17 Dec 2016: Yangon Echoes: Inside Heritage Homes

“The rich tapestry of multicultural Yangon is reflected wonderfully in this brilliant book, a fusion of intangible and tangible heritage that is often overlooked in architectural studies of cities.” – William Logan, Professor Emeritus, Deakin University, Melbourne

My first reaction to Rangoon, now a sad and skeletal city renamed Yangon, was disbelief. There was a human pathos in a city that had faded in the years I’d been away, something more elderly, almost senile The decrepitude of the buildings is almost grand. The surfaces are shabby, but the shapes are extravagant, and the workmanship is obvious. – Paul Theroux

The beautifully illustrated Yangon Echoes: Inside Heritage Homes, our featured book, is the fruit of a two-year research by Virginia Henderson, an oral historian, and partner Tim Webster, a photographer. Featuring over 100 colour photographs and annotations, the informal stories in Yangon Echoes link past to present via living memories as told through the stories of everyday folk going about their daily lives, feeding families, getting children to school and earning a living. A journey of networked yarns, the 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. Told with courage and charm, these informal stories of home offer insight into what has happened, and is happening to the city.

“It gradually grew upon us what interesting stories these buildings contained. And so we started to take a much more human perspective to the whole thing. Oral history values personal interpretation, the subjective over the objective – it speaks of events as remembered and told to us by our elders, sometimes highly personal and intimate, yet full of meaning. Institutions and governments often charge themselves with the task of deciding what relics are important enough to be preserved. Such selections are contrived to project a national narrative; the voices, stories and ideas of common folk are frequently unheard.”

A cursory glance at the cover and title might tempt one into thinking that this book is a guide to heritage buildings. The contents go far beyond that – Yangon Echoes is a warm invitation into the lives of the many different people who have made their homes in Yangon, a rare chance to spend time with them and experience their struggles to survive what has happened in Yangon over time, and to reveal the pressures on this city’s people and its heritage today. “Despite our own limitations”, say the authors, “we hope we have done them justice.”

Virginia Henderson and Tim Webster visited Penang in November 2016 to present an illustrated talk about Yangon Echoes at the Penang Heritage Trust.

About the authors: Originally from New Zealand, Virginia Henderson has lived in Southeast Asia for more than 25 years. An oral historian with a doctorate in heritage management, she is a founding member of Serious Fun, a volunteer group fostering the Yangon social circus movement with circus skills training for young people of mixed ability in marginalized communities. Australian writer and photographer Tim Webster is experienced in archival heritage documentation and journalism. In January 2013, he and Virginia moved to Yangon to volunteer with the Yangon Heritage Trust for three months.