Capturing the sights of disappearing Yangon

27 April 2016
Capturing the sights of disappearing Yangon
BEHS 6 Botataung. Photo: Philip Heijmans

After two years in the works, “Relics of Rangoon” - a photo and research book covering 200 of Yangon's most prominent heritage buildings- is ready for its official launch at the beginning of May.
The book is the work of journalist and photographer Philip Heijmans, the culmination of over two years of research with a team of researchers, over 8,000 photographs, hundreds of hours of interviews with custodians, trustees, government officials, custodians, architects and conservation experts, and documentation research in the Myanmar National Archives.
Relics of Rangoon is a luxury photo book profiling Yangon's heritage buildings in a bid to protect it from degradation and disappearance. The book is over 360 pages long and at 10 x 12 inches is printed in hardcover.
The official launch will be held at Pansuriya Gallery on Bogolay Zay Road at 7:00PM on May 4.
"Relics of Rangoon is a magnificent tribute to this jewel of a city, past, present and future. The product of the loving eyes, dedication, and prolonged exertions of a team led by Philip Heijmans, This book is a monument to be treasured," writes Sean Turnell, Associate Professor, Department of Economics at Macquarie University and Economic Advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party.
“This beautiful book will be an eye-opener. The excellence of Philip Heijmans’ photographs and his concise but thoroughly researched accounts will appeal to tourists and scholars alike. Rangoon was, for me, ‘love at first sight’ and I will treasure Philip’s book,”Dr. James Simpson OBE FRIAS, Simpson & Brown Architects.  
In the following interview with Mizzima, Mr Heijmans explains the passion behind his project. 
What got you interested in this project?
When I moved to Yangon in 2013 as business editor at The Myanmar Times, we were doing quite a few stories dealing with Yangon's heritage and they were always fascinating. It became quickly apparent that this was going to be the defining aspect of this city that could make or break its appeal in general. I had sought out materials to learn more about Yangon's colonial past and about the buildings themselves, but there was little and so I thought it would be cool to do a book that covered the topic comprehensively, featuring pictures of both the interior and facades of the buildings. But months later, I realized that the project made no sense without the accompaniment of historical research for each of the buildings, and so I kind of had to start over with my researchers. 
I think what triggered all of this though was a subconscious desire to get more involved in the topic of architecture. Earlier, I had spent four years in Prague, where half of my family are from, and I fell in love with it. My mother dabbled in architecture as a hobby and that had probably passed on to me in some way. 
You came from Prague to Yangon  - how did that come about? What drew you to Myanmar?
I wish there was a more sexy story in here but the truth was that at the time I decided to move to Southeast Asia in 2010 from Prague I was struggling as a first-year journalist in a market that draws very little international interest. I saw an opening at a newspaper in Phnom Penh called The Cambodia Daily and just went for it. I had never been to SE Asia and had no idea what I was walking into, but I'm really glad I did it. Over the next three years in Cambodia, we journos always kept an eye on Myanmar and it was always in the back of our minds. Then in early 2013, my current fiance and I were living in Taipei when the firm I was working for twice sent me to Yangon on business, and I immediately knew this is where I had to be.
Your project seeks to cherish these old places in Rangoon. Is there a danger that much of what you cherish here could be lost in your lifetime as Rangoon is developed? 
I think I can say with relative certainty that at least some of the places featured in the book will not be around for much longer. Since 1990, some 1,500 buildings in downtown Yangon have been torn down and though the pace of that has slowed dramatically, it has by no means halted. Take the Kyaikkasan Horse Racetrack for example, or Gandhi Hall, two places with a wealth of history that helped define this city's past, and in both cases there has been one proposal after another to tear them down. It's disgusting.
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