YANGON, Myanmar — They stand like ghosts from a bygone era, struggling to maintain a shabby dignity in the face of creeping foliage and years of neglect, all the while fueling a debate: Should they be protected as rare treasures or leveled as worthless junk?
Preservationists fear that Yangon's several hundred colonial-era buildings, a legacy of the British Empire at its height, will succumb to voracious Chinese property developers with a history of building tacky shopping malls for a quick buck.
Several low- and mid-market malls have sprouted up in recent years, most a few miles from the run-down, old downtown area where the vintage buildings are concentrated, raising concern that Yangon will become just another noisy, ugly Asian city of mini-malls and sprawl.
"As more money comes in, particularly Chinese money, we'll see wholesale demolition," said Ian Morley, a research assistant professor of urban history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "Yangon presents itself as a city that time forgot. But I'd say it's a city that captured time."
Most of Yangon's colonial-era Baroque and Beaux Arts-style buildings — the largest collection in Southeast Asia — were erected between 1900 and 1920. After the 1948 independence of Burma, as Myanmar was formerly called, they housed government agencies — until 2005, when Myanmar's secretive military government relocated the capital 200 miles north to Naypyidaw, hastening the buildings' decay.
Some of the buildings are now caged behind chain-link fences, windows sagging and roofs collapsed, the smell of crumbled brick and rotting wood wafting onto the broken sidewalks. Others still stand proud, like the Immigration Building, once among Asia's largest department stores, and the stately red High Court building with its six-story clock tower, yellow detailing and domed roof.
Although many Asian cities would welcome such a legacy to distinguish themselves, vision remains in short supply in a country struggling to build basic housing. Nor are all the 200-plus buildings worth saving, most agree, given the longtime deterioration, uneven quality and outdated layouts often unsuited to modern lifestyles.
"People must recognize that life moves on and not try to turn this into Disneyland," said Amelie Chai, American co-principal of Yangon-based Spine Architects who, with her Burmese husband, oversaw the renovation of the Myanmar Times newspaper building.
The military government placed 189 religious and colonial-era buildings on a preservation list in 2001, but saving old buildings isn't its top priority, given ethnic unrest, criticism over November's rigged election and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's recent release after years in detention.
"Anyone can make a list," said Chris Davy, a Myanmar Times photographer.
The regime mostly focuses on its new center, Naypyidaw, a shiny propaganda showcase that is largely bereft of history or character.
Yet local government and civic groups have some interest in preservation to bolster tourism. "There's huge potential," said Aung Myat Kyaw, marketing head of the Yangon-based Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board. "But it's difficult."
Those supporting preservation lack money, expertise or approval from the iron-fisted regime. "The problem is that orders come from other places," said Si Thu Mying Swe, a principal with Yangon's ST&T Architects. "You have to be careful not to rock the chairs."
Cities in neighboring countries, such as Malaysia's Malacca, have seen their restoration efforts energized after obtaining UNESCO World Heritage Site status. But that's unlikely here because of Myanmar's grim human rights record and pariah status abroad.
Rumors, often the only available information because of the regime's media restrictions, suggest that Chinese investors have purchased several downtown colonial sites to level and redevelop once Myanmar's consumer economy picks up.
Few expect the Chinese, who are Myanmar's closest ally and biggest investor, would be interested in preserving a colonial legacy bequeathed by a country with which China fought the Opium Wars.
Over at the 5th Street Bar in the dilapidated old downtown area, plaster has been stripped away to reveal original brickwork and expansive ceilings as part of one of the few completed renovations.
Other reconstruction projects include the elegant white Strand Hotel with its columns and elaborate covered walkway near the waterfront, reported to have cost $38 million, and $150,000 in renovations to the interior of the white Myanmar Times building, once a government printing office, opposite St. Mary's Cathedral.
"Chinese trading companies would rather destroy these and make a bright shiny office building," said Anthony Alderson, the 5th Street Bar's owner.
Renovations are expensive, and the government's stingy lease and visa policies with regard to foreigners discourage smaller investors from opening boutique hotels and up-market restaurants, Alderson and others said.
Local opinion on the buildings, difficult to gauge precisely in a nation without free media or any form of polling, seems ambivalent. "They're all right, but many are a bit old-fashioned and unsafe," said a teacher in front of the fenced-off red-brick Railway Administration Building.
Nor has Myanmar placed much value on preserving even its own traditional structures, some said, with new rulers frequently razing and rebuilding capital cities.
That's led some to question the "we know what's best for you" tone of preservation supporters.
"As foreigners, we really have to think about our own motives," said Davy, who hopes to photograph the structures before it's too late. "Admiring a run-down building is a lot different than living in a run-down building."
Aung Soe Min, owner of Yangon's Pansodan Gallery, unrolls several British and Japanese imperial maps in his collection, pointing out changes over the years to street names and the cityscape.
Far from appreciating a downtown once described as the "garden city of the East," he said, landlords here often underplay a building's age — the facade of his building reads 1995 rather than the 1936 reality — fearful of government condemnation. In March 2010, a 15-year-old girl was killed after a decrepit building on Shwe Bontha Street collapsed.
The downtown grid on which Yangon's colonial "golden mile" rests was laid down after 1860 by British planners who demolished local huts and filled in swamps. Over the next 60 years, courts, post offices, police stations, and customs and port authority buildings were erected.
Although a few Burmese architects, such as Si Thu U Tim, managed to incorporate some Burmese design elements, notably the multi-tier roofs and spires on City Hall and the Central Railway Station, most of the structures were designed by far-off British architects who never visited Yangon, then called Rangoon.
The British Empire had consolidated its position, with key social institutions "civilizing the natives," historians said. But the buildings also carried a subliminal message to locals: Be awed by Britain's power and superiority.
Vertical designs that carry the eye upward, together with oversized foundations evoking strength and permanence placed in a symmetrical grid demanding order and control, helped achieve this effect, architects and historians said.
"If you were Burmese in 1910, it would be quite awe-inspiring," Morley said.
Foreigners who fear Myanmar will repeat the West's urban planning mistakes, including ugly highways and slapped-together structures, say neighborhood groups, tourism companies, developers and the government should cooperate to save this valuable legacy. But optimism, along with the requisite budgets and political will, is difficult to come by.
"In reality, no one's really offering up an effective plan," Davy said. "I don't know anyone who holds out great hope."
(The writer is unidentified to protect those who work with him.)