Words by: Cristina Maria Chiorean
Windows of Yangon: Standing Against Time is a photography essay which unfolded over two months during Myanmar’s dry season, starting in January 2016. The old city of Yangon is mostly known for its bustling street life and amazing colonial architecture. As a tourist, you are often swept away by the noise and the people around you. You will be intrigued by the unusual things people sell, carry, cook or eat and you will most certainly forget to look up.
However, while walking on the perpendicular and numerically named streets, an inheritance of the British past, I frequently forgot about the buzz and commotion around me allowing my eyes to take in the architecture of the different houses. In each street I walked in I could see the beautifully old structures built as early as the beginning of the 20th century unfolding in front of me.
Most windows and balconies found in downtown are reminiscent from a wealthy period. They are part of old colonial buildings, which were constructed by the British settlers or the Indian and the Chinese traders. Some structures, squeezed between the old ones, are relatively new and have glass and mosaic facades with exaggerated ornamentation. Most of the windows are protected by iron bars.
My photographs only render windows and balconies which are part of heritage houses or buildings hosting apartments. There are many beautiful windows of structures occupied by public or private institutions or businesses. But these were not part of my project.
My intention was to photograph the windows as seen from the street, by the passersby, sometimes just a part of them was visible and the rest remained hidden because of the height of the buildings, or trees, or the countless wires or the laundry hung out to dry. The balconies are a very distinct and visible part of the houses and offer more than a hint of the social condition and cultural background of some of the inhabitants of Yangon.
The windows and balconies regularly change their appearance as they are used to dry strings of colourful clothes or to store household items. At a first glance windows and balconies appear colourful and sometimes even beautiful, but when taking a closer look, you realise that the colours and contours have been redrawn by the passage of time which confers them a somewhat melancholic feel. You then start to wonder -given the obvious lack of maintenance over the years, whether the buildings are even fit to house people and families. On many buildings, plants and even small size trees have grown roots on the facade, often through the damaged wooden frames of doors and windows.
Yangon has a dry and a rainy season which splits the year in two. The long rainy spells leave traces on the facade of most houses with the moisture transforming the painting of the walls into dark and unhealthy spots of mould. Due to their meagre incomes, people rarely have the money to restore and maintain the outside walls of the apartments or houses. I have never stepped inside a downtown flat to see if the unhealthy mould is also present inside. Most apartments in downtown are rented. That is why you often notice different splashes of colours on the same building, as the different tenants cover the outside wall of the their apartment in their own favourite colour. You wonder about the condition of the roof and the water leaks the people need to brave during the long monsoon season. I also asked myself how safe it is to live within arm’s length of a thicket of electrical cables just in front of your window. Digging deeper into the subject you wonder if the structure of the house will survive a possible earthquake, if the plumbing still works properly and if the staircase is safe enough especially for the older inhabitants. The presence of rats and the foul smell resulting from the ineffective garbage collection and poor sanitation are so common that after a while you no longer give them any second thought.
The windows are left open most of the time to allow fresh air to get through. It also means someone is at home. I often notice spry ladies hanging clothes or carefree children playing on the balconies.The windows and balconies are the place from where to watch the outside commotion, to chit-chat with the neighbours or just to pick up a newspaper which was hung onto the rope that goes all the way down to the street level. This rope is in fact the letter-box. At the end of the rope, at street level, a clasp is attached that can hold newspapers and other items that are then pulled upwards. Once an item is hung the person on the street pulls gently and a bell inside the house rings. Often, when someone needs to pass a message or give something quickly they do not climb the stairs but pull the rope and the conversation takes place from the window or balcony.
Now and then I see people sitting on their balcony, mostly older people. The aged ladies are the most graceful and enrich the scenery with their presence. They are impassive, and if their weak eyes notice me they seem indifferent, their glance passing through me. They sit quietly on a chair and most of the time concentrate on the street below, lost in their thoughts. The old balcony with the washed painting mirrors the passage of time and these old ladies, with their wrinkled and kind faces, are the silent witnesses of a prosperous colonial past. With some tenants I interact, showing them politely I wish to take a photograph of their window or balcony. The reaction varies from impassibility to eagerness bust most of the time they are shy and prefer to disappear inside.
Yangon is truly a city of diversity which is shown at its best in the downtown area. It is a melting pot where tradition meets modern, where the different ethnic communities live together in a frenzy characteristic to the developing countries and where people from different social backgrounds are neighbours. The downtown is the home of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians with clearly distinctive streets and Indian and Chinese quarters.
During the end of the project I started to become sensitized to the fact that not enough of this heritage is being restored, too much is left to ruin and too many old buildings are being demolished to make space for new projects often built-in a rush to make a quick profit. Restoring these old buildings is a matter of survival both for the communities living inside and for the tumultuous history of this city where colonialism, trade, war, oppression and the first glimpses of democracy are reflected in the living windows and balconies of downtown. I recommend you to purposefully get lost on the streets of downtown in search of these wonderful houses with unique architecture, beautifully patterned windows, sumptuous balconies enriched with skillful woodwork which will bring happiness both to you and to the friendly inhabitants who sometimes will proudly exclaim in perfect English “This is a very, very old house!”.
About the Author:
Cristina Maria Chiorean is an amateur photographer currently living in Yangon, Myanmar. During her many walks in downtown Yangon she came to discover the beautiful and unique windows of the city. She decided to photograph 100 of them during a two months project called “Windows of Yangon: Standing Against Time”. The present photography essay reviews a selection of the photographs.