By: Chris Hnin
At the corner of Merchant St and Pansodan St, there is a building that tells a tale.
It is hard to notice this robust architectural marvel when you walk down the uneven and betel-stained streets in downtown Yangon. Its facade, plastered by trespassing moss.Its corners, decorated by generous layers of grime. Its tall mustard walls have started to fade with years of glare. Truly, a crowning jewel of a time that’s passed.
This is the Sofaer Building. Owned by a wealthy Jewish luxury goods trader from Baghdad in the 1900s, this handsome structure had been a bustling business hub. From financial consultancy firms to famed photo studios, one can only imagine the richness of its history that is now lost with generations ahead of us. From the tattered shell that remains today, it is hard to re-enact the scenes of the early mixes of the East and the West – of locals who had started to appreciate Western tea in the swanky cafes in this complex or of expats who had started to wear the Burmese paso. I wonder. How was it like then? The “then” when “Burma” was an affluent British country which celebrated the largest volumes of rice export in the whole world, where people cheered of good fortune, education, healthcare and welfare. How was it like to be alive in the same space?
I stepped foot into this building one slow afternoon with my sister.
Tiles imported from Manchester that have lasted a century’s footstep.
Although the building yearns for a great scrub and much care, I was pleasantly surprised to see the life within it. Lokanat Galleries, located on the First floor, is one of the most well-known tenants today. It is a pretty exciting space for local artists to showcase their works; thanks to the artists that have dedicated to building up this non-profit gallery, it has been up and running for the past decade. Prior to the recent move of government offices to Naypyitaw, the space has also housed some sort of ministry or chapter here. But, now that they have moved, our little escapade here is greeted with a charming serenity. There is little human activity here in the building.
My sister had wanted me to come see this building for myself. I trailed behind her, stopping ever so often to snap a picture of this and that. She led me up the squeaky and poorly-lit teak staircases, past tall and wide windows, and finally arriving at a little cafe that hid well behind an old broken iron elevator.
I use the word ‘cafe’ loosely to get the broad understanding of a place which sells coffee/tea and some sort of confectionery. But this little place was more a makeshift “teashop” that had filled up the in-between spaces; the corridors. It serves freshly brewed coffee and tea, tailored to fit your taste bud for intensity and sweetness. It also serves toast, which one can order to have plain or with butter and sugar.
In this little corridor on the Second floor, the tea-master pulls each little cup of coffee and tea with a kind of indescribable skill, perhaps a passion. His wife sits on a nearby chair, reading the papers. His son serves the two tiny cups of coffee and tea that my sister and I had ordered respectively. My sister chats them up, starting a whole exchange of questions and answers. We learn that business is slow due to the lack of government officials in the premise who had been their regular customers. We learn about how they had been operating their cafe here for the past decade. We learn foreigners often stop by to take pictures at this place. In return, they learn we were not Japanese like they first thought us to be. They learn that they were once featured briefly in CNN in a piece about old heritage buildings. They also learnt that we liked their coffee and tea.
In this slow afternoon in Yangon city, my sister and I sat at this little cafe appreciating the charm of the Sofaer building, its affluence and radiance lost with the death of the building. We sat there observing the new life that has sprung in the in-betweens; it is not a bad life. I think it the circle of life. Just like how the seeds of a withered plant can grow into a new plant, the building has indeed gone full circle. Where the undoubtedly wealthy Jewish trader once celebrated his successful business, a pair of sisters come through the same doors to eventually write a blog entry about it a century later. I wonder, had he picture what this building would be a century after its completion? I wonder if he had descendants that lost possession of this crowning jewel of Merchant St.
We spent about a good hour there. My sister engaging in a hearty conversation with the aged couple, and I, drawing. Lokanat Gallery, Soffer Building
No.62, Pansodan Street, Kyauktada Tsp., Yangon, Myanmar.