Sorrento Villa and I

Original Sorrento Villa
Original Sorrento Villa

By Maung Hlaing

When I joined the Sarpay Beikman, under the Printing and Publishing Corporation, Ministry of Information, in 1980, the Sorrento Villa building was one of the printing plants. It was called the Sarpay Beikman Press, or just Printing Plant, which was under the direct control of the Chief Editor (Additional Director) of the Sarpay Beikman (Board).
Sorrento Villa was situated at 361, Pyay Road (at the junction of Hanthawady Roundabout or circle), in Yangon. After 1988, the Printing and Publishing Corporation became the Printing and Publishing Enterprise (PPE). In those days, PPE had to implement the printing tasks assigned by State or State organizations, in accordance with business-oriented targets. In this way, Sorrento Villa was known as Sarpay Beikman Printing House, where Myanmar Year Book (Encyclopaedia), People’s Handbook Series, Thuta Padetha Magazine, General Knowledge on translated works, and Shwe Thway Children’s Journal were printed and produced.
Although Sorrento Villa was a historic building, people gradually came to forget the importance of this building. As for the younger generation of today, they hardly know about it. The emergence of Sorrento Villa was inter-woven with the independence struggles of Myanmar. However, the name, “Sorrento Villa Plan”, is still in the heart of the older generations.
Sorrento Villa has been located since pre-war time. Due to lack of traces and clues, we fail to know the name of the owner and the construction period. According to Myanmar scholar Dr.Thaw Kaung and ex-ambassador U Thet Tun, the name of “Sorrento” might have come from Europe. According to the dictionary, “Sorrento” is a small town in Canpania, south Italy, with some 16,5000 inhabitants. It is a popular tourist destination which can be reached easily from Naples and Pompeii, as it lies at the southeastern end of the Ciruonvesuviana rail line. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “Villa” means “a house usually in the countryside, especially in southern Europe”.
It is vividly seen that the building is quite different from Myanmar’s traditional one. I was told that a foreign lawyer had lived in this European style building, before he went back to Europe.
Before World War II, U Chit Maung, Chairman of the then Rangoon Development Trust, had lived in this building.
It was 6 June 1947. On that day, representatives, economists and officials met to deliberate on the national rehabilitation needs, under the leadership of Bogyoke Aung San, the architect of Myanmar’s independence, and drafted ahead a Two-Year Plan on Economic Development of Myanmar, after regaining our national independence. The plan came to be known as “Sorrento Villa Plan” after the venue of the meeting. Bogyoke Aung San, who chaired the conference, made a historic speech. It was the last speech in the life of the national architect of independence, who became a Martyr on 19 July 1947.
Actually, the Sorrento Villa Plan was beneficial not only to the economic situation of the nation, but also to the literary world of the nation.
“A translation department should be established to translate useful books and have them published in the interest of the people,” said Bogyoke Aung San in his speech. We can vividly see the farsightedness that paved the way to save the people from the age of darkness. To implement his speech, the Burma Translation Society (BTS), or Sarpay Beikman, was established on 26 August 1947. Then Sorrento Villa, located at 361, Pyay Road, was found while seeking a place of peace and quiet to implement the tasks of the BTS.
After Sorrento Villa had been leased, the Burma Translation Society was moved from the two-storeyed building in the former compound of Judson College of the then Rangoon University, where Dr.St.John lived, to the Sorrento Villa in May 1948. The name of the society was changed into more honourable “Sarpay Beikman”. Later, the name was used in English as “Palace of Literature” when necessary. The motto, “Ahmaung Khwin-ywe Alin Hsaung-ant”, written in Myanmar by Saya Min Thu Wun, was translated into English as “Light, where darkness was” by Saya U Khin Zaw (K).
After the building had teen leased at the monthly rate ot Ks567/-for ten months, it was bought outright. As the Burma Translation Society was a body which served the people as a leading light on a non-profit basis, the Rangoon Development Committee sold the building and the three-and-a-half-acre compound for Ks112,500/-. When the compound was to be fenced in 1953-54, additional half-an-acre, which was not included in the former compound, was bought for Ks7,020 by the BTS.
As a result of implementing the suggestions made by Bogyoke Aung San at the Sorrento Villa, a grand publishing house emerged. Although it received occasional government subsidy because of the educational nature of its work, the Sarpay Beikman is not a government organization. It is a private, non-political institute, governed by a Managing Council whose members, in addition to its President, Premier U Nu, included U Tin, Minister for Trade Development, Dr.U E Maung, ex-Justice of the Supreme Court, U Ohn, Counsellor to the Premier, U Cho, Executive Officer of the United States Educational Foundation in Burma, U Thein Han (Saya Zawgyi), Librarian of the University of Rangoon, U Myo Min, Professor at the Department of English, University of Rangoon, U Wun (Saya Min Thu Wun), Director of the University Translation and Publications Department, U Ba, Director of Education, U Chan Htoon, Justice of the Supreme Court, U Khin Zaw (Saya K), Director of Burma Broadcasting Service, U Aung Min, Director of Social Welfare, U Thant, Secretary to the Premier, and U Thet Su, Chairman of Social and Economic Council.
They were those who played the leading roles in the political, economic, social and literary arenas. Because of them, the Sorrento Villa Printing Plant came into being and literary activities were carried out. In the 1950s, the printing plant was known as the most modern one in Southeast Asia where all our books were printed. In this building, Myanmar Encyclopaedia, Ludu Theikpan Kyan (Science for the masses), school textbooks, Sarpay Beikman monthly magazine, People’s Handbook Series, books for children and other useful reading materials were produced.
In the compound of Sorrento Villa, literary awards for the best Myanmar novel, best translation of a Great Book, best work in belles-lettres, and the best work on any subject of general knowledge were presented. These awards proved to be an important stimulant in the production of “New Life” literature. The building also introduced adult education extension course. It sponsored and administered a school of journalism.
In cooperation with the Ministry of Union Culture, talks and shows were held at the amphitheatre in the compound. Often, as many as 1,000 people attended the events, which became a Friday evening highlight in Yangon’s cultural life. These open-air performances were held weekly from early November until the advent of the monsoon in May.
In pre-war time, Sorrento Villa served the Rangoon (Yangon) City Development for years. In post-war period, the building served as the venue where Sorrento Villa Plan, or a Two-Year Plan on Economic Development of Myanmar was drafted.
Throughout the ages of Parliament Democracy, Revolutionary Council, Lanzin Party, or Burma Socialist Programme Party, State Law and Order Restoration Council and State Peace and Development Council, the building contributed enormously to literary development. Before it was handed over to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, the building was set apart as a special place where foreign literary delegations were received and literary seminars and paper reading sessions were held under the auspices of the Ministry of Information.
As matters related to the Myanmar independence struggles were deliberated there, and as it enhanced Myanmar literary interest, the Sorrento Villa was proclaimed as a national heritage on 1 August 1996 by the State Law and Order Restoration Council.
On 12 March 2003, the Ministry of Information handed over the building of Sorrento Villa to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. From 1 April 2006 onwards, the service of EMS International has been carried out.
O dutiful Sorrento Villa! I salute you!

Ref :
1. ဆိုရန်တိုဗီလာ, တက္ကသိုလ် ခင်မောင်ဇော်, ချင်းတွင်းမဂ္ဂဇင်း (နိုဝင်ဘာ၊ ၂၀၀၈)
2. ကိုလိုနီခေတ် မြန်မာနိုင်ငံသမိုင်း အဘိဓာန်၊ မောင်မြဟန် (မဟာဝိဇ္ဇာ)
3. SARPAY BEIKMAN, Palace of Literature, Sept. 1958.

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