Bangkok-based architects The Beaumont Partnership are steering the renovation of this historic Yangon colonial club.
The next day his ship sailed across the Gulf of Martaban to make an unscheduled stop at Moulmein. Stretching his legs for a couple of hours onshore, he visited the Kyaik Than Lan Pagoda, where rather than contemplating the splendour of the architecture he was smitten by the beauty of a Burmese girl he saw upon the steps.
There is nothing of Mandalay itself in Mandalay, only the yearnings of a veteran soldier, now back in the cold and wet of London, longing for the Burmese girl he had left behind at Moulmein. Yet even today the poem, one of the best known in the English language, evokes the image of a faraway exotic oriental kingdom. Kipling’s visit to the Pegu Club had been in March 1889, just a couple of years after the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War. For many years after, the club was an unofficial seat of colonial government. When the Japanese took Rangoon in World War II, it became an officers’ club. After the war the RAF tried restoring the club to its former self, but Burma’s independence came in 1948, and the Tatmadaw officers moved in.
The Burmese socialist government in 1975 nationalised the club, but by that time it had long ceased to function. Quickly, the Pegu Club was forgotten, the name remaining only in the name of a bus stop, the waiting passengers lounging against a blank wall behind which was a compound overgrown by rank jungle. Adventurous sightseers could enter through a watchman’s gate, but the blackened teak structures were desolate and depressing, like the remains of a lost civilisation. A few years ago the sentry gate was locked, and no one could get into the compound. Was the club about to be levelled and the land redeveloped? Myanmar is not great on publicity, and no one knew.
In recent months, all has been revealed. KT Group, a familyowned Myanmar conglomerate whose interests range from real estate to ports and oil and gas, in 2016 obtained from the Myanmar government a long-term lease on the property. Many proposals were put in by various ventures for the lease, but KT Group proposed to restore the extensive site and buildings to their former splendour, as part of Myanmar’s heritage.
Yangon Heritage Trust is providing guidance, while The Beaumont Partnership, an international Bangkok-based design consultancy, is handling the restoration work.
Mark French, Beaumont partner and project director, says that no records of the original plans had been found in the archives, and the architect was unknown, and so the first stages were to produce measured drawings and a conservation management plan. There proved to be several layers of development since the club had first opened, in 1882. The original building is a classic teak structure. A pending visit by the Prince of Wales in early 1922 had caused a large hall to be built from brick and masonry. Teak accommodation blocks had been added over several years. The Tatmadaw had built squash courts. Work began by hacking through the dense vegetation that had grown up around the club buildings. “Aside from snakes, bats and dilapidation to the point of collapse in some areas, some of our staff reported seeing ghosts when we were doing the measures for drawings,” says Mr French.
Executive director of the club Deborah Kyaw Thaung stands beaming with pleasure in the main reception room of the original club building. Now named the Windsor Lounge, the furnishings include rattan seating and fat leather sofas, and the original diamond-paned windows look out to the manicured gardens. Like everyone else concerned with this remarkable restoration project, she has an endless enthusiasm.
Ms Kyaw Thaung says that when fully restored the club will combine a public events venue, several food and beverage outlets, artist workshops, galleries, wellness areas, and a private membership element. “In the interests of public safety we are currently having to restrict access, as there is a good deal of construction work going on,” she says. “By this time next year our doors will be open.”
Three old teak former accommodation blocks to the rear of the compound are currently being restored. A restaurant will be housed in one of them, while artists and craftsmen will use the other two. “We are very focused on the creative aspects,” says Ms Kyaw Thaung, “and we want to make a creative space for local artists and artisans. There are a lot of creative people in Yangon, and we see this as becoming a creative community, with regular exhibitions and the opportunity for them to sell their work. Our vision is that the Pegu Club will become a destination for culture, business, education and wellness.” Already completed is the Drawing Room, which can host meetings and small events, and which looks out to Somerset Court, a teak-deck open-air courtyard that can host cocktails, banquets and musical performances. What is now known as the Prince of Wales Great Hall, which is where the prince had dined, is now a stately room that can seat a hundred guests, and be used for exhibitions and performances.
Although there are large areas of the club that are still undergoing restoration, there have during the past six months since it opened been many events staged here, including some high-profile weddings, the very first Pride of Myanmar Awards, a World Economic Forum dinner, and a Young Presidents Organisation conference.
Rudyard Kipling was only twenty-three when he visited the Pegu Club, and was not yet the broomhead-moustached balladeer of Empire that he later became. He had nonetheless been a newspaperman in India for several years, and had all the conviviality associated with that profession.