With such a high concentration of colonial era buildings it can be so easy to walk pass a building and be utterly unaware of its former significance to the city. The Guardian Press Building is made even more anonymous by relatively recent cladding which hides most of its prominent architectural structures making it appear as if it was only built in the 1990’s.
And yet this now unprepossessing building has a remarkable history.
The Bangladeshi writer and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore made three visits to the British colony of Burma in the 1920’s. On one of these visits on March 24th 1924, he stayed at the Guardian Press building and left an appreciation note in a form of a poem dedicated to his hosts and the city:
‘Thou hast made me known to friends whom I knew not / Thou hast given me shelter in houses not my own. / Thou hast brought the distant near / And made a brother of the stranger.’
The poem was later inscribed on a stone tablet and erected inside the building.
The building’s second period of fame came with the arrival of the Guardian. Easily recognisable with white covers and red bands and with serious reportage and award-winning fiction, The Guardian was Myanmar’s leading English language journal in the 1950’s. Older copies of the Guardian are still prized by collectors in the city for their short stories commissioned by many of the prominent writers of the time.
(Useful tip: If you ask, Bagan Bookhouse and New Vision Books on 37th Street will often keep a stack of Guardian’s somewhere).
As with all the journals during the socialist era, The Guardian suffered and by the time it shut down in 2004, it was a shadow of its former self.
With its closure, the building entered a long phase of abandonment, with various tenants coming and going. In 2016, the Ministry of Information apparently gifted the building to a Dutch/Norwegian literary enterprise headed by the Hedda Foundation looking to convert the site into a House of Literature (not to be confused with the city’s already existing House of Literature, the Sarpay Beikmann) with a bookshop, a café, a workshop venue, etc (again, all things provided by the existing, indigenous House of Literature!).
The Hedda Foundation, after an initial flurry of excited blog and facebook posts have gone silent over the last couple of years, while in 2018, another Ministry of Information statement reiterated their intention of turning into a literary centre though with no mention of Hedda’s involvement. It is likely that no such centre will be found in the building in the years to come.
Happily though, the building has come full circle, as the Myanmar Press Council, an independent body of journalists acting as a bridge between their profession and an increasingly litigious government moved their offices into the west side of the building, with a local GAD department on the right.
If you can find the building – I walked past it several times, convinced simply by appearances that it just can’t have been built a hundred years ago – ask one of the men who usually sit on the steps outside for the Tagore poem inscription and they are usually happy to let you inside to have a look.
Address: 392, Merchant Street, Botahtaung Township, Yangon, Myanmar