Elliott Fox enjoys this series of tributes to a much-missed friend of Yangon.
“I am still very interested in the project”, Bob Percival replied to our plea for help.
Some way into researching a book about Yangon architecture, my co-authors and I still needed to hunt down a series of missing facts and figures about several of the city’s more obscure buildings. “It sounds very exciting”, Bob emailed us, “and right down my alley (or street).”
This was 2014 and Bob was giving his acclaimed, and free, walking tours of Yangon. These developed along (I later learned) a very Bob-like method: freeform, interactive, and aided by his bucketloads of personal charm. He learned by doing, by osmosis, and gave the impression that no two tours were ever quite the same.
As we got to meet and interact more, the anecdotes of his life – of his past lives – consistently amazed me: his work with aboriginal communities in his native Australia; the circumstances of his move to the town of Lijiang, in Yunnan; his spontaneous move to Yangon, and the reams of stories in between.
His sudden passing robbed us of his company, his unique gaze on Yangon, and his warm tales, always bursting with colour.
By assembling this collection in his memory, Keith Lyons has done a great favour to those who knew Bob, or simply share his affection for the city.
The book contains a mix of things. There are tributes to Bob: some a few pages, some a few lines, some just a photo. They are a testament to the many friends Bob made in Australia, in China, in Myanmar and beyond. The diverse, scrapbook-feel of these submissions is moving in itself.
The collection also includes a selection of Bob’s writings: there are excerpts from Bob’s book, ‘Walking the Streets of Yangon’, such as his narration of a walk down 17th Street. Its disarming opening line (‘It’s time to shop for fresh vegetables and meat’) builds to a wonderful and genuinely useful compendium of the street’s offerings, pointing out goods which outsiders may not notice (the different types of coconut jelly, the semolina cake) and vignettes, such as Mr. Win Aung of No.81, whose noodle shop has graced the city for more than 70 years. This is Bob’s voice, as the walk ends among the flower vendors, with this piece of wisdom: “Buying a bunch of yellow roses to take home and fill the house with colour and scent is a perfect way to start the morning.”
On top of the useful travel tips from Bob himself, the book also includes travel essays and stories from his friends: for example, a spontaneous trip down the Irrawaddy delta, one of Bob’s favourites, and where he also offered tours. (“For most people,” Laura Hirsch writes, “the choice between riding an old cargo ship for over 30 hours or a bus for seven would be a no brainer. It was for Bob too, and he always chose the boat”.)
Some do not feature Bob at all, though you can tell he would enjoy them. This includes a narrative text, by Greg Pieters, about parlaying one’s way onto those ancient, Glasgow-made, ‘teak and brass’ steamers that still chugged along the Irrawaddy long after the colonial days. Others take the reader into Taunggyi, for the balloon festival; others still go further up the Shan hills.
For those who met him, there is the pleasure of the odd anecdote that fills in a mystery. For example, I wondered how a consummate dreamer like Bob (this is a good time to mention his imagined renditions of Orwell’s and Theroux’s travel in Myanmar – these are also in the book) would orchestrate a sudden life change from Lijiang to Yangon. The answer is among Keith Lyons’ multiple texts in the collection, and does not disappoint: once Bob decided he was “done with China” and never to return, he charges Mr. Lyons with bringing his belongings over. This operation involves smuggling them over the China-Myanmar border, with help from a local beekeeper.
The end result of this collection is a cheerful, if wistful, chorus song to Bob, to travel and to friendship.
As the book reminds us at the end, the Yangon walking tours which Bob founded are going strong. A free education project for teashop child workers, where he volunteered, could do with greater support. And in its final lines, Keith Lyons asks the reader to keep supporting Myanmar writers and writing. It’s a simple and fitting call, chiming with an earlier line about the man’s silhouette behind it all. “That was the thing about Bob”, Lyons writes. “He got on and did things, in a quiet, gentle way.”