Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Route to Myanmar's Movie Theaters

For the third consecutive year, ye olde Myanmar map will be put to good use.  From my starting line in Yangon, I plan on moving in a northwesterly direction up through Western Bago and then zig-zag  my way across Magwe, Mandalay and Sagaing Regions. Barring any holdups, the survey should end in either Myitkyina, Bhamo or Kalay before heading back down to Yangon by the 21st of February. I will try to squeeze in as many towns and their respective movie theaters as possible in a northerly race against a three-week time limit.

First stretch of the theater hunt. 

Dry Zone theater hunt route

Upper Myanmar theater hunt route

If all goes as planned I will get severely ill - possibly from food poisoning - lose some weight I can ill afford to lose, and maybe suffer a burn or two during this expedition. I will get diarrhea. Dehydration will get me once or twice. I will vomit. The civilian informants and local gendarmes who chased me out of Natmauk - General Aung San's birthplace - and Thandwingyi in 2011 will have hopefully found more useful things to do. I am bracing myself for the inevitable night at a flea bag hotel with mosquitoes, bed bugs and/or carpet beetles. I am bracing myself for the inevitable town with no hotel at all, or no licence to host foreigners. Strange skin irritations will come as no surprise. In the Dry Zone cities, I am prepared mentally to have a few unpleasant encounters with raging ethno-nationalists. I will try not to drink too much Myanmar Beer. I will forget to exercise. Loneliness followed by bouts of mild depression will creep up on me. I will photograph lots of old movie theaters. In the end, barring catastrophe, I will be smitten with Myanmar as usual.

You can follow me on Instagram and Facebook which I will be updating regularly while on this survey.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Myoma Cinema - Ye-U, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

World War II history buffs, here's one that you might appreciate. 

Shortly after the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942, the bucolic little burg of Ye-u in Sagaing Region got caught up in the ravages of war. The town's freshly minted Myoma Cinema was commandeered by the occupiers and put to use for nefarious purposes. Specifically, a subterranean chamber was built beneath the auditorium, which, according to the current owner, was used as some sort of prison/torture chamber by the Japanese. 

As far fetched as that may sound, that's what I was told. This unassuming, timber framed cinema hall, with brick nog walls and a gabled roof, more akin to a country cottage than anything else, had a dungeon below it. And it's still there, according to the current owner. 

The ever-humble Myoma Cinema, looking very much like a country cottage, holds a dark secret below its floors.

Beautiful brick flooring, exposed trusses and tree trunks for structural supports.

A Gaumont Kalee 12 projector, dating to 1939, still stands in the Myoma Cinema's wooden projection booth.

A portrait on the wall of the projection room depicting the wife of the original owner.

The humble sign board for the Myoma (Central) Cinema hangs unassumingly beneath metal eaves.  

Wooden bench seats.

 A cursory search for information on the internet doesn't yield much about any instances of Ye-U in World War II. The most significant thing I could find was that it was, and indeed still is, the terminal town of the Mandalay-Ye-U train line, which was bombed during the war. Needless to say there is zero information about a movie theater serving as a torture chamber or prison for the Japanese occupiers. 

The fact that the current owner of the theater, who was otherwise extremely accommodating, spoke no English, nor I any Burmese, didn't help things. Had communications between us been better I might have gotten access to the alleged chamber below. The only way I was able to find out about the nefarious crypt in the first place was to record the woman talking about the theater and then replay it for some bilingual friends when I got back to Yangon. Had I known about it when I was there, you can be sure that I'd have asked for access.

Maybe I'll follow up, with a translator, during my upcoming theater survey in February.  

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Mingalar Cinemas sponsors 2018 Myanmar Theater Survey

Mingalar Cinemas has been on my radar quite a bit of late. The Yangon-based movie theater chain (Myanmar's largest) has been quietly opening new locations across the country, venturing beyond their traditional mainstays of Yangon and Mandalay. Last December they opened their first branch in Mon State. Prior to that, they opened new theaters in Pyay, Bago and Magwe, while also increasing their theater holdings in Yangon and Mandalay, respectively. 

Mingalar's expansion isn't a big surprise. Most of Myanmar's leading companies have jumped at the new economic opportunities present since the country's reemergence on to the global stage. But as a theater chain - the nation's most prolific, at that - it's Mingalar's approach to expansion which is worth taking note of.

The company logo of Mingalar Cinemas

In stark contrast to most other theater chains around the world,  Mingalar Cinemas has an affinity for acquiring and renovating antique movie theaters. That's a rarity these days, especially in Southeast Asia, where the multiplex-shopping mall combination has become the norm. To see a movie exhibitor show any interest in preserving the architectural history of its very own industry is a much welcomed change.

Mingalar's newest branch - the theater in Mon State mentioned above - is the 72 year old Bayint Cinema. After nearly a decade long stretch of sitting vacant, Minagalar purchased the impressive old theater on the Mawlemyine waterfront and renovated it from top to bottom, carefully preserving all of its exterior architectural elements in the process. Besides adding a new entertainment venue, this marks a key preservation victory for Mawlemyine, a city with a uniquely historic if run-down building stock.


The Bayint (King's) Cinema before and after its 2017 renovations by Mingalar Cinemas

Mingalar has done the same elsewhere in the country, taking forgotten cinema spaces out from the doldrums of history and into the 21st century. In so doing, the company is helping to conserve an architecturally rich identity that Myanmar is gradually becoming famous for, while expanding their own footprint along the way.    


Pictured above is The San Pya Cinema, in downtown Yangon. The photo on the left was taken c. 2010, when it was basically a flophouse. On the right is The San Pya in 2017, three years after Mingalar Cinemas bought and renovated it into a first class theater with three screening rooms. All the classic International Style architecture was preserved, and the intersection still has its landmark movie theater. 


Inside and outside The Thamada Cinema - Minaglar's crown jewel movie palace. Probably the most spectacular movie theater in Southeast Asia after Bangkok's Scala

The Shae Saung Cinema is another mid-century beauty, perfectly preserved by Mingalar Cinemas.

For all the reasons stated above, I am extremely proud to announce that Mingalar Cinemas is sponsoring my 2018 Myanmar Theater Survey, commencing in February. This 5th round of movie theater documentation will probably be my last in Myanmar, so to go out on a high note like this is truly an honor. It is my hope that this sponsorship will result in more preserved cinema treasures down the road.

Monday, December 25, 2017

One Person's Trash

In the days before the corporate world came to reign supreme over the movie exhibition business, movie theaters had a whole lot more character than they do today. That goes for just about everything from the architecture of the theaters themselves, right down to the tickets they sold.

Speaking of tickets, it wasn't so long ago that tickets to movies in Thailand had a real charm to them. While some distinguished their theater's tickets by using very basic patterns, others were minor masterpieces designed by professional artists. The best of them were so finely detailed that they resembled actual currency, utilizing the same intaglio printmaking techniques that is indeed used in the design of money.  

For those accustomed to the computer printed tickets that are now the norm at Thailand's omnipresent multiplexes, let the collection below prove that there was once much more to this piece of ephemera than mere corporate logic.  

The Empire Theater - Bangkok

Some theaters had the custom of printing the logo and name of the film on their tickets if it was highly anticipated. That was the case for The Empire Theater pictured above. The movie on display is for the Thai spy thriller Hao Dong

The Cathay Theater - Bangkok

The Prakanong Theater - Bangkok. 

The Odeon Theater - Bangkok

The two tickets for The Odeon Theater pictured above and below were free entry tickets. The theater manager's actual signature can be seen written in purple ink. They are likely from the 1950's or 60's.

The Odeon - Bangkok

Two versions of the ticket for The Capitol Theater - Bangkok

Speaking of The Capitol Theater, I took the logo from the ticket above and printed it on a t-shirt. I've been selling that t-shirt, pictured below, to raise funds for more research and photography of Southeast Asia's dwindling stand-alone movie theaters. So if you want to grab yourself a nice T and support a starving photographer at the same time, this is your chance.

Each Capitol Theater t-shirt is $15 (free shipping if you're in Thailand). If you're outside of Thailand the shipping is an additional $15 dollars (sorry, but international shipping isn't cheap). Unfortunately, I only have sizes L and XL left in stock.

Click on the PayPal button below to get yours today.  

Shipping destination

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Pruttinan Theater - Ranong, Thailand

Ranong is the only province in Thailand's south that still projects a frontier character. From a few choice angles it feels almost as if the choke of the jungle was hacked away just a few years prior.

There's a well warranted historical precedent for Ranong's frontier quality. Besides having an active border crossing - a frontier in the most literal sense - from the late 19th up into the early 20th century, the province's economy was centered on a series of tin mines. Labor intensive extractive industries of that caliber attracted a particularly grizzled type of settler. From the back breaking labor of those mostly Chinese migrant workers, a slice of modern Thai civilization was born. 

The tin mines are now long gone, but the town that they helped spawn is still present in its narrow lanes and stoic old shop houses. And much to the delight of this photographer, a trio of old movie theaters are still standing. The most notable of them being The Pruttinan Theater, featured in this post.

The last and most architecturally impressive of the movie theaters built in Ranong is the Pruttinan Theater

If there were an award for the best Brutalist movie theater in Thailand it would  easily go to The Pruttinan. This beast of a building has been tantalizing me since I first came across a photo of it 7 years ago in an online forum. Said photo depicted the theater while it was still in operation, with its dimensional signage perched just above its concrete roof line. The signage has since been removed, detracting a bit from The Pruttinan's provenance, but not so much as to damage its general Brutal aesthetic.

The Pruttinan is a free standing building towards the northern end of Ranong's main commercial street. It's hulking, Brutalist girth combined with its stand-alone placement give off a fortress quality. If one didn't know better, it might be mistaken for a modern day castle, built by the descendant of a tin tycoon or something.  

Pruttinan through the weeds

I forget the exact year of The Pruttinan's construction, though I know it was sometime around the turn of the 1980's. That's right about when car ownership started to become a staple of the Thai middle class. With that in mind, the Pruttinan was designed with a large parking garage beneath the auditorium, giving it a competitive advantage over the 3 other theaters in town in terms of access. 

But alas, even such modern conveniences couldn't keep it from going under.

In its final years, The Pruttinan was managed by Coliseum Films, southern Thailand's main movie distributor. It closed down while under their helm in about the year 2000.

It's since been converted into a swiftlet nesting house. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Bang Saphan Noi Theater - Bang Saphan Noi District, Prajuab Kirikhan Province, Thailand

The story behind the founding of The Bang Saphan Noi Theater, the first ever movie theater to grace the soggy fields of the district it's named for, is a textbook case study of a 20th century Sino-Thai entrepreneurship in rural Thailand.

Starting in the late 19th century and going forward, Chinese migration to Thailand was encouraged by successive reigns of Thailand's ruling Chakri Dynasty. In their push to modernize the country, the Chakri King's invested heavily in canals and, later, trains, opening up new lands to resource extraction, crop extension and the various industries which they spawned. Chinese immigrants often settled along the canal fronts and train lines, jockeying for position to best capitalize off the new modes of transport.

The general pattern would be for a first generation immigrant-entrepreneur to set the stage for future capital accumulation. From there, the second generation would take the helm. In Bang Saphan Noi, young Prayat Phatanaphanich did just that. From tailor, to cloth merchant, to clothier, who bought some land, planted a coconut palm plantation and made a fist full of baht. Profits from one enterprise were reinvested in others, diversifying revenue streams, often resulting in little local empires.

By the early 1980's, the Phatanaphanich's were an established business family in the town. Bang Saphan Noi was also still largely electricity free, as were many parts of rural Thailand at the time. Only the well heeled could afford the luxury. As such, demand for leisure activity after work was done was high. What better thing to do with all that excess cash than bring cinema to your neighbors?

In 1981, Prayat Phatanaphanich and a few other investors built The Bang Saphan Noi Theater. It was erected on land adjacent to his plantation, turning over another adjacent plot for the construction of a Chinese temple and housing for his numerous relatives and employees, some of whom worked in the theater.

Modern vernacular architecture with stars on the cornice. So be the Bang Saphan Noi Theater

Two types of temples. One for ancestor worship, the other for the gods of cinema.

Architecturally, The Bang Saphan Noi Theater is a simple structure, highlighted by the use of ornamental metal stars bolted to the cornice around the sign board. Realistically, there wouldn't have been any need to distinguish the theater any further with a flashy design. Despite that, it's still a fairly imposing structure, tucked away behind the town's main drag. And in this post-stand-alone movie theater era, it would serve as a jaw dropping surprise to anybody who unwittingly chanced upon it. Nobody in their right mind equates small town Thailand with massive movie theaters anymore (except maybe the two or three of you who read this blog regularly).  

Open-air lobby of the Bang Saphan Noi Theater

Ticket window iron work.

Mr. Surin Jinthanaphan standing in the gutted auditorium, where he worked as GM for the duration of the theater's working days.

I was fortunate to come across Mr. Surin Jinthanaphan at his house just next to the dormant movie theater. After a casual chat about his hulking concrete neighbor, Surin revealed that he is a member of Phatanaphanich family and worked as the general manager from start to finish. 

Picking his brain for a half hour or so shed more light on the local nature of the movie theater business in rural Thailand from not so long ago. 

Most theaters in Thailand at the time still relied on the services of professional voice actors do live dubbing for foreign language films. At smaller theaters, a pre-recorded tape of the dubbing session was often supplied rather than pay the high cost of booking the dubber for a live show. Not so for the Bang Saphan Noi Theater, which, despite being a small market, had an in-house dubber by the name of Nahyo, who also resided in the town. 

The 600 seat theater was indeed the central meeting place for just about the entire town until the mid-1990's, when Bang Saphan Noi got wired for full scale electricity. Immediately after that attendance fell, as townsfolk increasingly opted to stay  glued to the TV at home rather than venture out to the theater. The theater closed shortly afterwards and has been vacant ever since.

But in its short operating life, the Bang Saphan Noi Theater was a harbinger of bigger things for a town well below the radar. It's probably safe to say that Bang Saphan Noi's most lively era was during the brief span when it had its very own movie theater.  

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Sirimitr Rama - Ban Grud, Bang Saphan District, Prajuab Kirikhan Province, Thailand

It took an extra three hours longer than normal to get to Ban Grud from Bangkok thanks to the undercarriage of my train catching firing 20 minutes out of the station. Almost 10 hours worth of travel to spend a whopping 6 minutes documenting the local picture house. Sad but true. Maybe I'm losing some my enthusiasm for this work after all these years?

Probably not.

The reality is there was no chance of getting inside this place, the exterior has very little remaining of its original details, and above all else there was an angry dog getting all worked up over my presence. A biter, said some neighbors. Figured I'd get my few shots in, ask a few questions and be on my way.

The lower half of the facade is the only part of the Sirimitr Rama with any remaining detail.

The Sirimitr Rama is indeed pretty bland. Aside from the ticket booth and surrounding veranda area, which still has some cool old detailing, most of the theater's original wooden components have been removed and replaced with a concrete frame and walls. The only reason it's left standing at all is because it has been converted into a swift nesting house, a common adaptation for old movie theaters in coastal Thailand. 

The ticket booth, complete with classic ornamental iron work. On the wall above it reads "Coming Attractions" and "Thanks for coming."

Iron work on ticket booth

A single lotus column supports the former projection room from the veranda below. The lotus column in Thai architecture is a sure sign of an early post-World War Two build. 

In hindsight, the highlight of this little research/photography jaunt today was my stroll down the main commercial street of Ban Grud. A commercial housing stock comprised almost exclusively of two-story wooden shop houses lines both sides of the street. This old world elegance is a nostalgics dream. Even the vinyl sun screens in front of the shops have a classy old look to them. 

Main street in Ban Grud

As I approached the Sirimitr, which is at the far southern end of the main drag, set back a bit from the building line, I noticed an elderly couple sitting in front of their house staring at me. I gave them friendly nod and "hiya doowin?" as I got closer. Then, out of the blue, before I could even get my question out, they gestured for me to walk a bit further, accompanied by the affirmation of "old movie theater." I guess I look like I'm looking for old movie theaters. Maybe they recognized me from TV. Whatever the case, it was kinda freaky. 

The man turned out to be a relative of the owner. He related that the Sirimitr was built in 1961 under the name of the Chalerm Sin Theater, and that the name was changed to Sirimitr when it was purchased by his relative. 

Most importantly, he kept the mean dog at bay while I took my pictures, and was kind enough to drive me down to the little beech front hotel that I'm writing this post from.