Ticket to Ride: Where is Rangoon?

The emphasis of a space’s represented centre reveals how the author of that representation creates a hierarchisation of certain spatial practices in governmental discourses, although these discourses may be normative and fail to reflect the reality of the cityscape. However, the effect which this can have on an urban environment can be explored through Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s concept of the distanciated economy, where ‘work on urban economies has been framed in terms of points, lines and boundaries… cities have been seen as entities that can be cut up into centres and peripheries,’[1] and while their argument was to deconstruct the ways in which some urban cities are defined against others, this can equally be applied to how an individual city’s areas are defined against one another.


In the case of Rangoon, one of the most cited histories of the town from the colonial period, B. R. Pearn’s A History of Rangoon, was commissioned by the town’s municipal authorities and mostly relied upon municipal reports and first-hand testimonies from members of the municipal establishment to construct its history.[2] Due to this, the way in which Pearn’s history approaches matters of public transport emphasises the role in which the municipal authorities’ intended for it to fulfil. This end goal was for the town’s public transport networks to link areas of industrial production to suburbs further afield in order to depopulate the centre, the overcrowding of which was impeding the flow of traffic and worsening disease spread.[3] Due to this, the actions of the suburban in Pearn’s history have already become peripheral to the town’s economic centre and such a representation of the town’s history creates an operational definition which reinforces the municipal authorities’ actions: that the town is primarily a space for economic production,  which suburbanisation would help intensify, and the town’s inhabitants are economic units that can be rationalised for these ends. This can be understood by Pearn’s suggestion that the public transport networks were consistent failures because their establishment did not decentralise the town’s labour pool away from their places of production.[4] Such portrayals of the town’s history were ultimately designed to build up to Pearn’s justification of the municipal authorities’ exceptional expenditure of over Rs. 14,000,000 in creating this idealised delineation between the suburban and spaces of economic production at the end of his critique of the towns’ transport networks.[5]

However, what is missing from Pearn’s history of Rangoon’s transport networks are the circles of social activity that existed outside of the intended suburbanising effect. For instance, when the town’s tramlines were extended to the Burmese village of Kemmendine, the services saw a massive increase in usage from 3,433,540 annual passengers to 6,026,915, despite the fact that it is highly unlikely that many of the Burmese in Kemmendine worked in the town’s industrial sectors since they were based in the furthest and least accessible quarters from Kemmendine.[6] Indeed, the purpose of the trams were to decentralise the Indian workers living around the industrial centre, not to bring in new workers from further afield. Instead, the trams enabled new transportation options for other socio-cultural activities, such as the pilgrimage to the Shwedagon Pagoda, as suggested by representations such as a postcard of the pagoda line’s terminus depicting a tram being filled with Buddhist monks.[7] Similarly, the Burmese were also brought closer to their spaces of socio-cultural interaction by the trams with their extension to the newly established racecourse in Kyaikkasan and Kandawgale’s Burma Athletic Association playing fields, which saw the lines experience great popularity when events were being held in that area.[8] Additionally, the significance which the trams held for the suburban Burmese was emphasised by the fact that in death it was the wealthy Burmese and the Buddhist monks who used the tramway’s funeral service, carrying their bodies through their communities to be celebrated in public before alighting at the cemetery.[9] On the one hand, this was good business on the part of the tram company to tailor their services around the needs of the already suburban population who were most likely to use the trams’ services, but simultaneously this undermined the political objectives of the municipal authorities as these people were not using the trams to further the town’s economic functions, but rather used them to create new spaces for cultural interaction outside of the town’s centre.


The use of sources such as Pearn’s history reveals where the planner’s gaze saw the focal points of Rangoon. However, by reading between the lines of sources such as postcards, newspaper clippings, or the frustrated language of municipal reports, all productions of the colonialist, the actual centres of activity which created the experience of the cityscape for those who inhabited it can be unveiled.

[1] Ash Amin & Nigel Thrift, Cities: Reimagining the Urban (Cambridge, 2002), 51.

[2] B. R. Pearn, A History of Rangoon (Rangoon, 1939).

[3] Ibid., 278-282.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 282.

[6] Report on the Working of the Rangoon Municipality for the Year 1907-1908 (Rangoon, 1908), 20.

[7] Tilman Frasch, “Tracks in the City: Technology, Mobility and Society in Colonial Rangoon and Singapore”, Modern Asian Studies, 46: 1 (2012), 106.

[8] Ibid.; Pearn, A History of Rangoon, 281.

[9] Frasch, “Tracks in the City”, 107; “New Departure in Burmese Funerals”, Straits Echo, Singapore (26/04/1907), 5, <https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitsecho19070426-1.2.23?ST=1&AT=search&k=rangoon%20tram&QT=rangoon,tram&oref=article> [accessed: 20/02/22].