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Journalist Philip Heijmans’s book documents both the beautiful and the crumbling and depressing. Philip Heijmans
Journalist Philip Heijmans’s book documents both the beautiful and the crumbling and depressing. Philip Heijmans

Documenting the relics of a disappearing city

In many ways, Yangon and Phnom Penh are similar cities. They are both cultural and financial capitals. They both neighbour huge rivers. European powers once controlled and built large swathes of them and a bird’s-eye view of each sweaty city is a clash of the stained with the shiny, the old with the new.

Like Phnom Penh, Myanmar is undergoing rapid change, with much of its historic buildings being replaced by apartment complexes and malls. It was in a bid to document these disappearing reminders of the city’s past that US journalist Philip Heijmans embarked on his new book, Relics of Rangoon, which launches on Thursday at Meta House.

“At Meta House I am hoping to display about 25 pictures that aim to depict Yangon’s diverse colonial architecture: the well-maintained and the beautiful, to the crumbling and depressing,” Heijmans said this week. The first of the photos – there are about 800 displayed in his nearly 400-page, hardcover, 25x30 centimetre book – were taken three years ago, though most were shot after 2014.

For the project, Heijmans, a freelance journalist, focused on 200 historical buildings in Yangon. In the architecture, he found histories.

The skyline of Yangon is rapidly changing. Philip Heijmans
The skyline of Yangon is rapidly changing. Philip Heijmans

“What surprised me was how the stories of each of these buildings were so different and representative of such a wide array of diverse voices that existed [in Yangon] under British rule. From Muslims, to Catholics, Armenians, Persians, Europeans and Chinese, old Rangoon had them, and they all made their mark on this relatively small city,” he said.

Heijmans, who worked as a reporter in Phnom Penh prior to moving to Yangon, draws parallels between the two colonial capitals.

“In both, you see buildings disappearing,” he said. “Phnom Penh is basically unrecognizable compared to the golden years before the Khmer Rouge. It drives me nuts to see such carelessness for one’s own heritage, especially because the main driving force behind the destruction is corruption and money, and believe me, we are all too familiar with that concept in Myanmar.”

“I hope readers will use this book to see [Yangon’s heritage], beyond just the obvious iconic structures like the Secretariat,” he added.

The Phnom Penh book launch for Relics of Rangoon is at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard, on Thursday, May 12, at 7pm. The book will be available for purchase at the launch for $65 and at Monument Books for $75.

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