The Balthazar’s lost grandeur
Rediscovering Rangoon’s old legal district
IS the building structurally sound?” asked a journalist.”hmm... yes,” answered U Thurein Aung, an historian working for the Yangon Heritage Trust, a non-governmental organisation tasked with the conservation of the former capital. We all noted the long pause in between the question and the answer, anxiously.
On January 17, the Yangon Heritage Trust, invited a group of journalists to participate in a tour to explore Yangon’s downtown areas.
The old part of town is full of secrets. There are stories and mysteries behind every Corinthian columns, every cupolas and clock towers. The Yangon Heritage Trust has made itself a mission of uncovering them for the wider public.
For this it offers two routes. Route A covers top sites in the central part of the city, including the City Hall, Mahabandoola Park and the Jewish Synagogue, while Route B gives an insights into the eastern part of downtown and the Secretariat, a former British administration building that later became the seat of the Burmese government after independence.
That day, journalists were invited to wander around the old legal district. The area on Bank Street, which was once called Shafraz Road, is full of colonial buildings. It use to be one of the most dynamic part of the city with the Kyauktada Township court and the Bank of India (now the Yangon stock exchange).
Led by U Thurein Aung, a seasoned historian, our tour began on lower Pansodan Street. Crossing Pansodan Street we visited the Kyauktada Township Court, a light blue three-storey domed building which was built in 1901 and used to house the Accountant General tasked with the levy of taxation.
A similar structure built in 1900 dominated the middle of Bank Street. It is the Pension Department. Originally, the building was adjoined to the Kyauktada Township Court. But the part that linked the two buildings disappeared during the Second World War, under Japanese bombs. Though I was born and raised in the downtown area, I had never noticed that glaring space in between the two edifices.
Our third stop was the Balthazar Building. I was immediately seized by an overwhelming feeling of sadness and sorrow. The Balthazar stands tall and proud, but is in a state of advanced decrepitude. None of the inhabitants seems to care for it. It is all the more noticeable since the New Law Courts, a former court of justice, is being turned into a five-star hotel. The trees all around the Balthazar seem to hide it from the public eye, as if this former gem was something to be hid nowadays.
Food stalls and small-scale printing service shops untidily roofed with tarpaulin surround the building, marring its grandeur. A betel seller sits on the right side of the entrance selling cigarettes while a tea shop opens on the left side of the entrance.
“The building was constructed by Armenians in 1905-1906. It was originally known as Balthazar Building and owned by a rich auctioneer. The family occupied the building till 1918,” said U Thurein Aung. An Indian family took over the building in 1918. In the 1960s, the site was nationalised and hosts ministries.
“The building still has its own original marble floors and cast iron stairs. An elevator, one of the oldest ones in Yangon, can be found there,” U Thurein Aung went on explaining.
The interior suffered neglect for decades. Its stairs are full of holes, iron rods protrude from the surfaces of the roof, and toilet waste pipes spring leaks. Rats are scavenging through foul-smelling rubbish pile that residents upstairs drop into an open space in the middle of the building. The elevator has not moved for years and is gathering dust on the ground floor. For a minute I wondered how such a beautiful piece of architecture could be left in such a state and why the people living in it were not preserving it the best they could.
After the renovation of the New Law Courts and flurry of buzzing new shops that will come with it, the Balthazar’s sorry state will stand out even more.
The building belongs to the Department of Urban and Housing Development. Half of it is used as housing for officers of the Yangon Region’s Fisheries Department and the other half serves as offices.
“The building is generally strong. But it badly needs renovation,” U Thurein Aung said – my colleagues questions about safety was far-fetched.
U Myintthein, the ward administrator, was born in the building in 1963. “My father was disciple of a lawyer who used to work in the building. He was honest and hardworking so the lawyer allowed us to live in the building,” U Myint Thein said.
Before the former New Law Courts underwent renovation, lawyers would cross the road to attend court hearings. This is why half of the first and second floors are being occupied by law firms and lawyers’ offices.
“The rental fee is very cheap here,” said Daw Htet Htet Oo Myint, a lawyer who has an office in the Balthazar Building. With a K40,000 per month rent for about 7 feet square room, it is indeed a steal. He occupies the office with two of his colleagues. The hall on the second floor is partitioned into many small offices.
“Even when the electricity stops, there is an adequate light and ventilation in the room. I like the place because it is quiet and cool,” she said.
She accepts her ordinary clients at her office at Balthazar Building. But she usually welcomes her rich and upper-class clients at the cafeteria around the Bank Street – for lawyers, appearance matters, in court and elsewhere.
Does Balthazar still have something to offer? Just getting out of the building, we finished the tour waking past Mahabandoola Park. the City Hall and the Independence Monument. We glanced at the Mughal Shia Jamay Masjid and paid a visit to Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue and Bogyoke Market, but I could not get the Balthazar out of my head. I was curious to know what will the old glorious building become.
“As the Yangon Heritage Trust is a nongovernmental organisation, we cannot say what to do with the building but only make suggestions. Being located at the opposite of the newly renovated hotel, this building is ideal for retail and training facilities focused on traditional arts and crafts, or even a small crafts museum. Limited food and beverages use could also be considered. But it will only happen with the approval of the government and with private support,” said U Thurein Aung after the tour.
On my way back to the office, I imagine 19th century merchant coming up and down the Balthazar, consulting lawyers on how to secure their transaction or take failing parties to court just opposite the street. I wish the Balthazar find its former glory and gets renovated soon to accommodate customers and tourists. But then I spared a thought for the lawyer enjoying a very affordable rent at the heart of Yangon. Downtown remains a place where rich and poor rub shoulders and where the old meet the new.
Inside the Balthazar:
Outside view of the Balthazar.