I chose ‘Interesting Places of the Past in Yangon’ for the first of the non-fiction reviews for its ‘every-book’ qualities. There is a common thread in many non-fiction books in translation from Myanmar; usually a collection of previously published articles in a journal; slim and invariably either focused on culture, travel spots or religious history.
There could be numerous reasons for this. Under the previous governments, censorship policies made books on festivals and Buddhist temples safe ground. They were unlikely to be censored and slotted into the Ministry of Information’s rules regarding how writers can contribute to the uplifting of the Burmese character and nation.
With low fees for article submissions, a republished collection is also a handy secondary income source.
Maung Khine Zaw’s ‘Interesting Places of the Past in Yangon’, is a characteristic example of this style. At less than a hundred pages, it begins as a tour guide for foreigners, (or ‘globetrotters’, as Maung Khine Zaw calls them) with a surprisingly error strewn recollection of Myanmar’s history; the first Bagan kingdom did not extend to the present day borders of Myanmar; Myanmar wasn’t the first colony to achieve independence from Great Britain; the New Light of Myanmar is not the only English Language newspaper.
As usual with these types of collections, there has been little to no editing in the selection of the articles and repetitious accounts of buildings and historical dates are frequent, though this is more the fault of the publisher than the author. While there is a loose theme tying the book together – one of buildings and their purpose – the string is slack and fails to pull the seemingly arbitrary architectural samples in a coherent manner.
A longer section on the history of cinema halls in Yangon is comprehensive and well-researched, a form that really should have been applied to the rest of the book. From there, the narrative descends into a simple list with an ever decreasing textual commitment, as if the author has saved those buildings he knows the least to the last.
None of this really matters though, as the strength of the book is in the curious details that you never really discover in works on Myanmar by those writing from the outside. Scattered between the dull, Maung Khine Zaw recalls moments of irresistible oddities such as the foreigner in 1959 who rode a motorcycle over a nylon rope stretched between the top of City Hall and the central clock-tower of the fire-station opposite.
These common collections of articles, though weak and impractical in form, should be prized by English readers for their familiarity with the obscure. Where else could you learn about the American in 1962 who somehow froze the pitch at Aung San football stadium in ice and performed a series of ‘Holiday on Ice’ musical shows?
Today Publishing House is probably among the largest publishers in Myanmar for their output of English language books, especially through their ‘Today Series’, of which Maung Khine Zaw’s book is number 16. The books themselves vary in quality. Interesting Places of the Past in Yangon is a standard publication. A slim volume at 99 pages with wood-chip ivory paper which warps near the spine as if damp. They have included ten of images of Yangon from various periods, but the images are small and faded and would have benefited from a larger scan size. The front cover is attractive enough and the type font used legible. There are no discernible smudges, streaks or marks from the printer, which is usually a mark of the Today’s publications.
Title: Interesting Places of the Past in Yangon
Author: Maung Khine Zaw
Publisher: Today Publishing House
Pub. Date: November 2015, 1st Edition
Circulation: 500 Copies
Price: 2500 MMK