Urban exploration in Burma

Exploring an abandoned British colonial club in downtown Yangon, Burma (Myanmar).

I paused in the shade of the old gentleman’s club and listened to the sounds of family life around the edge of the compound. It was not difficult to imagine why the British would have regarded this Rangoon-era club as a home from home. The frenetic street markets, dusty streets, fierce sun, busy docks and resentful locals would have been kept at bay by British orderliness, cool teak shade, cocktails and club activities. It was where linen-suited empire builders could relax and run a colony over cocktails.

The Pegu Club was built in the early 1880s to serve the British colonial community. In 1889 a young Rudyard Kipling stayed for a night on his long journey home to England. His brief stop in Burma later inspired his infamous and evocative poem, ‘Mandalay’, a city that he famously never visited.

“The Pegu Club” he wrote, “seemed to be full of men on their way up or down, and the conversation was but an echo of the murmur of conquest far away to the north.” The morbid talk of the club fascinated Kipling, his head rang with the “stories of battle, murder and sudden death. I had reached the fringe of the veil that hides Upper.” What lay beyond the Pegu Club was unknown, legendary and deadly, the heart of darkness for colonials, adventurers, commercial prospectors and soldiers. They travelled up the Irrawwady River, the river of lost footprints, and many never came back.

“You see Boh Gwee had us in a regular trap, and by the time we had closed the line our men were being peppered front and rear: that jungle-fighting is the deuce and all. More ice please.”

Now the Pegu Club is Yangon’s embassy quarter, but an old Rangoon map shows the club near the edges of colonial zones beyond which lay native infantry lines, coolie lines and unnamed villages. Perhaps this proximity to the veil, and perhaps the troubled and rapacious nature of British rule in Burma, supported a siege mentality that only allowed whites in the Pegu Club. A club mentality depicted by George Orwell in novel Burmese Days, his scathing portrayal of British rule.

Rangoon map: 1914 (Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries)

On Zagawar Street there is a slice of typical Yangon street life. Locals hitch-up their lunghis and sit on tiny plastic chairs at open street cafes and fast food stalls where meals are rustled over charcoal fires. The trade is slow and listless, the stall owners wait for the afternoon heat to pass and things to pick-up in the evening cool. A young man sits on an old 1950’s style barbershop chair chatting to the barber cutting his hair. I walk through a gate and dodge past a man splashing water everywhere. Even the mad dogs are dozing, conceding the ground to the wandering Englishman.

I slip into the Pegu and walk through empty chambers and rooms once used for drinking, dining, billiards, reading, dancing, all the social activities and needs of the British club. There is little detail left to divine the purpose of these empty rooms. A sweeping stairway shifts and creaks under my weight, there are small nooks for colonial intrigue and large mess-like halls for balls. A shaded verandah snakes round the first floor. Its design echoes that of the teak monasteries scattered through Burma, a colonial building surprisingly acknowledging it exists in the tropics rather than Surry.

What is surprising is, bar the occasional collapsing ceiling and a small courtyard filled with rubbish, the club buildings seems swept and tidy with the odd pile of building materials in anticipation of a yet to be decided plan. The local families living around the edge of the grounds seem to leave it alone, or at most use it as an anchor for a washing line. In Britain this place would have been vandalised, set on fire and become an entirely different kind of drinking establishment.

The fate of the Pegu Club has mirrored Burma’s troubled history. The Japanese invaded Burma in 1942 and used the club as a brothel during their brutal occupation. When the British returned the club was open to locals but few took the opportunity, its atmosphere remained resolutely colonial. It became a final stronghold for the good old days, especially after Burma gained independence in 1948. Independence was followed by socialism and nationalism, the authorities commandeered it as an army officers mess. When Paul Theroux tried to visit during his The Great Railway Bazaar journey he was turned away because a senior officer was having his dinner. “The sentry bulged his eyes to illustrate how senior.”

Away from Burmese history the club’s name also lives on through its signature cocktail, a combination of gin, orange curacao and lime. The cocktail was once listed in the Savoy Cocktail Book of 1930 by the famous cocktail barman, Harry Craddock. It is now served at high-end tourist points in Yangon such as the Strand Hotel, and a Soho bar in New York named after the club.

Now the building is visited by a steady trickle of tourists fascinated by its present abandoned nature and its past history. The future of its old teak walls though is a conundrum to be confronted.

The Pegu Club is a symbol of colonial oppression and racism yet it is listed by the Myanmar preservation group, the Yangon Heritage Trust, and is part of the argument of how to balance the preservation of the city’s celebrated colonial architecture, with its desperate need for development, investment and modernisation. It is not however listed by the Yangon City Development Committee, the administrative body of Yangon, and is sitting on commercially attractive land. Renovation would be costly and procrastination would only result in further decline.

For some such as the historian Thant Myint-U, the writer of the excellent The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma, the club represents a tainted legacy but is nonetheless an important part of Burmese history. He believes its destruction would be an act of vandalism, but nor should a place that once excluded Myanmar people become the accidental preserve of wealthy tourists.

Pegu Club postcard 1914 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Pegu Club postcard 1914 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

When I walked back through the gate onto the Zagawar Road I came across a curiosity which made me wonder whether Thant Myint-U’s concerns were that of an older generation. The barber’s shirt carried the unmistakable motif of the Union Jack, something I was to see repeatedly woven into shirts, T-shirts and backpacks of mostly young Myanmars all over the country. I always meant to ask why and I never did. Has the troubled nature of Myanmar’s recent history accelerated the colonial age beyond its natural limit of sensitive memory? Has a symbol of empire been neutered into some kind of Cool Britannia fashion statement?

The future of the Pegu Club may be less about its past, and more about whether it can present a simple business opportunity to find a footing in the new shifting Myanmar, a place free of history.

Further information

The Pegu Club cocktail

From sea to sea: letters of travel, Rudyard Kipling

Two articles possibly a bit out of date now but still interesting: Development rush could doom Yangon’s architectural treasures and Rangoon’s rich architecture

Should it be Burma or Myanmar?

20 thoughts on “Urban exploration in Burma

    • Ed – if you have not done so read the Burma bit of From sea to sea: letters of travel. Fascinating insight into colonial times and the Mandalay poem. I suspect though you can already quote it line for line.

      • It already is a wee bit! I went in 2009,2011 and 2013. The amount of tourism has grown hugely. In 2009 you could go a day without seeing a European face!

      • Thanks for your comment Adrian. Well I was part of that so I can’t be sniffy about wishing for it not to be over-run or distorted by tourism. I grew-up in central London just round the corner from a major tourist attraction so know what it is like to be a local besieged by tourists. Although in those days there were not so many cameras and recording devices being pointed everywhere and ‘London can take it’.

      • Did wade across the border for an illicit picnic not far from Ruili in south west China back in 1997 – not sure that’s enough for a territorial claim these days??

        On the same trip, I vaguely recall ‘borrowing’ a motorbike and side car for a moonlit drunken ride around the yangshou scenery.

        Idiot abroad….

  1. A group of teachers from the American Center and I (and the Burmese watchman) enjoyed cocktails here in 2009 or 2010. We mixed our gin and tonics on the balcony corner closest to the viewer in the postcard above. At the time, we couldn’t find the ingredients for Pegu Club cocktails. We were expecting it to be torn down at any time, as the entire block was said to have been purchased by a Chinese developer, and the shops fronting on both Zagawar (Newlyn) and Pyay (Prome) roads had already been torn down. Glad to see it is still standing. I hope it will be restored as a museum, where the dark story of Myanmar’s colonial past can be told.

    • Thanks for your comment Steven – that’s interesting. I hadn’t come across that when I was looking into the history. I think a museum, cultural or education centre would be an excellent purpose for the building but there’s probably less money in that and the authorities would have to pay more than they want to. If it is going to be saved, and I really hope someone does something with it, part of me hopes that the Pegu Club cocktail can come home to one of the old teak bars!

  2. Alex – fascinating account and very new to me. A Civil Servant friend of mine was attached to Burma and travelled there a lot and her accounts of the place and the politics put me off ever considering visiting. Perhaps you’re changing my mind.

    • Thanks for that! The politics were ethically difficult until recently and may well be difficult again but for the moment there is a sense of hope and progress. It may not be to all tastes but I found it a fascinating and friendly country to visit and there are times when it genuinely feels like the cliché of the country that time forgot. That might not last long!

      Watch this blog – more Burma-related articles to come…

  3. A really interesting slice of Myanmar/Burma colonial history. Kipling, as you rightly say, never visited Mandalay – in fact he was only in the country for a few days. He mentions the Moulmein Pagoda i the opening lines of his famous poem and Moulmein was where Orwell worked and developed colonial self-disgust as an officer in the Burma Police. If you’ll excuse a cheeky link: http://eastofelveden.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/the-road-to-moulmein/

    • Thanks for that link. An interesting read! I have read that Burmese Days was exaggerated and some around at the time thought it was an unfair portrayal though others thought it was spot-on. Whatever the case Burma was always one of the more restless and unhappier colonies ruled by the British, and racism was rife.

  4. I never thought of that. Well that worked with the Shwenandaw Kyaung temple in Mandalay in 1880! The longer they leave it the more expensive restoration it will require as well as preserving or relocation, and therefore the greater the attraction to demolish it. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with the Pegu, Yangon architecture and Myanmar as a whole in the next few years. Sorry to hear about your teahouses. Know how that feels when local cafes or pubs are ruined or torn down by development. Thanks for your comments. Alex

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