Documenting heritage houses in Yangon

11 July 2015
Documenting heritage houses in Yangon
U Kyaw Sein Hla and Daw Khin Myoe Han bid goodbye to their vintage home on Myay Nu Street, Sanchaung Township. Photo: Tim Webster

Photographs from Yangon Echoes: Inside heritage homes are being exhibited in the gallery of Myanmar Deitta in Yangon. The authors, Australian photographer Tim Webster and New Zealander oral historian Virginia Henderson, have spent more than two years documenting the heritage houses and the stories of their residents. They hope to celebrate the diversity of the city through photography and oral history.
In the gallery on the third floor of a creaky 100-year-old building, Webster talked to Mizzima Weekly about his project and stories in Yangon. 
What brought you to Yangon? How did you start the project?
Originally, I came here with Virginia Henderson to volunteer for the Yangon Heritage Trust in early 2013, but later we came to carry out our projects on our own. 
I come from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. As a photographer, my work was to create archival photographic records. By law, in Victoria, if a heritage building is going to be altered or demolished, part of the permit conditions is that the heritage authority shall get a copy of a photographic survey of the building’s present condition. 
We became aware of the situation here and with the great changes that will be taking place, and there were some amazing architectures here. It seemed a good idea to help document some of these places.
Another thing is that lot of the documentation, over the years, has either gone missing, or is disorganized. Both of us have already done work in other places in helping generate oral histories, so we did that here. 
How did you explore the houses and stories?
Well, on the day we got here, we purchased bicycles to get around. 
Often we would see a building and wonder, “Who’s there? How old is it? Who built it?” Both of us are from the countryside, a rural setting. It is part of the informal culture that, if the gate is open, it is ok to knock on the door and say hello. We literally did that.
It required time. Some places took a long time, like a year, to find out who has something to do with them.
We visited some people many times and became good friends with them. It became more feasible, easier to make some photographs without intruding on people or upsetting them. 
As we went on with the project, we spoke with a lot of older people that were really wise. They would suggest to us, “Have you heard of, or met, this lady? Or have we seen this building?” Then we began to be passed around through some networks. 
About half of our interviews were in English. A lot of the older people have attended schools here when the instruction was in English, and for about half of the stories, we used experienced local interpreters.
Could you talk more about the house you spent one year finding out about?
It’s a beautiful building on Kandawgyi Lake. The property has been purchased by a wealthy Myanmar person. It teased us every time we went past it.
Eventually, someone gave us a name. We met up with a lady who had grown up in the house. She approached the new owner of the place and said, “If it’s ok, can I go back to my old house. These people are interested in it.” We got to speak outside of the house about her life and her connection with the place, and we were fortunate to be able to take some pictures over there during a special visit.
It’s a very interesting house. Her father purchased it after World War 2, but it’s actually more than 100 years old. It was originally built for a Scottish man who was, I believe, a director of the forestry department, then. She had a wonderful memory of her childhood. When the Kandawgyi was a wilderness playground and she had a lot of freedom as a child. Her family history is very interesting as well. They were involved in the quest for independence and in WW2. 
The sad thing is that… as the block of land is so big, it seems sensible in the owner’s point of view, that they let the house fall down and they can redevelop it to realize the value of the land. The building is empty and not being maintained. 
As a photographer, how do you work together with an oral historian?
We did the oral histories together. I interviewed people as well. 
One of the good things of being able to write as well as photograph is that some things work very well as texts while they wouldn’t work well as pictures. Some things are much better to be recorded for their visual values with the metaphor that image can contain, while it would be difficult to express them in words. 
It was a complimentary process. If you bring words and images together, in some sort of poetic way, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I call it the “1+1=3” factor.
Did you show the pictures to the residents you interviewed and photographed? What was their response?
There are 56 people that we spoke with in the book. We tried to make sure we were respectful of peoples’ wishes. Most people have been very happy to see that. The project gave them an opportunity to share what they knew particularly with younger people. Maybe somehow we had captured their heart and really told t he story. 
Could you also talk about your aims for the book and exhibition?
It’s really an art exercise, I suppose, that has documented something in good faith that might stand the test of time, and it would be useful as part of the archives of this country in the future.
It’s to celebrate a particular time in the history of this country. After things began changing in 2011, the country started to be open to influence from the world, receptive to new ideas, and interacting with visitors and other countries. We aren’t trying to, as foreigners, tell people what we think should happen.
Often the greatest thing is to hear some good questions that come out of it… What options are there? What are the necessities and the luxury? Where are things heading, and what choices do we have where things are going? 
We very much like an organization called LinkAge, a local NGO with a restaurant and gallery to empower children, youths and women. We are setting up a silent auction at the exhibition for it. 
What are the future plans for the book and project?
Later in the year, we will publish and release the book in Europe. We are hoping that eventually we can have a Burmese language edition. We will have an exhibition in Chiang Mai next year and in the East-West Center, Hawaii, in 2017. Hopefully, with some help, we may get to exhibit in Singapore and Hong Kong. I’d also pretty much like to exhibit in Georgetown, Malaysia, a heritage city.
The exhibition of “Yangon Echoes” and its silent auction will be open at Myanmar Deitta (3rd Floor, Number 49, 44th Street, Botahtaung, Downtown Yangon), on Tuesday to Sunday, 10:00 – 17:00, until 18 July 2015.
This Article first appeared in the July 9, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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