise. In the rising neighbourhood of Yaw Min Gee, at least a dozen new high-end restaurants and retail shops have appeared in the past year. Near the famous Sule Pagoda, a number of other eateries have become staples.
Places including Pomelo, a popular local crafts shop that commissions the disabled to produce bags, furniture, jewellery and other items, opened its new downtown location earlier this year.
Though the space once served as a doctor’s office with cheap wooden flooring and cubicles, products are now displayed in a wide-open modern room with large, bright white walls and its original flooring.
“I wanted to create a space that showcases our products in the best light, so that’s why we created all these niches,” said Ulla Kroeber, a German national who co-founded the shop.
She said that although the renovations only took about three months to complete, the shop’s investors had to convince their new neighbours that opening a new shop in an old mixed-use building would not pose any danger to the structure.
“People were frightened the building might collapse when we were pulling up the floorboards,” she said. “[There] were difficulties to get everybody surrounding us to be happy with what we were doing.”
The original urban development plan for Yangon, called the Fraser Plan, was devised in the 1850s. It envisioned a grid with several north-to-south streets and wide avenues running from east-to-west. Over the next hundred years, a vast majority of the city would be built, including several now-famous municipal buildings that are quickly becoming dilapidated.
Where some have chosen to locate themselves more centrally, others have taken to the back streets. In the hidden Jetty Wharf, which is filled with little more than cargo ships and hastily thrown together green warehouses now sits Yangon’s newest premiere gallery, Myanmar Image.
To get to the space that opened in April, Yangon’s social elite navigate the otherwise busy wharf for a taste of modern art in this modern gallery converted from an old transit shed.
“It’s really about using the existing shape of the transit shed and using the skylights to flood the gallery with light,” said the gallery’s architect, Dominic Leong, partner at Leong Leong Architecture, adding that the gallery, which doubles as a retail shop selling local crafts, took three months to put together.
“The space looks beautiful. It’s incredible to see it realised in such a short period of time,” he said.
With the future of most of the city’s original infrastructure uncertain and business owners are forced to sign short term leases, making it difficult to justify large sums of investment in spaces they may not be able to retain.
“We have a pretty positive relationship with the landlord so when it comes down to it we hope they will be reasonable,” said Andrew Cashin, the co-founder of Yangon’s first and only salad bar, Sprouts. “The level of protection is definitely a little bit concerning, but we’ll just see here we’re at when it comes time to renew.
Despite the risk, however, Mr Cashin said he was glad to see Yangon finally taking shape. “Yangon is improving with momentum,” he said. “In this neighbourhood over the past year we have seen lots of new restaurants open.”
Source: Bangkok Post
To learn about how easy it is to get a Western lunch in Yangon go to article Getting a Reasonable Lunch (< US$5) in Yangon’s Western Restaurant