Meet the man who is reviving Yangon’s crumbling colonial buildings

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Erwin Sikma is using his talent for renovation to breathe new life into the Myanmar city’s heritage properties

Erwin Sikma is one of a handful of Yangon-based foreigners keen to revive the city’s historic buildings

By Fiona MacGregor

The broad, impressive staircase is Burmese teak, but the solid ceramic bathroom sink was made in Scotland. Both date back to the early 20th century and are exactly the kind of enduring craftsmanship that drew Erwin Sikma to his latest passion: renovating classic buildings to service Yangon’s thriving residential sector.

Downtown Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, is full of such colonial-era gems. But as Myanmar opens up after decades of isolation from the outside world, many historic buildings have been sacrificed to make way for modernised replacements.

Most of these are either so ‘high-end’ they are unaffordable to most, or so badly constructed and lacking in modern amenities that many people used to living in more developed countries find their idiosyncrasies challenging.

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It was just such a dilemma that prompted the Dutch businessman to take on the daunting, yet ultimately rewarding, task of upgrading the colonial apartment he now calls home.

In doing so, he joined a small but growing group of foreigners in Myanmar’s biggest hub who are keen to revive the city’s historic buildings and create homes to be proud of from neglected and run-down properties.

Having worked wonders on his own place Sikma is now helping others do the same.

Exposed brickwork gives a modern feel to heritage property

“One day I hope part of downtown Yangon will be named a world heritage site,” he says as he reclines on the balcony of the three-storey building he is currently converting in the city centre.

To the south you can see the silver glimmer of the Yangon River, to the north the golden shimmer of one of the city’s multitude of pagodas is clearly visible.

As declared in the masonry at the top of the house, the building dates back to 1927. It has been in the same family ever since it was built.

“It was their family home and they didn’t want to sell it and see it demolished and replaced with something new,” explains Sikma.

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Instead the owners asked him to help convert it into a rental property that could be enjoyed by someone who appreciated built heritage, allowing them to help conserve their historic home and still gain a regular income.

Even though the development is far from finished, the sweeping rooms with teak floorboards and tall, arched windows still resonate colonial splendour amid the dust and construction work.

Original ceiling fans rotate leisurely overhead as large mirrors with ornate teak frames hide useful cupboard space behind them just as they did almost 90 years ago. The glass captures the reflections of workmen as they maneuver their way past art-deco cabinets bathing them in the early morning light that so often fails to find its way into properties in Yangon.

Sikma sourced many of the fixtures and fittings from other properties in Yangon

Sikma says he is waiting until he has found a tenant before finalising exactly how the finished layout will look, but with the original furnishings still in storage and his own knowledge of where to find quality fixtures and fittings in Yangon, he is determined the property will regain its former glory.

He remains reticent about the rental price. It is such an unusual development that it is genuinely hard to estimate how much someone will be willing to pay to live there. But in rapidly developing Myanmar there are plenty of people willing to pay top dollar for the right property. For example, other single-storey high-end renovated properties in prime downtown locations have fetched as much as USD8,000 to USD10,000 a month.

“It’s a very niche product and a very unique building,” he says. It is a property for someone who is “passionate” about historic buildings, Sikma suggests.

His own passion as he describes his own experience in restoring his colonial residence is infectious.

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He was househunting and looking at yet another drab apartment when inspiration struck. “It was really dark,” he recalls, “with an oppressively low ceiling installed to create an additional floor at the expense of head room and there was no hot water and suddenly I thought, why not just re-do the whole thing?”

It was not quite as simple as that, though. Existing laws against foreign property ownership in Myanmar mean those who want to invest in a major upgrade have to either persuade a trusted local to buy in their name or agree to an informal long-term lease.

Both carried a risk, but Sikma believed the owners of the apartment he had his eye on, and also the district administrator, were sympathetic to his cause. He arranged a long-term lease and got to work.

“I removed everything, and expended some blood sweat and tears,” he laughs.

Myanmar is famous for hardwood and timber flooring, and Erwin was able to reuse teak floorboards from properties being demolished around Yangon

But he also had some luck.

“There was a building at the end of the street being demolished and they’d taken out all the teak floorboards, so I was able to negotiate a good price and use them here.”

Myanmar of course is famous for its hardwood and the rich, earthy hues of timber flooring. This is echoed in the ceilings and furnishings of the renovated apartment, while cool walls and exposed brickwork, give a modern edge to the traditional ambiance.

For Sikma it was a labour of love, and one well worth it. He hopes more historic buildings in the city will be treated with similar care.

“A lot of people who have been to my apartment have been very impressed. They’ve said to me ‘if you find another one, let me know!’”

Downtown Yangon is full of colonial-era properties that have been demolished to make way for modernised replacements

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