Monkey Business in Yangon Zoo

I’ve spent most of today trying to read a gossip column from 1928 that appeared in the Burmese language newspaper Thuriya. The column was a regular feature in the paper which ran from at least as early as 1915 and was written by a man going by the pseudonym ‘Town Mouse’. In this particular episode, Town Mouse visited Rangoon Zoo. Animal historian goldmine, I thought…

towngossipzoo1928(3)

I’m a long way from a full translation, but I think that I’ve managed to get the gist of it. And, dashing my high expectations, it doesn’t seem to be about animals. Instead, it is an account of some flirting going on by the monkey enclosure. The zoo and its animals merely provide the backdrop for romantic liaisons in the colonial city.

This got me to reflect on the art historian John Berger’s famous essay ‘Why Look at Animals?’ In it he argues that zoos are disappointing places. The promise of an exciting encounter with wild creatures is undercut by their diminished lives as captive beings. Zoos are monuments to the marginalisation of the animal in modern society, according to Berger. But there were many reasons to go to the zoo, as Town Mouse’s gossip attests. This little snippet offers a glimpse into the everyday meanings of the zoo for its visitors in the interwar years, when Rangoon was home to a growing urbane, cosmopolitan society.

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