HOME to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and a collage of businesses that burst to life as Myanmar’s largest city wakes up, the colonial-era building known simply as ‘491-501 Merchant Street’ holds a mirror up to Yangon.
It has also just received a US$325,000 facelift, sprucing up its grand but crumbling edifice with the support of the community it houses.
Heritage experts now hope that collaborative process will serve as a blueprint for saving the city’s other architectural treasures ravaged by years of neglect under the former junta.
Merchant Street sits at the heart of Yangon’s historic downtown area, where the roads are lined with majestic but decaying structures that date back to British colonial rule, which ended in 1948.
Scores of old buildings have already been razed by the flood of foreign investment that followed the end of total military rule in 2011 and has pushed the city into a development frenzy.
But with a new government in town, led by Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party, conservationists are hopeful that an urban rebirth is within reach.
“We had never seen such renovations before. If a building is old, normally people destroy it and build a new condo block,” said Aung Thu, a resident who runs one of two tea shops inside the building.
The elegant structure has 80 residents, a noodle stall, bookseller, two newspaper-recycling operations, a barber, three printing services and a purveyor of monastic accessories all under one newly-refurbished roof.
Its inhabitants are also religiously varied, something not uncommon in multi-ethnic Yangon but a positive reminder of interfaith cooperation in a country where sectarian tensions have been fuelled in recent years by anti-Muslim Buddhist hardliners.
That this diverse collective backed the project is also unique in a country where tangled ownership rights, a lack of funding and poor regulation have hampered restoration efforts.
Many families and shopkeepers stayed put while newly-trained local tradesmen worked around them for nearly a year, applying fresh coats of paint and returning the building’s once-chipped columns to their former glory.
“They are happy with the building, the building is looking great,” said Harry Wardill of Turquoise Mountain, a heritage foundation that oversaw the work, which came free of charge to the residents.
“It’s attracting attention from people which is one of the key aspects of a demonstration project – we want to engage people to really think about their heritage.”
New mayor in town
The city maintains a list of 189 recognised heritage sites but currently lacks laws to protect them.
Thant Myint-U, a historian who runs the prominent Yangon Heritage Trust, would like to see the Merchant Street makeover – which the trust helped fund – kickstart the restoration of other sites.
While the city will need to find revenue streams other than donations to pay for future projects, he is hoping the building’s new sparkle will convince locals and officials of the value of preservation.
“For a lot of people in Yangon, especially if they have never been outside the country, I think it’s really hard to imagine what an old building could be if it was well-renovated,” he told AFP.
The historian described “excellent relations” with the new government and chief city minister, who he has been working with closely.
His group is also pushing for more comprehensive urban planning, aware that Yangon is struggling to manage hundreds of thousands of squatters, traffic-clogged streets and rapid upward development.
“It is about looking at all the different issues – whether it is affordable housing or mass transit – and having the conservation of architectural heritage as part of this overall design,” he said.
Rags to riches?
At the Merchant Street building, residents lacked the resources to coordinate repairs.
Its facade was blackened by the elements and the annual monsoon gushed in torrents through the roof.
But now some homeowners have been inspired to launch their own internal refurbishments.
The building has been “born again”, said 43-year-old Shan Kumar, a Hindu businessman living in a ground floor apartment.
He is excited by the money-spinning potential of the renovations, particularly given the city centre address.
“Now I have many chances. I can rent my apartment or do some business,” he told AFP.
The winds of change are also stirring in Aung Thu’s bustling yet modest teashop.
Friends have advised him to upgrade his clusters of plastic stools to attract high paying customers and foreign tourists.
“The building is perfect now, so I will develop the teashop very soon. My dream will definitely come true,” he said. — AFP