Still Lifes from a Vanishing City

Elizabeth Rush

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Yangon, in Myanmar, was once the most cosmopolitan of Southeast Asia’s cities. Now, it is practically forgotten. Under British rule in the 1920s and 30s, Yangon was the second busiest immigration port in the world, trailing only New York City. After World War II Great Britain pulled out, the economy faltered and a military dictatorship attempted to reassemble and unite the country. In a single century, Myanmar went from being the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia to one of the poorest in the world.

Over the last three years, as the state prepared to transition from a military dictatorship to a parliamentary system, they sold over 70 per cent of their assets – everything from ice factories to petrol stations. Through this wholesale offloading of resources and property, the junta hoped to secure control over the future economic development of Myanmar. The last spate of auctions, in February, saw roughly sixty of Yangon’s colonial-era apartment buildings on the auction block. These poorly-maintained, centrally-located and currently economically stagnant buildings will soon be torn down to make way for high-rise condominiums.

Yangon has the most intact colonial city centre in all of Southeast Asia, but money from the outside promises to alter Yangon’s historic skyline. This is why I have come to Yangon, because I know it may be my last chance to sit with this city – a city well beyond what those who built it would have ever imagined, a city no longer focused on hubris but on humility, not on progress but survival and quiet tenacity. ‘Still Lifes from a Vanishing City’ is an archive of sorts, an assemblage of the rich, full lives people built in the wreckage of an abandoned empire. In the upcoming decades we may find ourselves looking towards Yangon to gain insight into how we might live in a city that was built by an unsustainable system, and how those ‘less-than-fortunate’ people have made their lives out of what others have left behind.

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