Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Aung Mingala Cinema Revisted - Dawei, Thanintharyi Region, Myanmar

Another Survey Completed


Round 4 of Myanmar movie theater surveying went off without a hitch and two bouts of food poisoning. The gut problems cut me down ten pounds lighter than when I started, but there's no burnt ankles or any other malady this year to speak of.

My range of research on this trip was relatively narrow, but also dense with findings. Movie theaters old and ancient came into focus, and I acquired a sack full of movie theater memorabilia along the way. Most of it is trash, for sure, but you all know what they about one man's trash.


The little red strip on the above map is Mon State, where I conducted most of my research.


Mon State was my primary research site, supplemented by a few short, precision guided excursions into adjacent States and Regions, including Ayerawaddy, Kayin and Thanintharyi. All were fruitful, even if the pickings get slimmer each year. But for now, lets get things started on the good foot, because that how the journey began.

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The Aung Mingala Cinema


If you've been following this blog long enough to remember my first visit to Dawei back in 2011 then you might recall pictures of a duo of pink movie theaters in a dust strewn backwater. Well the Dawei of 2017 is a bit different from the Dawei of 2011. Dust strewn it still is, though the backwater designation is starting to give way. The most notable change during my six year hiatus is the handful of mid-rise hotels that have been built. At least one other mid-rise tower is currently under construction. 

While the new giants are shockingly out of proportion for the low rise city of around 150,000 inhabitants, they are spaced out enough that the impact is not so dramatic.  

More dramatic is the noticeable increase in foreign tourists. In 2011, Dawei was still well off the beaten track for most of the trickle of foreign tourists that ventured into Myanmar. Six years ago, I remember running into a group of medical doctors on assignment for Doctors Without Borders who were flabbergasted at the sight of another foreigner. Today, the sight of the likes of me wouldn't amount to the bat of an eyelash. 

Most foreign visitors, however, seem to be more interested in intrepid travel to "unspoiled" hinterlands than the town itself. That's fine by me. All the more elbow room for when I'm seeking out the local cinema treasure.

The Aung Mingala in 2011 (left) and 2017 (right). While the new look white paint-job and tacky use of projected lights onto the facade has cheapened the aesthetic, it's the loss of the two palm trees behind the theater which most upsets me. 

Over the past few years a number of willing informants have brought me up to date on the Dawei cinema scene. "The Aung Mingala is now sporting digital projectors and showing 3D films, man" they'd announce. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, "that weird looking one - what is it called, The Mingala Thiri? - that one's gone under." (Kites Tales Myanmar put together a nice photo essay on The Mingala Thiri Cinema in November of last year.) 

Both bits of intelligence are legitimate. The Aung Mingala has indeed gone through an entire overhaul, including the installation of air-conditioning, digital projection and a brand new screen and sound system. Maybe even cushy new seats to replace the classic but uncomfortable wooden ones. I wouldn't know for sure, as they were much more protective of the place now that it's been upgraded. Interior photography was strictly prohibited.  

In the exterior looks department it has lost a a bit of its mid-century Tropical Art Deco provenance, but mostly in the details. By and large it's as I remember it. What changes were made are not irreversible and a few low road improvements are completely acceptable if it means the building will be around for the foreseeable future. 

Moreover, now that digital projectors are in place, the viewing fare can diversify beyond the super-low-production-value Myanmar movies that had been the exclusive viewing fare for decades. A poster for the most recent installment in the Resident Evil dynasty was tacked up in the lobby. Such Hollywood schlockbusters would not have been possible had the circa 1960's carbon arc projectors not been replaced.  


The same manager from 2011 running the show.


Ticket booth 

 All said, it was good to start out this survey with an active theater. Ever more so considering that much of the new investment in Dawei is being spurred on by the pending development of a nearby deep sea port. Once complete, the Dawei Deep Sea Port and accompanying Special Economic Zone is anticipated to be a game changer in regional trade. Roads cutting through western Thailand to Bangkok and all points east and north will theoretically make shipping from the Indian Ocean quicker, bypassing the long established Straights of Malacca route, where Singapore is the main hub. 
   
Aside from a new and improved road from Bangkok to the Thai-Myanmar border, little work on the mega project has occurred thus far. It seems like all parties involved are waiting to see what happens via the broader geopolitical reordering that is seeming more and more inevitable these days. 

For the time being, that's a good thing for old movie theaters like The Aung Mingala. As property values rise, old movie theaters and the large footprints they sit on become prime targets for redevelopment, particularly when speculation is coming from outside investors who have little interest in anything other than reaping maximum profits. 

The fact that The Aung Mingala was recently upgraded further signals that the ownership has confidence in its longevity. 


Long live The Aung Mingala Cinema!


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Donations warmly welcomed....


The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project is a one person show. Although I've had some generous grants over the years, by and large I'm self-funded. That does not mean that I'm independently wealthy, or living off of a cozy trust fund. When I'm not documenting, writing about or giving lectures about movie theaters in Southeast Asia, I'm a laborer in Philadelphia, PA. Part of the savings I generate from my labor goes towards this project, the aim of which is to promote historic movie theaters as preservation worthy sites. After 8 years of doing this work, old movie theaters have started to enter the collective consciousness in some circles within Southeast Asia. That's not completely my doing, of course, but I'm not too proud to accept a bit of credit. 

If you enjoy the photos and essays you find here and want to see it continue, please consider kicking in a couple dollars to help sponsor future surveys. Better yet, buy a photo off of me. Send me an email at sea.theater@hotmail.com and I'll send you a selection of images for sale. 

Thanks for reading,
Phil Jablon


  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Win Cinema - Shwebo, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

One can be excused for not noticing the Win Cinema, as it looks more like a house than a movie theater. The humble neighborhood cinema hall - the last one operating in Shwebo - blends in to its residential block like a lizard on a leaf. None of the telltale features of movie theater architecture, whether the Burmese variety or otherwise, announce its presence. Aside from its name, unassumingly molded onto the peak of the facade, only the large vinyl movie billboard festooned to its front betrays the silver screen that lies beyond. 

Beyond that it basically looks like a home. 


The ever humble and slightly Tudor-esque Win Cinema.


Simple signage on The Win Cinema


A stroll down the side alley to the left of the building, however, reveals its movie theater organs. Here is where the show begins, where the ticket window, concession stands, poster cases and the like usher the movie goer into a world of escape. This demure little chasm has been, since 1963, Shwebo's entrance to the other.   



Smiling faces behind the ticket window



View of the side of The Win


Concessions


Ticket taker at the Win Cinema casually awaits customers while enjoying a cigarette and surfing the web.

Living time capsules like the Win Cinema are fast disappearing from Myanmar's towns and cities. This is no big surprise. In the past few years, Myanmar society has arguably changed faster than it has in any other similar time frame in its history.

In general, the technological and social changes which sweep relics like The Win into the dust bin of history are silent, rendering the loss little noticed. To the average person going about their daily lives focused on work, family, education, etc - the loss doesn't register until well after the fact. Suddenly, somehow, something causes us to think about it, we do the mental math and calculate how and why the thing disappeared. We come to conclusions - "it was nice while it lasted, but things are better the way they are now," or " life would be better if we still had that thing around." Either way the thing becomes an object of history, a morsel of legend to be bequeathed to next of kin and future generations, if it is remembered at all. 


Woven bamboo ceilings, exposed wooden truss beams and teak wood seats are some of the memorable details of The Win Cinema's very homey auditorium. If ever there was a theater that had the coziness of a house, it's The Win.  


Stickers on the backs of chairs.

Whether or not anybody will ever lament the loss of a little neighborhood movie theater that looks more like a house, with a woven bamboo ceiling pierced by exposed wooded trusses, is yet to be seen. In March of 2016 it was still up and running, but how much longer it can remain so is the question. If it were to close down, it's doubtful that many folks in little Shwebo would think too hard about it. Most people might not even notice. In fact, a place like The Win would close simply because the people who were once regulars stopped coming, choosing to watch movies in more immediate formats.

Only in hindsight will the loss be noticed. 


Projectionists manning the carbon-arc two-reel projectors, technology in place since the 1960's.



But for now The Win Cinema carries on, a living relic of a recent past. Maybe as the world changes, the equation will rework itself favorably to The Win, and instead of a destiny of darkness, if will get a second wind and live on.

It's nice to have these places around.


The Win Cinema at night








Sunday, January 1, 2017

New year, new findings, new goodies

Seasons greetings, theaterphiles. I hope you all rang in the new year exactly as you wanted to. Maybe there was one or two of you out there who celebrated the new year with a trip to a stand-alone movie theater. Or maybe not.

2017 is shaping up to be a productive year for The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. I feel I can say that with an ounce of confidence. For one, Thailand is about to get its first full revival of a vintage stand-alone movie theater. If you ask me what that means I would say that the tide is changing for these classic structures after many years of steady attrition. Once this first one is on the record, we should start to see more money invested in old theaters as a means of bringing new life to old town cores. Mark my words! It will take some time, but if I know anything about Thailand, it's that once something is done to success it is quickly adopted elsewhere. Anyhow, more to come on that theater revival in due time.

Second, after many years spent pounding the pavements of Thai cities in search of that elusive movie theater form, I've finally got a book coming out. In fact, text and photos are due to be submitted to my publisher this month, so I had better get cracking. Once I have an exact release date and all the finer details I'll let you know. I can tell you, however, that this book is going to be exclusively on the movie theaters of Thailand. Myanmar, Laos and elsewhere in the region will get their own books later.

Third, later in the year I'm going to be working with a Thai filmmaker on a documentary about this project. The past two weeks were spent gathering preliminary footage, which will be edited into a teaser in the coming weeks. The rest of the filming will take place later in the years. Do stay tuned for that!

But before all else, I'm going to be making another survey of Myanmar's historic movie theaters this upcoming February. Last year's trip yielded some exciting new finds and was capped off by an exhibition at Yangon's pioneering Myanmar Deitta photography gallery.  Above all, however, the trip opened my eyes to the full extent of Myanmar's vintage movie theaters, and that there are still many in seldom seen towns that need to be documented. A few of them are still in operation.

If you want to pitch in and help draw attention to Myanmar's enigmatic cinema halls, here's your chance. To help offset the cost of this trip, I'm selling a couple of photos and a t-shirt.

The two photographs below were both taken during last year's survey. I'm printing a limited run of 25 each at 14x20 inches. Each photo, signed and numbered, is $70 including shipping. Have a look at them below:


The auditorium of Yangon's Thamada Cinema. Without a doubt, Myanmar's grandest and most luxurious active movie there. At 1,024 seats it's also probably the largest. This photo captures the Thamada's essence in an almost science fiction manner.


The Aung Theit Hti Cinema in the city of Myaungmya, Irrawaddy Region. Although closed for the past 20 years, and allegedly inhabited by an enormous cobra, this humble mid-century movie theater makes for an interesting backdrop to a street side tea shop. Every evening people gather in its shadow to chat over cups of hot tea.

To purchase a photo, please send me an email at: sea.theater(at)hotmail.com


The T-shirt is the result of a recent trip to Bangkok's dilapidated Prince Theater. While rummaging through a pile of debris in a corner of the theater, I came across this flyer advertising a Kung Fu movie from 1969. On the flyer was the theater's classic 1960's logo, which I have had printed onto a bunch of T-shirts. Each shirt is $15 or 3 shirts for $38. Free shipping within Thailand. For shipping outside of Thailand there's an additional $10 fee.


Old flyer for the Prince Theatre, complete with vintage logo used on the t-shirts below.



To purchase a t-shirt, please send me an email at: sea.theater(at)hotmail.com

Either way, stay tuned for new posts about old theaters in Thailand and Myanmar. You can also follow my Instagram account at Phil Jablon or The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project Facebook page.



Saturday, December 17, 2016

A second chance for Hong Kong's State Theatre

It was just about a year ago that I first learned about the plight of the State. Word came in the form of a long, impassioned email from Haider Kikabhoy, co-founder of Walk in Hong Kong, a tour group based in that city. With detailed enthusiasm the author lamented the dire predicament of "the last grand post-war theater building still standing in Hong Kong," as a deep-pocketed property developer made moves to replace it with a generic commercial tower. A story I've come to know all too well.


Hong Kong's State Theatre. A lone low-rise vestige in a forest of concrete giants.


Haider had reached out in the name of some kindred-spirit publicity for The State Theatre. One movie theater-phile's appeal to another to sound the proverbial alarm. At stake was Hong Kong's last brick and mortar link to its legendary cinema heritage.

While I never did get around to writing that post, (until now, that is) I tried my best to impart a few strategic advocacy tactics that I thought might win his cause some support.

His cause, I should mention, is actually Hong Kong's cause. Aside from Haider's deft ability to link The State Theatre with a sustainable future for that great city-state, there's very little direct connection to the building that he and his advocacy team at Walk in Hong Kong have been trying to save. At least no more than the rest of Hong Kong's seven-plus million residents. Therein lies his logic.

While Hong Kong grows richer and more cosmopolitan by the year, its local identity and human scale often gets squeezed out. Countless historic structures and the communities that made use of them have been mowed down to keep up with the ever expanding property market. It's the ultimate Catch 22 facing successful cities in the globalization era. The more desirable a city becomes - the more sophisticated - the more difficult it becomes to maintain those qualities that made it so appealing to begin with. All the more so when the city in question is the the economic masthead of a thriving region.


The parabolic trusses suspending the State Theatre's roof. This unique feature was one of the architectural highlights used to argue the case for why the State needs to be preserved.

Armed with little more than an acute sense of Hong Kong's history and a team of committed activists, Walk in Hong Kong set out to preserve a mid-century masterpiece. Ever the pragmatists, Haider and his cohorts knew from the start that the likelihood of getting the State recognized as a historic asset by the Antiques Advisory Board, Hong Kong's governing body tasked with evaluating architectural heritage, was probably not going to happen. After all, the developer honing in on the State had more or less bought out all the surrounding properties, thus had the advantage of forward momentum. What's more, aside from the most keen of observers, very few people in Hong Kong even knew, let alone cared, about the State's humdrum existence. Out of business since 1997, it's most recent incarnation as a snooker hall didn't attract much attention.

Haider and company were undeterred. Over the coming months they would craft an advocacy campaign that struck deep. The State's signature exposed parabolic roof structure became the formal logo for the campaign, a design feature which, once seen, is hard to forget. A half dozen or so short videos were produced to highlight the cultural and architectural merit of this once-grand building, each narrated by a notable Hong Kong personality.  They lobbied the Antiques Advisory Board, arguing their case with pin-point precision, while continuing to do strategic outreach with both local and international media. It took a a Herculean effort, but over time they managed to build an undeniable case as to the value of the State Theatre, turning an essentially forgotten building slated for the wrecking ball into a bona fide monument.

On Thursday, December the 8th, the Antiques Advisory Board designated the State Theatre a Grade 1 historic structure, ensuring that any attempts to demolish the building would face steep scrutiny. This marks a major victory in favor of reason, and proof that hard work and strategic advocacy can indeed make preservation the logical choice over business as usual.


Vintage night shot of the State Theatre when it was at the peek of its operation


But the work is not done for Haider and Walk in Hong Kong:

"The Save our State campaign is working on a couple of conservation proposals that will balance the interests of any future developer of the site with the exemplary heritage of The State Theatre. At the same time, we will continue to collect and celebrate people's memories of the theatre. Besides the distinctive architectural style of the urban landmark, the stories of people who have used and enjoyed The State Theatre is what makes the building great"

Bangkok, Thailand, do take note. Your Scala is on the line.


Friday, November 18, 2016

The King Cinema - Shwebo, Sagaing Region, Myanmar



"There has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins."
 - J.B. Jackson, Historian of Vernacular Architecture.


The definition of a "ruin" referred to in the above quote may not be applicable in the case of Shwebo's King Cinema. Ruinous aspects certainly do apply, but most of those are in appearance only. While no longer an operational movie theater, the building is still very much alive. 


 "King Cinema," written in English, molded onto the back side of the theater.


The front of the King Cinema, with its colonnaded veranda.

The King's worn down look combined with architectural aesthetics that have long been relegated to antiquity do suggest a ruin. Case in point, the entrance area. As with many older cinemas in Myanmar, entrance to the auditorium is accessed through a series of wooden doors situated along the length of the theater. In the case of the King, those doors are set back behind a colonnade, giving the structure an almost regal look, reflective of its name, perhaps. 

So while not exactly a ruin in the traditional sense, The King Cinema's neglected vintage makes it a vessel for what J.B. Jackson would call "religiously and artistically essential." Fascinating, to put it simply. 


The area behind the colonnade is now used as a staging ground for sacks of dried beans. 


For the past 15 years or so, The King Cinema has been serving as a warehouse for a nut and bean distributor. Sacks of legumes awaiting export occupy space that once held rows of benches and beholden cinema goers.

Some interesting architectural details include exposed truss beams and tree trunks for wall supports. 


Old wooden chairs of the King Cinema, piled up high to make space for storage.


A man working in for the nut and bean dealer shows off some the goods. 


Workers empty sacks of raw beans into a huge pile on a tarp. Once the pile is big enough the tarp will be tied off and put into a container for shipping.


Tree trunk wall supports and other stuff.


The King Cinema was built in 1951.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Art and community meet at the cinema

The ravages of time have been gentle to Songkhla City. The centuries old seaport has largely been spared the mass reconfiguration of its built environment that have done so much to strip the charm out of countless Thai urban areas. Road widening, demolition of historic buildings and the accompanying paving over of history have only slightly altered the fabric of Songkhla. 

That's the good part. 

The less than good part - but by no means bad - is that the town has suffered the gradual effects of disinvestment. As economic opportunities moved to Songkhla's much larger sister city Had Yai and further afield, so departed much of the town's youthful vitality. Buildings that once housed thriving businesses and workshops were shuttered, while others lingered on thanks to the help of capital accumulated during more prosperous times. The city slowed down, but it didn't die. Not enough to cause it to crumble.


The Saha Cinema - built in 1930.

Of all the pieces of vintage architecture that make up the streets of old town Songkhla, there's perhaps none more interesting than the long dormant Saha Cinema - at least from a social stand-point. To the average passerby, the structure would hardly register as a movie theater. Its lack of architectural elements common to the structural type, combined with the fact that it is mostly made of wood (a material hardly common for the building type) places it under the radar of all but the most discerning observers. But to long-time residents, the Saha Cinema is a well known, if not legendary piece of the town's recent past.

That sentiment didn't elude world renown artist Navin Rawanchaikul. In recent years, the Chiang Mai native has turned his focus to using art as a way to create community dialogue, particularly those with a long past and deep heritage. Songkhla fits nicely with that criteria.   

After visiting Songkhla earlier this year at the invitation of a friend, Navin took note of the beautiful if understated townscape snugly situated along a narrow peninsula between The Gulf of Thailand and Songkhla Lake. The town's historic value was instantaneously clear to him.  

Having grown up in Chiang Mai, beside what was once that city's largest movie theater, Navin's artistic style was deeply influenced by cinema art. As a matter of necessity,  he took in the work of the theater's in-house billboard painter en route to school on a near daily basis. The larger than life movie cut-outs created to advertise films were forever etched in his mind, and would find utility in the decades to follow. 


The Saha Cinema covered in Navin's mural installation, dedicated to Songkhla and its denizens. 

Making use of those artistic machinations by employing some of Chiang Mai's former movie billboard painters, Navin sketched out a plan to reinvigorate Songkhla with art. Actually, it's a little more complex than that, but in a nutshell that's exactly what happened.

The logic behind this project was to weave the town's social history together into a billboard sized visual narrative that could be hoisted up onto the town's erstwhile central gathering point - The Saha Cinema. New color to an old building, reflecting the town's various personalities in a painting style once reserved for the movies.

In true anthropological form, Navin and his team collected oral histories and photographs from Songkhla's residents, using the two to cobble together a multi-paneled billboard depicting local people and locations. For the old cinema, the result was night and day. Instead of the usual indistinct look brought on by years of neglect, The Saha Cinema had regained some of its old flair. 

As for the town itself, the feeling of renewed pride and regeneration is afoot. With the aid of Navin's project, perhaps all the more so. 



Navin Rawanchaikul (wearing sunglasses, standing to the right of the framed picture) and members of the Songkhla community, post in front of Navin's Songkhla townscape collage on the last day of his exhibition. 





Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Sensational Signage of Siamese Cinemas

Don't bother trying to say the alliterative headline of this post 5 times fast. Trust me, it's a waste of time. I spent a solid two minutes doing just that and I'm not any better for it. 

But do feast your eyes on this second post to focus exclusively on Thai movie theater signage. Much like the previous installment, there are many delights to be found in this single facet of Thai movie theater architecture from yesteryear. More often than not, the huge cut-out letters were placed at the edge of the roof, boldly announcing the theater's name.

Architects of movie theaters in Thailand throughout much of the 20th century had a thing for dimensional signage. Part of that proclivity came from the fact that theater builders around the country were examining each others work for cues and inspiration. Since dimensional signage was in trend, it's what took root in the builder's psyche, hence proliferating throughout the relatively closed circuit that was Thai movie theater architecture. That's how evolution works.

Any review of mid-century commercial architecture in Thailand will reveal that dimensional signage was very much in vogue in general. But nowhere was it employed with more consistency then on movie theaters. 

Have a look at the proof below.


The Mahachai Rama - Mahachai, Samut Sakhon


The Bang Khae Rama - Bangkok


The Sirichai Theater - Chayaphum


The Khem Sawat Cinema - Fang, Chiang Mai


The Athit Rama - Tha Maka, Kanchanaburi


The Maharat Theater - Krabi


The Kosit Theater - Ban Pong, Ratchaburi


The Burapha Theater - Ban Chang, Rayong


The Khampaheng Saen Rama - Khamphaeng Saen, Nakorn Pathom


The Prince Theater - Bangkok


The Tang Sia Huad Rama - Nakorn Pathom


The Trisuk Theater - Khamphaeng Saen, Nakorn Pathom


The Sermsuk Theater - Kumphawaphi, Udon Thani


The Charoen Pon Rama - Pathumthani


The Aurora Theater - Chanthaburi


The Pak Nam Rama - Pak Nam, Samut Prakarn


The Kitti Rama - Chachoengsao


The Sra Kaew Rama - Sra Kaew


The Siri Phanom Rama - Phanom Sarakam, Chachoengsao