STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's an upside of living in an isolated country. It preserves your old-school architecture. Myanmar was disconnected for decades from much of the global economy. While other Asian cities built giant, glass office towers, Myanmar's largest city did not. Yangon still has many British colonial-era buildings from when the city was called Rangoon. Now Myanmar is opening up, which means its architectural heritage is at risk. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This is a Pansodan Street, in the heart of Yangon. And right now I'm looking out over several blocks of big colonial buildings. They've got tall Greek columns, domes. At the end of the street, there's a tower with a red tile roof. There's also a lot of Art Deco trim and balconies. And as you look around, you feel like you're back in the 1920s.
TINT LWIN: These buildings are priceless.
LANGFITT: Tint Lwin has taught English here for more than three decades. He works in the building along the street with ochre-colored walls and Corinthian columns, which dates to 1906. He loves the atmosphere, but worries it won't last. A modern mid-rise is going up across the road. The walls in his building are pitted with black mold. And rainwater has soaked through the ceilings, leaving gaping holes.
LWIN: I've been very unhappy because of the negligence. If the roofing leaks out and then deteriorated, the rain will leak and destroy the whole structure.
LANGFITT: The British constructed most of these buildings in their own image when they ran the country. But Tint Lwin doesn't see them as symbols of oppression. He sees them as part of Myanmar's heritage.
LWIN: You can't be xenophobic. These are our assets. This British architecture is a unique one. Almost all of Myanmar like these buildings.
LANGFITT: Including the punk rocker, who lives on the fourth floor. Muang Nyan is wearing a black My Chemical Romance t-shirt while he practices a Ramones tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO BE SEDATED")
MUANG NYAN: (Singing) Twenty, 20, 24 hours to go. I want to be sedated.
LANGFITT: At 19, he's rebellious by Burmese standards. But when it comes to construction, he's a traditionalist.
NYAN: (Foreign language spoken).
LANGFITT: Because of the valuable architecture, I prefer this kind of old building to new buildings, he says. I'm also proud to live here. If it's possible, I'd like to stay here until I die.
THANT MYINT-U: My name is Thant Myint-U. I'm the chairman and founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust.
LANGFITT: Yangon is a rarity in a part of the world where fast economic growth has transformed skylines within a generation.
MYINT-U: What we have, especially in downtown Yangon, is one of the last remaining intact 19th and early 20th-century urban landscapes anywhere in the region.
LANGFITT: The Trust is trying to prevent Yangon from following the path of Singapore or Hong Kong, where most of the colonial architecture has been obliterated. Thant Myint-U says in recent years, soaring real estate prices have driven the destruction of scores of old buildings here.
MYINT-U: The reason I got involved in this issue is because I saw some of these buildings being knocked down for really no reason. I mean, a developer, who could easily have built something a few blocks down, decided to knock down an old building because there was no sense in the value of these buildings.
LANGFITT: The Trust is working with the city to develop a zoning law - Yangon didn't have one - and designate more buildings for protection. But preservation costs a lot of money. So Thant Myint-U says the city needs to tap private investment and turn old buildings into moneymakers such as hotels, museums and restaurants.
That's what the owners of Gekko are doing. The Japanese restaurant opened this year in the same building where the punk rocker lives. After decades of neglect, renovation took a lot of work. When co-owner Nicco Elliott first opened the restaurant's back door onto a courtyard, it wasn't pretty.
NICCO ELLIOTT: We were up to about there, a meter and a half high in sewage, with a large colony of rats running around.
LANGFITT: Elliott and his partner sunk more than $300,000 into the place. The government approval process was time-consuming, mostly focused on fees.
ELLIOTT: They weren't really interested in what we were doing. It seemed that they were more interested in how much cash was coming their way.
LANGFITT: The result, though, resembles an upper-end restaurant you'd find in London or New York, with preserved colonial touches like the century-old exposed I-beams from Scotland. Both labor cost and rent in these dilapidated buildings are low. So, Elliott says, a well-run business can make a profit margin of more than 30 percent, which would be considered terrific anywhere.
ELLIOTT: I hope these kind of projects are the beginning of more people coming in and realizing that spending a little bit more than you'd spend on a new-build is worthwhile, to actually preserve something and sustain this place and these buildings.
LANGFITT: City officials insist they do support preservation but say working with public opinion is tricky. Some people have opposed renovation projects on historical grounds, like these lawyers who were protesting turning an abandoned courthouse into a luxury hotel. Some residents, on the other hand, want their buildings knocked down so they can get new modern apartments in exchange. Toe Aung runs the city's new urban planning division.
TOE AUNG: We have to take time to change their minds on this. And we have to take time to preserve. But we can't take much time because these will be ruined within a short period.
ELLIOTT: Literally, the next few months or the next year is going to be absolutely critical.
LANGFITT: The city has recently drafted its first plan to limit the height of new buildings. Thant Myint-U of the Heritage Trust says the government has to enact zoning and conservation laws this year to protect buildings, even in the face of developer opposition. At stake, he says, is not just what Yangon will look like in a few years, but how it will appear in the decades to come. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.