One of the things my uncle Arthur collected, as well as second hand books about Burma, was old postcards. Apparently he had kept many postcards from Burma, and from the description of how many there were, I had guessed he supplemented the original group with purchases in London. He haunted the vintage bookshops which often have boxes of old postcards. Unfortunately, when he died, the postcards were nowhere to be found. So, a few months later I had a look at eBay to see what there was.
Wow! So many that dated back to the early 1900’s, some in black and white and some that were chromolithographed in Germany. I noticed a few names kept popping up. Famous early photographers of Burma like Philip Klier, publishing houses like the American Baptist Mission Press, and the photographer D. A. Ahuja. I liked his the best; their subject matter, the fact they were coloured (although I found some very early ones that weren’t) and, nerd that I am, the fact that they seemed to be numbered sequentially.
After buying close to a hundred over the course of a year I needed a way to catalogue them. And so, I incorporated the Burma Postcards page on the blog. You can access it from the black bar at the top of the page.
I’ve divided them into rough groupings – Buildings and Scenes in Rangoon, the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Mandalay, Other Places in Burma and People and Their Pursuits. I also saved a separate section for U Ba Kyi, some of the first postcards I ever bought, but since have seen no more. Within the groupings things are roughly sorted together – alphabetical by name for the buildings, all the pretty lady pictures together, all the elephant pics together, etc. If you click on the thumbnail to enlarge I’ve added any interesting details about the publisher, year or printer if I know it.
I’ve also enjoyed reading the backs of cards. One man sent several postcards back to his little boy in England, explaining life in Burma. A photographer’s studio in Rangoon could develop your photos with a postcard back if you desired, so many original photos of sports teams, clubs or daily life were available. I have a series (not scanned yet) depicting the building of a rice mill that needs a whole blog post of its own. I have close to 500 cards now, and I’m still actively collecting. The Burma Postcard page shows up as the first or second entry on Google if you do a search for Burmese postcards; unfortunately more people are collecting and the prices have gone up.
I’ve received lovely messages from the page. In one, a young photographer asked to use several of the cards to include in a book he’s writing about 20th century photography in Burma, and I hope it will be released soon.
The cards enhance the understanding of what Burma, and especially Rangoon, was like when my father grew up there in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I am mesmerized by their detail and often find myself feeling as though I can step through to that lost world. Nostalgia for something I’ve never experienced.
Below are some of my favourite cards. I hope you enjoy them.
Ahuja photographed pretty Burmese ladies, or had originals by Philip Klier coloured in Germany, but this is the daftest one I’ve seen. It would be impossible to ride a bike barefoot in a longyi, and she doesn’t look too happy, does she?
Philip Klier’s photos usually date to 1890-1900 and he catches the sweetness in this girl’s face, with her hair done up in a “sadon” and a wide sleeved blouse or “eingyi.” You can almost smell the flowers. Most Myanmar girls still wear flowers in their hair.
The American Baptist Mission Press photographed all the ethnic tribes they encountered. Whether you believe their evangelizing was a civilizing force or pure evil, I’m glad there is some photographic record of a way of life long vanished.
Some cards were commissioned. This is one of a series by R. Talbot Kelly, published by Raphael Tuck in London. He has caught the hazy light perfectly.
An essential piece of knowledge – how to ship an elephant.
What were the publishers thinking? The country’s population is Buddhist. You can’t turn around without seeing a pagoda or a monastery. But hey, we need Xmas postcards for our Burma clientele – these will do!