The Big Issue : Edition 505
26 THEBIGISSUE19FEB–3MAR2016 WHAT WAS ONCE Burma is now Myanmar. Its largest city, Yangon, was formerly Rangoon. It is a country where past and present are intertwined; a country with a rich history. A primer for one chapter might be Burmese Days (1934), the novel George Orwell wrote after spending much of the 1920s as a young policeman based in the country when it was part of the British Empire (independence came in 1948) and a major trading hub. For decades, it really did seem that all roads in the commercial world led to Mandalay. Now, another book – Yangon Echoes, by Tim Webster and Virginia Henderson, a pair of Australasians living in Myanmar – uses personal stories to depict and explore the ways in which the past is increasingly a casualty of the demands of the present. In their introduction, the authors write: “Culture and heritage are inseparable. At heart, they are always about ways of life. This book celebrates the contribution of the many different people who have made their homes in Yangon... This is a journey of networked yarns, an illuminated thread of Yangon’s heritage tapestry.” Although the book’s sub-title is ‘Inside Heritage Homes’, this is far from being a Grand Designs-style project. As they put it: “This anthology records everyday life through domestic connection to old places. It is a popular history of buildings, charting social space and urban folklore, linking past to present via living memories.” As Webster, who contributed a ‘Roving Eye’ on Iran in Ed#377, explains: “We originally went there to volunteer (unassisted) with heritage conservation efforts three years ago. We bought bicycles the first day we got there, and a few months in went our own way, collecting stories from people we met living in old homes. (It was good timing, since a few years earlier the police might have knocked on their door late at night enquiring why they were talking to foreigners.) It didn’t start out as a book but we received encouragement, got referred to people and enjoyed learning about the diversity of the city.” As Myanmar experiences dramatic changes, especially since the lifting of economic sanctions in 2011, Webster and Henderson believe the notion of “home” is being challenged. They write: “Beyond bricks and bamboo, homes are repositories of feelings and memories, of values and meanings. Home is a stage for household players, entering and exiting family lives. Most homes in this book are more than 100 years old, a mix of humble and grand places, some lovingly maintained, others completely derelict... Private rooms, shacks, apartments and houses, family and government buildings are visited. There are houses that were originally homes but now are not, and buildings that weren’t intended as homes but are today. “Our storytellers speak of joy and tragedy, simple pleasures and aching issues. They share thoughts and feelings of living through Yangon’s emergence from decades of stagnation to engagement with a rapidly spinning world.” » See also riverbooksbk.com and timwebster.com.au. “SONNY” U KYAW SEIN HLA (LEFT) WITH THE WOODEN FAMILY HOME THAT IS A COUPLE OF YEARS OLDER THAN HE IS.