The Balt­hazar’s lost grandeur

Re­dis­cov­er­ing Ran­goon’s old le­gal dis­trict

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend|heritage - Pho­tos: Aungmyin Yezaw BY ZON PANN PWINT

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.

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