Friday, August 18, 2017

Yaw Min Gyi area growing in line with foreign tastes

A stroll down Yaw Min Gyi Street in Dagon township is a time lapse in action that doubles as a succinct progress report showcasing the invincible health of Yangon’s booming property development.

A woman walks past a string of recently opened Western shops in Yaw Min Gyi. Photo: Aung Htay HlaingA woman walks past a string of recently opened Western shops in Yaw Min Gyi. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing

Crumbling red-brick villas, with cavernous bay-windows eyeing the hungry jungle vines that do a better job holding the structure together than the decades-old mortar, give way to shiny new condo developments careening ever upward.

Street barbeque stalls with well-worn and precariously cracked plastic stools are fading into smart cafes that serve pizza and burgers and boast hipster-chic lighting installations.

As the international eye of investment turns to Myanmar, the influxes of expats here are finding a home in this area on and around Yangon’s Yaw Min Gyi Street.

Nestled north of gridlocked downtown and behind the iconic Parkroyal Hotel, Yaw Min Gyi is blossoming with creature comforts for the expat renter.

Al-fresco bakeries, Western cafes, boutique fashion retailers and even Yangon’s first “Fro-Yo” dot the pretty streets of the Yaw Min Gyi area, all of which offer a magnetic “feels like home” appeal that caters to the wave of new foreign faces.

“Most changes started in 1990,” said Tony Lin, owner of the iconic Sun Cafe that has been on the street since 1947.

“The cafe used to be in a house at the end of the street with a wedding reception and we moved into this new building because we thought it would attract more customers,” he said of the Sun Cafe’s current location inside one of the first condo apartment blocks built in the area.

The 45-year-old businessman said he had watched in the last few years as his clientele morphed from local working men into a boisterous range of Western and Japanese expats.

Auntie Boke, a real estate agent based in Yaw Min Gyi, has also seen her clientele change dramatically over the past decade.

“This is a special community where my family has been living since 1966,” the entrepreneur real estate agent said inside her offices on Yaw Min Gyi, which was formerly known as York Road under British rule.

At that time her family had a flat inside one of the colonial, two-storey apartment blocks that shouldered the then-languid downtown avenues.

Without the modern conveniences of Wi-Fi or mobiles, the property market in each neighbourhood by default fell into the hands of the most knowledgeable family or individual in the thicket. For the jovial Auntie Boke this was a natural playground for a woman whose family also ran the neighbourhood’s phone shop.

Changes have come in all shapes and sizes and all ends of the spectrum, from welcome to problematic.

“I don’t ever want to leave this place,” the raven-haired, motherly figure said. “This [neighbourhood] has a great location, not far from downtown, good electricity and a good community feel – many neighbours are friends.”

Auntie Boke’s adoptive business protégé, American David Ney, agreed that one of the aspects of Yaw Min Gyi is the enduring sense of community shared among the expats and locals that populate its modernising streets.

In addition to western shops, one can also find spas, gyms and an international selection of dining options, all of which opened in recent years.

“All the well laid-out cafes and shops in this area are relatively new,” Mr Ney said. “There’s been the addition of an international burger shop in six months, and there are two pizza places on this road.

“There’s also a very large Japanese population here. Because of that there are Japanese-language-only restaurants. Apparently walking into a place like that is exactly like walking into a small Tokyo sake bar.”

With the international influences comes the suffocation of traditional street stalls and vendors. Street stalls that were almost a permanent fixture on the streets are being swept away in favour of large construction and increased traffic.

“It’s changing – I wish there was some way to compensate for both [old and new],” Mr Ney lamented.

The first changes came when the wealthy Chinese Mandalay and Shan populations came to Yangon in the nineties, said Gallery 65 curator and owner U Min Lwin. The recent stream of Western and Japanese expats has brought a new wave of changes to the area, helping fuel demand for galleries like U Min Lwin’s, as well as open mike nights and other performance exhibitions held in stately residences in the area.

Gallery 65 is the bottom half of one of the last colonial landed homes in the area. U Min Lwin’s parents still live on the upper floor of the swelling, dark teak residence.

“It used to be [filled with] houses like this – with yards and where everyone knew each other,” U Min Lwin said.

Three other stately homes in similar style to his parents’ were built on the road in the early 20th century, but two were razed during World War II while the third was developed into apartment blocks, U Min Lwin said.

“The atmosphere has changed here.”