“Unseen Burma: Early Photography 1862-1962” by Thweep Rittinaphakorn

Sule Pagoda, 1890s Sule Pagoda, 1890s

If there were ever a question regarding the role of regional “indie” publishers, Unseen Burma should answer it. Who else but Bangkok-based River Books would bring out a book with a local collector’s century’s worth of photographs of this usually out-of-sight, out-of-mind country?

In his preface, Thweep Rittinaphakorn writes that


Myanmar is a special place that I hold dear in my heart. Although I was not born there nor ever lived there, the affinity is bewilderingly strong.


His affection is evident in the carefully-curated collection and the detailed, well-researched captions. Those who have visited Myanmar may understand whence this affection arises; those who haven’t may have had similar feelings for some other country not their home.


Unseen Burma: Early Photography 1862-1962, Thweep Rittinaphakorn (River Books, June 2023)
Unseen Burma: Early Photography 1862-1962, Thweep Rittinaphakorn (River Books, June 2023)

Unseen Burma is divided into three sections: “Changing Times Changing Faces”, “Multifaceted Burma” and “The Grand Tour”. The first, and most affecting of these, includes many dozens of (given the period) mostly posed photographs of people—largely Burmese, both Burman and other ethnicities, but also a few Westerners, Indians and Chinese—from the last king and queen, to diplomats, aristocrats, dancers, actors to studio shots of fashionable women over the decades and colonial officers.

The author is a scholar with a particular expertise in textiles.


As an academic, the study of textiles was my entry point into learning more about this fascinating country. Old photographs revealed how fabrics were used or worn and in what context. The images I came across fueled my fascination and two decades on, my scope has definitely expanded beyond textiles to a broader discovery of bygone days in Burma.


This expertise is much in evidence in the descriptions, with Thweep commenting on the clothes, design and provenance of the materials.

burma03Some photographs are quite striking, such as this one (understandably reproduced on the cover) of a Ma Kyiu Kyiu Galay on her wedding day. Thweep notes that she was married to the Mandalay Assistant Superintendent of Police on 11 November 1900:


Here, she is elegantly posed in sumptuous htaing ma thein dress, possibly her wedding dress, adorned with a full set of jewelry –  a series of pendant necklaces, earrings, a comb, rows of bangles, and rings. Her hair is neatly combed and arranged on top of her head with many flowers, leaving a long, thick strand trailing down her back. In those days, when the concept of costume jewelry was not known, the jewelry was on the whole all real gold and gems.


burma06With every face comes a story. This is Sao Thunanda, who


became Mahadevi after marrying Sao Ohn Kya … who ascended the Hsipaw throne after his father’s death in 1927. The couple seemed made for each other. They were good-looking and well mannered with a regal appearance … Sao Thunanda accompanied her husband to London in 1931 … However, despite the appearance of being a perfect match, their marriage came to an abrupt end when she ran off with an actor, leaving the prince
heartbroken and the family mortified.


The second section is something of a grab bag of colonial set pieces, images of industry and transportation, political meetings, river and country scenes, festivals and religious observances. These, while individually and collectively interesting, are more about Burma than the personalities of individuals.

burma04Nevertheless, the photos of the Goteik viaduct are thought-provoking: it


was once claimed to be the tallest metal trestle of its kind ever built in Asia. It was constructed in 1898 as part of the strategic expansion of the rail system in Burma to fuel the Sino-Burmese trade. Its location was in the heart of the strategic route between Burma proper and the Shan States leading to the Chinese border via Lashio, a major town 95 miles to Yunnan border.


It is also an example of colonial-era of globalization:


The construction was undertaken by the Pennsylvania and Maryland Bridge Construction Company from the USA. All the metal parts were designed and cast in America by the Pennsylvanian Steel Company then shipped to Burma for assembly …


It’s still in use.


The final section (“The Grand Tour”) links Burma into the developed tourist trade of the time. Many of the buildings and other structures shown here have sadly been lost to war and other misfortunes, but a number, from Sule Pagoda to the Strand Hotel, are still there.

The lengthy captions make this a meatier volume that many such collections. Perhaps as a result, a few (quite minor, it must be said) errors creep in. Given that Maung Shaw Loo (“the first international student from Burma who enrolled in an American university”) didn’t arrive in the US until 1858, one suspects it was President Andrew Johnson, not Jackson, who wrote the letter of recommendation that got him the “audience with King Mindon in Mandalay”. And it would normal now to write the name of China’s last dynasty as Qing, rather than Ching.

In such an accomplished, elegant volume, these may well pass unnoticed. Unseen Burma deserves, well, to be seen.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.