Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Sein Cinema - Paung, Mon State, Myanmar

The theater hunt occasionally leads me to a town that pleases the senses beyond the movie theater that brought me there in the first place. Count Paung as one of those towns. While Paung's humble little movie theater - The Sein Cinema - also contributes to the town's overall charm, it's some greater combination of scale and aesthetics that otherwise makes this place and others like it so mesmerizing.

Myanmar is stuffed to the gills with towns of this gauge; places that have not yet been reconfigured to accommodate car traffic, or otherwise augmented to conform with the often deadening logic of modern city planning schemes. Thoroughfares in such towns are almost always narrow. In Paung, the term lane best defines its roadways. Mature trees are everywhere, engulfing the mostly wooden building stock in comfortable shade. Along the most narrow of lanes, an elfin quality pervades. Miniature little places for happy people, living among the trees, whistling while they work. No, not really, but you too might succumb to such fantasy if you experienced it as I did.

Unfortunately, most of what I saw of the town came while being whisked around on the back of a motorcycle, leaving little chance of documenting this gnome-scaled city in all its diminutive glory. When I dismounted, it was in front of the Sein Cinema, which occupied all of my attention from then on out.

Unsurprisingly, the Sein Cinema is on one of the more ample roadways in Paung. Not the best representation of what this town is all about. But not the worst either. In reviewing these pictures, taken back in February, I'm reminded that even a typically grand structure like a movie theaters is scaled down for a fairytale land like Paung.

The Sein Cinema in streetscape context. The charm of towns like Paung come from a pre-industrial scale and aesthetic, and are compounded by the general lack of cars. But that's not likely to last much longer. 


Reflecting the internationalism of the times, graffiti for the band Slipknot is scrawled on the facade of the theater 


The Sein Theater reflects the cottage atmosphere of Paung at large. It’s neither grand and imposing, nor decorated in such a way as to distinguish it as cinema. From the exterior, it looks like a private home. If not for the sign mounted beneath the gable, it very well might be mistaken for that.

But along the side of the building, beyond a pair of folding wooden doors, lies the auditorium. Therein the elfin quality found throughout town in revisited. Everything about it feels hand crafted, one of a kind, and of course, built for pint-sized patrons.

Once inside the Sein, the handcrafted nature of it construction becomes obvious. Though only dating back to the 1980's, it feels like it could have been built in the 1920's or 30's. 

Wooden chairs comprise the seating in the balcony.

Straight-on facade shot of the Sein Cinema. Sein means diamond in Burmese.

That’s what makes these old school movie theaters of Myanmar so enticing. Because of the local craftsmanship involved, from the minute d├ęcor to the functional parts, it is endowed with a strong identity and sense of place. There is no other theater in the world that is quite like this one, and the same goes for the majority of the others.

In a globalized, somewhat homogenized world, that is hard to find.

Couldn't resist a shot with the gang of kids that followed me around while photographing the Sein.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Nan Daung Cinema - Mawlemyine, Mon State, Myanmar

The Nan Daung Cinema is yet another example of what I've been pitching to the architecture community as a form Burmese vernacularism within the modernist movement. Burmese Polychromes, I've dubbed them. 

My rationale is pretty simple:

1) These buildings all have multi-hued (polychromatic) patterns on the otherwise plain, boxy facades. All display key elements of mid-century International Style.  
2) I've only seen this look in Burma/Myanmar. Theoretically, this design style gained popularity among cinema architects, professional or otherwise, during the 1950's and early 1960's. As a result, within the closed circuit of builders and architects working in the country, this became a common look.

Combine the look with the location and you've got a newly minted architectural genre: Burmese Polychrome Cinemas. 

The Nan Daung Cinema in the heart of Mawlemyine.

Night time street view of the Nan Daung Cinema.

The only visual evidence that the Nan Daung remains is the minuscule drooping signage clinging to the facade.

In its current state, the Nan Daung is a little known, scarcely remembered blighted ruin. When talking to locals about where I might find old theaters around town, nobody made mention of this place. It only dawned on me after multiple strolls past it that I was indeed strolling past an old movie theater. 

My attempts at getting inside without trespassing went nowhere. Workers at the surrounding businesses, usually the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to getting information, seemed completely disinterested. A young woodworker employed at a neighboring furniture manufacturer looked at me like I was mad when I inquired with him about the mold covered structure next door. Most other folks simply shrugged.

It's likely that the interior is either a dilapidated mess, or is being used for storage of some kind, though there didn't seem to be much activity to that end. 

After some friendly leads put me in touch with a former employee, and the brief conversation which transpired, a date of construction sometime around 1960 was established. 

Beyond that, the Nan Daung Cinema remains a very big unknown.  


Thursday, August 10, 2017

"A cinema to be treasured in Mon State"

From FRONTIER MYANMAR July, 12th 2017

Myanmar's architectural treasures include an ornate teak cinema in Mudon that was built nearly 100 years ago and is probably unique in Southeast Asia.

Words and Photos by PHILIP JABLON

Myanmar’s reputation at Southeast Asia’s jewel box of heritage architecture is well established. From colonial-era masterpieces and rare examples of Tropical Art Deco, to vernacular architecture of every age, Myanmar likely contains the best-preserved collection of vintage buildings in all of mainland Southeast Asia.

Almost as well established is the precariousness of that status. Due to lax zoning regulations and weak enforcement of cultural heritage laws, many of Myanmar’s historic buildings stand in existential limbo, with market forces holding ultimate sway over their fate....

Click here for full article  

Scroll down for expanded photo essay.

The Aung Nan Mingala Cinema

A very simple ticket window. The smaller hole on the left was for the purchase of balcony level tickets.

The name of The Aung Nan Mingala Cinema on the gabled facade.

Auditorium views. The bare circles on either side of the screen once held paintings that were commissioned specially for the cinema.

The cartouche atop the proscenium, welcoming one and all to a world of escape.

Details of a balustrade surrounding the veranda.


Help support movie theater preservation

Feeling generous today? Want to contribute to the documentation of historic movie theaters in Southeast Asia? If so, please consider making a donation to The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. All donations between now and the end of the year will be used to survey more theaters in Myanmar, where enchanting gems like the one featured above are steadily being lost.

Every little bit helps me keep the project going.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The King's Cinema - Mawlamyiane, Mon State, Myanmar PART 2

It took a bit finagling to finally gain access to the King's Cinema. Several shop keepers that I inquired with in town suggested talking to the people who run the noodle shop next door to it. "The two are owned by the same family," they'd say. "They can help you." 

My first attempt at talking to the noodle shop proprietors was met with cold dismissiveness. The shop was nearly full with what seemed like regulars, all of whom turned their attention from their steaming bowls to the disjointed negotiations being had between the owners and the disheveled foreigner muttering in incoherent Burmese about movie theaters and taking pictures.

After a few minutes of pleading my case to no avail I departed, bitter, resigned to the fact that I would never see the interior of this fortress movie hall - my primary reason for being in Mawlamyiane. 

A few hour later, though, I got a second wind. If I didn't give it another go I'd knew I'd be kicking myself down the road, so I strode back down to the noodle shop hoping for the best but expecting the worst. 

Other than the owners the shop was empty, which I figured would work in my favor. Any fears the owners may have had of losing face in front of their customers by admitting a complete stranger to their rundown heirloom was moot. There would also be ample time for me to make my case to them. I took the trusty camera out, inserted a memory card and scrolled through the thousands of photos I'd taken of theaters throughout Myanmar, naming each one and its location as I went. Being old movie theater hands, they were familiar with most of what I showed them, and nodded in recognition of their former cohorts.

Judging that I meant no harm, they acquiesced, calling for one of their young staff to lead me into the cinema next door. I bowed and thanked them profusely before being escorted into the abandoned hulk.

View in the vestibule area, with one of two ticket booths visible in the background. 

My escort pulled open the steel gates to the theater and we slipped inside, passing through a vestibule before ascending a creaky wooden staircase to the projection room. The young man knocked on the closed door and called out in Burmese. The door opened just enough for the face of an elderly man to be seen, his eyes flitting between myself and the escort. A moment later he rushed out, buttoning up an over-sized collared shirt as he whisked past me. The King's resident caretaker, I thought. 

"Come, come," he beckoned, gesturing for me to follow as he descended the creaky wooden stairs. The escort departed, leaving the older man in charge. We walked a corridor along the perimeter of the auditorium until he reached a set of folding wooden doors which he flung ajar, allowing tropical sunlight to illuminate the auditorium. 

A simple proscenium frames the screen of the King's Cinema.

The ornament at the top of the screen is a metal cutout of the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise logo. Below it is the letters M.M.P.E.

Floral motifs on the facing of the balcony. For a brief time after it closed in the mid-2000's the theater was used as a motorcycle parking lot, hence all the old teak bench seats piled up beneath the balcony. But that didn't last. 

U Than Nainge is indeed the resident caretaker of the King's Cinema. He sleeps on a bed in a room just beside the projection booth. In former times, that room served as the theater's office, where all the accounting, programming and day to day business of the theater was carried out. 

Resident cinema caretakers are a common occurrence in Myanmar's ageing movie houses. These live-in employees often play multiple roles, including basic maintenance, janitor and watchman at night. A good number of them often serve as projectionists, as well. 

In the case of U Than Nainge, his attachment to the theater goes beyond the casual intimacy of the resident caretaker. His mother constructed the theater back in 1945 and his family, including the folks selling noodles next door, hold the title to this day.  

View from the teak wood balcony.

U Than Nainge standing in one of several old offices near the projection booth. Like much of Myanmar, this room has museum-like qualities.

Flipping through old print material stashed away in an old cabinet. 

I spent an hour or so trying real hard to elicit stories from U Than Nainge, but his English was only slightly better than my Burmese, which is awful. What I got was a bunch of truncated stories and incomplete factoids about what was clearly a voluminous career in the movie theater business. Such is research without a translator on hand. I do a lot better in Thailand, where I speak the local. 

Short of boring you with useless half-facts that I may have accurately recorded, I'll leave you with this: hope springs eternal. There is a bit of interest, vis a vis an unnamed party, in the purchasing and refurbishing of this classic old movie hall. 

Until then, Mon State can lay claim to the most eye catching abandoned movie theater in all of Myanmar. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The King's Cinema - Mawlamyine, Mon State, Myanmar PART 1

Please excuse the abrupt halt in publication here at the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project website. It's by no means intentional. I'm just itching to unload my photos and accompanying drivel onto anyone willing to look and listen, but finding the time to hammer out essays while at the peak of my working season isn't easy. So for the time being lets stick to the basics, like street views of movie theaters and cursory descriptions of what they're all about. 

That down there is the King's Cinema. It's the riverside fortress of Mawlamyiane. Anybody strolling down Strand Road and the trash strewn banks of the Salween River passes by this building. It's a hard one not to notice. Whoever drew up its design clearly intended it that way. Although the facade and main entrance face onto a narrower street towards other buildings, the architect ensured that the King's couldn't be missed thanks to a vertiginous, curved sign stuck onto the corner facing Strand Road. The effect worked like a charm.  And the sign itself.....what a piece of work! It's alien without being alienating. Brutal without a touch of brutality, save for a vague resemblance to the Brutalist school of architecture that it preceded. I found it hard not to look at this building, and not just because I'm a sucker for cinema halls.   

The length of the King's Cinema fronting onto Strand Road is of a common ferrocement stock. Its low-slung breadth contrasts gracefully with the weightiness of the facade thanks to the slate-tiled shield of a sign between them. 

Wide view of Strand Road length of the King's Cinema.

A group of women working for a nearby bank stroll past the King's Cinema

A mobile lottery ticket vendor pushes his cart past the hulking carcass of the King's Cinema.

A game of Chin Lone being played in front of the King's Cinema.

Even from afar, the King's Cinema makes its mark along Strand Road. 

Mawlamyiane, city of Orwellian legend, of great historical and economic clout, has much to see. The town, for instance, is crowned by the Kyaik Than Lan Pagoda, sitting on the crest of hill that overlooks the various neighborhoods below. Across the Salween River, which the town sits at the mouth of, is the island of Bilu, known throughout the region for its many craft villages.

Few people come to Mawlamyiane for the King's Cinema, especially since it went bust six or seven years ago. But unless you're blind, the King's is hard to miss. 

Don't be blind! See the King's!

An ornate house bookends the King's Cinema at its rear.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Aung Tha Pyae Cinema - Kamawet Township, Mon State, Myanmar

In the great anachronism that is Myanmar (and I mean that as a compliment), the stand-alone movie theater abides. But barely. As the country gives embrace to the digital age, with its Pandora's box of new movie-watching platforms, the great public culture embodied in the stand-alone movie theater is finding itself cocooned a metamorphic stage. What it will look like in five to ten years is anyone's guess. 

Mon State, it turns out, is one of a few provinces that is a cinema dead zone. All but one of the State's inventory of oldies is in working condition, and that lone operator exists in the most unlikely of places: The glorified village of Kamawet.

For all practical purposes, Kamawet is a village. Even though it's administrative title is Township (the 3rd highest administrative level in the country) it looks and feels diminutive, villagesque, with an arboreal lushness that adds to the atmosphere. Not the kind of place one might expect to find a working movie theater.   

Street level with the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema, one of the most endearing bare bones movie houses you're ever likely to see. 

The Aung Tha Pyae Cinema is the definition of vernacular architecture. If the down home simplicity of its exterior isn't enough to convince you, then just take a peak inside. From the brick patterned flooring, to the threadbare curtains framing a simple cloth screen, right down to the hand-cut wooden seats, every inch of this theater echoes local craftsmanship. Skilled, yes; professionally trained, absolutely not. No chic accents or, or trendy flourishes mark this design. For the patrons of the Aung Tha Pyae, an appetite for the creature comforts required by movie-goers in most industrialized societies has yet to materialize. Could you, with your digital-age savvy, imagine sitting through a feature length film on a wooden plank? I don't think so.

Elevated view shows the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema looking not all that different from most other structures in Kamawet. 

Corridor from the lobby to the main auditorium

Perhaps the oddest form of seating ever found in a movie theater: three planks on one bench foundation, only one row of seating equipped with a backrest. 

The more luxurious balcony seating consists of rows of plastic chairs fastened together with a long wooden board.

The ever rare Myanmar production that's still made on film can play at the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema thanks to its vintage ShinKyo 35 mm projectors.

Before you get any cockamamie ideas of traveling all the way to Kamawet to watch a movie in what is clearly one of worlds most guileless movie theaters, you should know that these days The Aung Tha Pyae only screens a movie once, at most twice, per month. According to the owner, pictured in the photo above, Kamawet is such a small market that most distributors don't even bother bringing reels through.  

That said, it would be a real treat to see this theater up and running on one of those precious movie nights; in this time capsule of a glorified village in deepest Mon State. 

Ticket for the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema - Ye, Mon State, Myanmar

One of the surest ways to stoke the flames of interest about a place is to make it off-limits. Give it some time and the unknown - hence unverifiable - will invariably give way to rumor, myth or otherwise fantastical ideas about said place. The harder it is to access, the greater the fantasy will arise. 

Take Ye, for instance (pronounced Yay). In 2011, when I was first in the vicinity, overland travel between Dawei and Mon State, where Ye lies, was prohibited. The official reason was that a long running stand-off between the Mon National Liberation Army and the central Myanmar military, commonly known as the Tatmadaw, made travel unsafe. Foreign visitors were barred from entry, leaving the ancient Mon principality to take on mythical status in the minds of the excluded. That allure was further heightened, in my case, by a lone golden affirmation straight from the mouth of a Ye migrant cabbie that I had questioned in Yangon the week before: "Yes," he proclaimed, "there is a cinema in Ye." 


The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema. A staple of the Ye townscape since 1974.

The city of Ye and surrounding hinterland opened to tourism in 2013, allowing for all the speculation to be put to rest. There is indeed an old movie theater in town. Two, in fact; amid what is yet another leafy, human scale Myanmar city that anybody with penchant for charming urban forms should make a pilgrimage to. 

A man takes a short cut through the Yan Aung Thiri Cinema, abandoned or about 10 years.

A good number of the movie theaters I came across during my recent Mon State tour are, for lack of a better description, rudimentary structures. That's not to say that they're not well constructed, or made of fine materials. They are. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a theater builder anywhere in the world in this day and age build a theater that has hand crafted teak wood stairs leading to a teak balcony. Or a teak proscenium painted in pastel colors. How about exposed wooden support columns running up the side of the walls? Good luck trying to find anything close to that in a theater built today. But in the realm of decor and what you might call creature comforts, these theaters were simple creations. 

At the most extreme end of simplicity is the packed dirt floor of the Yan Aung Thiri. Structurally, while definitely a feat of craftsmanship, it is devoid of even the most basic ornamentation, or sveltness of design that most people associate with old movie theaters. Its brick nogging exterior surface and exposed wooden structure endow it with an anti-industrialism that echoes the Arts and Crafts movement in the West. That, however, is an unlikely connection for a small town Myanmar movie theater from the early 1970's.

There's some holes in the wall, where tickets were sold to all.

Rays of morning sunlight stream through broken windows at the rear of the auditorium

Cinema ephemera litters the floor beside hand-crafted teak stairs leading to balcony seating.

The most notable ornamentation at The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema is the multicolored proscenium that framed the screen, since removed.

By 1974, when The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema was built, Myanmar, then Burma, was well down "The Burmese Road to Socialism," the political philosophy developed by General Ne Win's military government. The basic principles of this ruling mandate were based on xenophobia and superstition, with the state as the guiding hand of everything. 

The Yan Aung Thiri was a product of that state. So, although it's a fine building in many ways, its simplicity probably has roots in the socialist values purported by the government, if not the fact the country had simply grown too isolated and poor to build anything much more luxurious.

Most of the rows of teak wood seats have been removed.

Discarded movie posters cover the floor of the balcony. 

Street scene in front of The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema. A woman came up to me while I was taking photographs and said she hoped that somebody would come and fix up their movie theater.

The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema is a bona fide landmark, albeit an under the radar one, in a town that for years had been completely off the radar. Like Myanmar in general, the self-sequestering of Ye led to severe stagnation. It also had the effect of freezing the town in time. To see the city now is to step into a past that elsewhere in Southeast Asia people are, more or less, beginning to lament the loss of. Such is the price of progress.

If Myanmar is wise it will take note of such sentiments and put resources towards preserving whatever it can of its prized past, movie theater or otherwise. Economic stagnation may indeed have inadvertently preserved countless cultural treasures. But preservation by neglect only goes so far. And now the far more tenacious adversary of demolition by progress is entering the ring.


A moment of your time.....

Are you a fan of The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project? Want to see it continue and expand into new towns, cities and countries? If so, you might want to consider making a donation. As the sole proprietor of this project, I'm more often than not funding it on my own. And while I do so with pride and joy, it's difficult to sustain. Your modest contribution will help me reach these old theaters and continue raising awareness of them. Maybe even a few will be preserved along the way.