I am not a sentimental person by nature. However, after I reminisced about my university days in an article on student unions, contemporaries of mine urged me to write about the happy days as hostel students. The task is a bit challenging, as it would be of a different theme from the articles I am used to writing. Those who had read my previous articles would have noticed that most of them dealt with conservation of the ecosystems, disciplines, civic duties, hygiene, health, developments of infrastructures that would solve traffic jams and to take advantage of our country’s strategic assets. Thus, I was reluctant to oblige my friends, but I do not want to disappoint them, so I am taking a great risk and attempt writing it. Though I had studied at both the Mandalay University and the Rangoon (Yangon) University (RU), I chose to write the hostel life at the latter. The reason is because I thought it would be more interesting, as the RU’s location, its environs, the hostels and the campus lay out render a unique atmosphere and beauty. That uniqueness and the beauty was what made the RU un-forgetable to those who had trodden the campus grounds during their student days.
The fact that the Yangon University is situated on a very large plot of land and closeness to the beautiful Inya Lake made it more unique. Though I had seen the later day famous modern universities in Thailand and Singapore, I dare say that there is none comparable to the Yangon University campus. Also the level of the academic achievements at this university was recognized as the best in South East Asia since its establishment until the nineteen sixties. In those days there were some foreign students, including Russians, Chinese, Japanese and even Nigerians, who studied here. One of the most well known of those foreign students is U Shwe Ba, a Japanese journalist who used to work for the NHK broadcasting station at the Myanmar language section. I had unexpectedly met him in 1986 in Tokyo, while I was attending a telecommunication seminar. He came and introduced himself, speaking in fluent Myanmar language, while he was covering the seminar for the NHK. During our conversation, he reminisced passionately about the happy days at the Yangon University, in the nineteen sixties, as an exchange student. He explained to me how he came to be known as Shwe Ba, the same as that of the popular action movie star of that period. According to him another Japanese student adopted the name Kyaw Swe, another famous star.
During those heydays, the Yangon University hostel life was very enjoyable. There were many facilities and functions on the campus that the students could participate and were un-forgetable until today. The large campus and the nearby scenic Inya Lake provided the students with a perfect setting to take leisurely strolls and relax. In the evenings, the banks of the Lake were crowded with groups of students, both male and female, taking in the pleasant views and enjoying the cool and clean breeze that blew across the large expanse of water. It was the time to meet and socialize and forget about the tedious studies for a while. The Chancellor Road that leads from the main entrance right to the majestic and symbolic landmark, the Convocation Hall, also was another attraction for the hostel students of the past. For those few individuals, who had passion for playing musical instruments and singing, the night times afforded them the opportunity to show off their talents to the lady students. Early every night, during the open seasons, small groups of male students could be seen playing guitars, medelins, banjos and even accordions, singing in front of the ladies’ hostels. There were requests from the lady students, to sing for them the songs they wanted to listen.
Other functions are the annual grand dinners that every hostel student looked forward to. Each hostel would celebrate lavishly with live music concerts, or Ahnyeint (traditional Myanmar dance) troupes. During the months of November and December, the university campus took on the carnival mood. There were one sort of function or the other going on at the week-ends. The entertainments included those of the famous foreign artistes too. During my two years’ stint at the RU, the Marther Graham Ballet troupe from the US staged a show at the Convocation Hall, free of charge, for the staffs and the students. The famous Benny Goodman Jazz band, from the US also entertained the students, live, in the open space at the front of the Science Faculty. In the fifties, jazz music was a craze and to have that opportunity was a great treat for the students.
The names were given by their Myanmar friends.
We should not forget the fact that the Yangon University of the past had produced great leaders, most of whom were hostel students.The scientific exhibitions held annually were also very popular with the students and the public alike. During such exhibitions, the public was welcome to roam the university campus, where the exhibits were on display.The military — Army, Navy and Air force also participated in those exhibitions. The military weapons and equipments displayed, attracted large crowds. As those were the days when our country was facing foreign aggressions, the patriotic students were interested to join the military to defend the motherland. At those exhibitions they could obtain necessary informations that were valuable for them in deciding which service they should join.
Those who were weight-lifting or body-building buffs could train at the well-equipped gymnasium located behind the Student Union building. There were tennis courts, volley ball courts, basketball fields, a football field, a hockey field, track and field facilities, indoor badminton courts, boxing rings and even a standard-sized swimming pool on the campus grounds. These sport facilities provided good trainings for the students. There was also a boat club, where interested students could become members. Thr RUBC ( Rangoon University Boat Club) participated regularly in regattas abroad in the past. Annual sports meets were also the highlights of our university days. Thus it was no wonder there were many national level sportsmen and women produced by the RU in those days.
For those who were interested in traditional Myanmar dance and music, the University Arts Association provided them the lessons and occasionally staged concerts on the campus for the member students to display their acquired talents. Some present day famous performers in the movie industries are products of such endeavours.
The beauty of the university and the scenic Inya lake and the Gantgaw trees, which were abundant on the university campus were perfect inspirations for the fledgling poets, composers and writers among the students. During the blooming seasons, the Gantgaw flowers engulfed the whole campus with a pleasant fragrance, a unique feature that cannot be found anywhere else. The famous phrases such as — Gantgaw Myay (Gantgaw Land) or Gantgaw Taw (Gantgaw Jungle), Gantgaw lann (Gantgaw Lane) that appeared frequently in poems, songs and stories related to the university campus were well known, even to those who had never set foot on the campus. Such environs are also beneficial to the students, as the pleasant sights, smells and atmosphere are good for the mental health.
In those days, every student who came from the States and Division were able to get accommodated in one of the many hostels on the campus. There were eleven hostels for men and four for the ladies. Each hostel was under the charge of a Hall Warden and an Assistant Warden. There were rules and regulations for the hostel students to follow, but I had never, during my time at the hostels, seen someone committing serious offense or anyone taken action for it. The students behaved well and also the Wardens treated us as gentlemen. There were no tight restrictions as to the leaving and returning to the hostel before midnight. At midnight the hostel doors were locked, but the watchmen would open them for the late arrivals. So, I must say that our hostel lives were very free, but no one take advantage of that situation. As we were treated like gentlemen, we behaved accordingly.
The hostels bred in us, the brotherhood spirit and thus we were very united and supportive to one another. The friendship nurtured as hostel-mates were everlasting. Even many years after we left the university and went our own ways, when we meet again in our waning years, our friendships were still firm. The friendship between hostel-mates are thicker than those between of the classmates, as the hostels provided us an atmosphere of a close-knit family. The hostels are also places where students from different regions and states could exchange their cultures and customs, thus promoting understanding among the national races, which would nurture special bondage and unity among our people.
I sincerely hope that the authorities would revitalize the Yangon University campus and its hostels very soon. It would be very welcome, by the public, if that should materialize. This hope is not born off the sentiment of my younger days, but because it would be a very positive step in the right direction. We should not forget the fact that the Yangon University of the past had produced great leaders, most of whom were hostel students. Before concluding, I would like to emphasize the importance to have hostels made available for the students as the cost of lodging at private boarding places are exorbitant and lacked security and discipline. Some places are not fit for female students to stay. I would not consider to keep my grand daughter, if I had one, at such places. In conclusion, I would like to urge the authorities to expedite the revitalization works of the main Yangon University campus, which was once the pride of every student who had passed down the annals of her history and for the country too. A university would not be complete without the hostels.