An authoritative and poetic insight into the streets of Yangon
By: Sondang Grace Sirait
If there was ever one book that purportedly held the magical secret of downtown Yangon, we may have discovered it, at last.
In his newly launched book entitled “Walking the Streets of Yangon: The people, stories & hidden treasures of downtown cosmopolitan Yangon (Rangoon)”, author Bob Percival claims to provide a guide to walking downtown streets of Yangon, presenting the stories of the streets and the people that live in them.
Rightfully so. Percival is well known for his blog, and also column on the monthly magazine Myanmore InDepth, documenting the streets in the north-south grid of the colonial British-rebuilt downtown Yangon.
“Physically walking the streets, and talking to the people in the streets, is the most rewarding way of experiencing a city”
Much like his column, the book is a personal reflection of his love of walking and discovering the treasures behind every encounter he has ever made. His language is authoritative and poetic; the knowledge of his adopted hometown evident.
“The air is cool after last night’s first rain of the year, an early mango rain heralding Thingyan, which floods the streets with a mixture of pure rainwater and putrid rubbish, piled up over the months since last rainy season. This is the Yangon we know,” he wrote in an entry on 14th Street.
“At the bottom of 14th Street, at Strand Road there is a sign placed beside two large plastic YCDC garbage bins, listing in Burmese, a range of escalating fines for dumping rubbish. A bundle of saparhnan, unhusked paddy rice, hangs up nearby for sparrows to eat, providing good merit for all. Some Burmese lettering on the wall next to the saparhnan declares: Patience – Love – Loyalty.”
Throughout its 189 pages, the book invites its readers to dance to rhythms made up of different, albeit teasing elements.
In ‘Odds and Ends’ Percival introduces us to characters often taken for granted, and through photographs, such as those on the art of betel nut chewing, he also speaks volumes about the magnitude of the local culture.
In ‘Impressions of Rangoon’, Percival skillfully calls upon the ghosts of Yangon Past, describing the elegance of the nineteenth-century colonial city through the eyes of literature giants such as Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Pablo Neruda.
“[It] was an attempt to bring back to life one particular day in Rangoon spent by a famous author. I researched thoroughly so the journey that day of the author is as historically correct as possible, including buildings and street names plus historical events. My first attempt was George Orwell’s last day in Burma before he went back to England,” explains Percival.
Here’s how he fashioned the thoughts and impressions of Orwell in July 1927.
“He breathes in the air, but it’s the air of Rangoon, not Notting Hill. Soon he’ll be boarding the steamer back to London and have fresh sea air in his lungs as he crosses the Bay of Bengal. He’s sick with influenza, caught in the monsoon jungles up north, giving him excuse to escape. There’s the thought of the book he’s begun to write; it flashes against the grey sky that is choking with the clouds that will bring the afternoon rain, flooding the streets, and flushing out the rats as big as cats. The book will be his exorcism of Burma.”
The idea to write the book, Percival says, came naturally. Four years ago, he had moved to Yangon from China, where he was pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing and working on a novel set in contemporary China.
“Myanmar was an escape from the soulless atmosphere of China. The people here seemed so friendly, where money was not the most important factor and censorship restrictions were far fewer,” he says.
Right from the start, he started feeling at ease wandering about town. “I loved Yangon instantly, though I knew no-one here and lived in the old YMCA for the first six months. I love the street life, the energy of the city with everyone excited due to the Opening Up. It was a city you could easily walk, meet people and discover the incredible history here,” says Percival, who names the Indian Quarter and Chinatown as his favorite parts of the city.
It took him practically four years to do research and two years to write the book, all the while exploring every alley way and stairway with the help of local friends.
“When I write about a street, I walk the street for up to three hours with Burmese friends, who act as an interpreter and connection with the people I meet,” he says. “Doing this walk together with these friends has been an essential part of the writing.”
Take it from a man who’s done his part and paid his dues. Walking may be the best form of exploring any city, and Yangon is no exception. “Physically walking the streets, and talking to the people in the streets, is the most rewarding way of experiencing a city,” he says.
Walking the Streets of Yangon: The people, stories & hidden treasures of downtown cosmopolitan Yangon (Rangoon)” is now available at Rangoon Teahouse, Pansuriya, Hla Day, Press Office cafe, Easy cafe, and large bookstores in Yangon. Percival is now planning to do a second book that covers more streets.