This morning 'From Our Own Correspondent' broadcast a piece based on a ferry journey I made while in Myanmar/Burma recently - and the historic resonance of that boat journey into Yangon/Rangoon. Here's the script, along with some of my photos:
CUE: Burma, now generally known as Myanmar, was once the arrival point for millions of migrants from India in particular – though after decades of economic and political isolation there are only occasional reminders of what a cosmopolitan city Rangoon, now Yangon, once was. Andrew Whitehead took to the water – a ferry across the Yangon river – to seek a sense of how the city has changed, and is changing once more:
The turning to the ferry jetty lies just opposite the Myanmar Port Authority’s imposing 1920s headquarters. The track funnels through food stalls, vegetable vendors, a tangle of cycle rickshaws, young men pushing bikes laden down with a live cargo of dazed upside-down chickens, and an endless press of pedestrians.
At first it feels like gridlock, but this is a well-rehearsed routine. You don’t have to wait too long, with two large boats perpetually plying to and fro on the fifteen-minute river crossing. The crowd quickly shuffles on board – and that’s when the bazaar really starts.
The ferry is a floating market. On both decks, vendors set up stalls on the floor, selling everything from cheap toys to cigarettes. Scores of peddlers, men and women, saunter between the packed benches – several bearing large wicker baskets full of tiny boiled eggs in speckled shells. Quails’ eggs, I discovered - a popular snack
‘Those eggs make you fat’, my neighbour warned. ‘Too much fat.’ He worked in the tourist trade and clearly wanted to practise his English.
Shortly after the boat set off, another young man – confident, articulate, and to my untutored ears persuasive – stood up and began to orate. An itinerant preacher, perhaps, or a political activist. No, my neighbour whispered, he’s selling medicine - a cream to clear the complexion.
Heading back across the river, I glimpsed a view which millions must have seen down the decades – and at a life-changing moment. The colonial-era rooftops of downtown Yangon, with the church-like tower of the Port Authority building standing proud.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but this once was on one of the world’s busiest migration routes. In the century before the Second World War, almost thirty-million people moved by boat across the Bay of Bengal, between India, Myanmar and Malaysia – with Rangoon, as it then was, a principal destination.
As Asia’s rivers go, the Yangon doesn’t have the mightiest of reputations. Not a match for the Yangtze or the Ganges, the Mekong or the Indus. Overshadowed nearer to home by the Irrawaddy, whose vast delta is Myanmar’s – and historically the region’s – rice bowl. But on its banks lay one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities.
It had a Jewish mayor a century back. An Armenian family set up what is still the city’s grandest hotel. There’s a Chinatown dating back to the 1850s. And South Indians came over in huge numbers. At the outbreak of the Second World war, the Burmese were a minority in their own capital.
Then there was a rupture – a profound break with the past. Japan’s wartime occupation of the country pro – then, after Burma’s gaining of independence from Britain in 1948, a succession of military-led, isolationist governments – changed all that. Many of the moneyed classes, particularly those of migrant stock, moved out. Patterns of migration across borders were disrupted beyond repair.
In the heart of Yangon, an old Armenian church and a synagogue set up by Baghdadi Jews are testament to two all-but-disappeared trading communities. They are still going, in buildings which speak of the wealth and influence those communities once enjoyed, but with congregations in single figures. Other places of worship established by migrants – mosques, Hindu mandirs, Methodist churches – are better patronised. The Indian-origin community is still evident, but diminished in numbers and even more in influence.
Myanmar’s long years of isolation have had the incidental benefit of conserving the city’s colonial architecture – often as dilapidated as it is splendid. It doesn’t have the antiquity or inspire the awe of the Shwedagon pagoda and the city’s other rich Buddhist heritage. It’s not quite a match for Calcutta’s older, grander remnants of Empire. But it is a more complete colonial city centre than survives perhaps anywhere else in Asia.
And not a MacDonalds or Starbucks in sight. There are some Japanese and Korean brand names making their mark – and some malls where donut shops are starting to compete with the street food – but Yangon is a city which has largely kept the world at bay for half-a-century.
The pace of change is quickening, however. In the wake of both a political and an economic opening-up, a new bout of mercantilism, of globalisation, is starting to make its mark in Myanmar. A new type of migrant is moving in. The diplomats, the development agency bosses, the business executives are more in evidence. Though these days, they don’t come by boat.
I first met a member of Burma's Jewish community in Calcutta almost twenty years ago. That's where most Burmese Jews fled when the Japanese invaded during the Second World War. A handful stayed there. Many moved on - to Britain, Australia, Canada, Israel. But there is still - as I discovered on my first visit to Myanmar (as Burma is now officially called) last month - a very small community in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and a wonderful, well-kept synagogue.
I wrote a piece about Burma's Jews for the latest issue of the 'Jewish Chronicle' - here it is below, along with some photos I took during my visit:
Here's a selection of photos taken earlier this month at the Armenian Orthodox church of St John the Baptist on Merchant Street in downtown Yangon/Rangoon, the commercial capital of Myanmar/Burma.
The photographs feature Rev John Felix, the minister, the church server, Minhan, and members of the congregation Rachel Minus, Percy Everard and Ramona Tarta. Many thanks to all of them for welcoming me to the church.
I've written about the church, its past and the prospects for its future on the BBC News website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-28867884
Just back from a brief few days in Burma, now almost universally known as Myanmar - my first time there, and about the most interesting place I've ever been. It has stupendous Buddhist architecture (including the renowned Shwedagon Pagoda), about the most remarkable colonial architecture in its downtown area (most dilapidated but still standing) I've seen outside of Calcutta, and a very warm and friendly people.
Rangoon (now Yangon) was one of Asia's big trading centres during the colonial era - and attracted so many immigrants that prior to independence, the Burmese were a minority in the city. Most of the migrants were from India - there's still a large Indian population, though economically they are no longer the moves and shakers. The Chinese community is as numerous, and China's economic power more ubiquitous (and more resented).
Once Armenians and Baghdadi Jews played a crucial part in commerce here - there's still an Armenian church and a synagogue - now Japanese and Korean brand names are starting to intrude. But this remains an old fashioned city - most of the big international brands (Macdonalds, Starbucks) haven't made it here yet - the politics of the country, and the gradual liberalisation and opening up, hasn't advanced so far that observers would say there's no way back.
And Burma's turbulent modern history is everywhere at hand. The country suffered greater privation during World War Two than almost anywhere else in Asia. In the tourist markets, sets of Japanese printed wartime rupees for use in occupied Burma are among the most popular purchases. In July 1947, with the British back in charge, Burma's 32-year-old nationalist leader Aung San - the father of Aung San Suu Kyi - was assassinated along with several of his colleagues. Members of a militia controlled by a rival Burmse politician were responsible - and the gunmen, and their political master, were hanged. But it meant that when the country achieved independence a few months later, it had already been deprived of some of its commanding political figures.
A fascinating country, changing rapidly, and facing much uncertainty. More in coming weeks as I reflect on my handful of 'Burmese Days' (if you are wondering why that phrase has a familiar ring, it's the title of a George Orwell novel).
The painting, by the way, I bought for a very reasonable sum at Yangon's Bogyoke (it means General) Aung San market. I like it, and the city it depicts.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
Welcome - read - comment - throw stones - pick up threads - and tell me how to do this better!