Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Siam Rama - Chanthaburi, Thailand

At the height of its cinemania, Chanthaburi City had six active stand-alone movie theaters serving its citizens. That's six theaters in a town that can be crossed on foot in about 20 minutes. Around almost every corner in Chanthaburi of the 1980's one would invariably come across a movie theater; its neon hues casting a soft glow on the asphalt streets below. 

Of those six theaters, five are still standing, and four are still in recognizable condition. One of them can be found just around the corner from the central traffic circle in the heart of town. That one would be the Siam Rama. While not the most ornate of the quartet, it does have a noteworthy feature. If approached from said traffic circle, the Siam Rama creates a quintessential terminated vista. That is, it stands at the head of a perpendicular street, causing the view to have a definitive end point.

In the nomenclature of New Urbanism, a terminated vista is a desirable city attribute. It gives a street a destination point for pedestrians to gravitate towards. A street terminating in a movie theater is a dream come true from any pious New Urbanist.

This theater, lamentably, has long been closed. In its second life it serves a function most antithetical to New Urbanist theory - a parking garage. 

Nonetheless, it stands. That in itself is winning state of affairs.

The Siam Rama, Chanthaburi's most famous terminated vista

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Sri Burapha Theater - Chanthaburi, Thailand

Chanthaburi's topography lends itself to dramatic building settings. Near its center, the land swells upwards into a sizable hill, texturing the otherwise flatland monotony that spreads west from the Chanthaburi River. In pre-modern times it would be easy to imagine a townscape capped by a mansion of Golden Teak, home to the local noble family, perched stoically upon said hill; a regal view of yonder domain below.

The modern equivalent to the lord's manor came in the form of a temple of cinema, which - though not exactly the most extravagant piece of architecture in this case - must have been quite a site when all aglow in neon, and up wrapped in colorful movie billboards. The Sri Burapha Theater was its name. 

The Sri Burapha Theater at the highest point in Chanthaburi.

The Sri Burapha has all the elements of a Thai movie theater from the 1970's; a concrete frame topped by dimensional rooftop signage; a large, sloping auditorium that probably had a seating capacity of near one thousand; and an open air lobby area, now taken over by food carts and folding metal tables.

Word on the street had it that the dilapidated theater had been out of business for more than 20 years. Now it's little more than a trash pit.

Let there be light beams

A poster case hangs from the wall in the outdoor lobby of the Sri Burapha Theater.

Classic dimensional signage 

Chances are slim to nil that the Sri Burapha will ever find new life as a cultural center or cinema hall. In all likelihood it will meet the wrecking ball as Chanthaburi begins its slow road to revival. But for the time being it continues to serve as a reminder to the people of Chanthaburi that movie theaters were once an integral part of the urban geography.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Federal Theater - Malacca, Malaysia (Guest Photos)

With a large percentage of Thailand's movie theaters already documented, my mind wanders to future expeditions in neighboring countries. Last summer a glimpse of Malaysia's cinema treasures was kindly shared by a fellow architectural photographer, sparking my interest in exploring movie theater relics in that country. At this point, however, the likelihood of that happening remains distant.

In the meantime, please enjoy this series of the Federal Theatre in Malacca, submitted by Malaysian-based photographer Raz Talhar.

Raz says that the Federal was built in 1965 by the Shaw organization and could accommodate up to 1130 poeple.

It was last used as a furniture store, though now sits abandoned. The immediate area around the theater, however, is undergoing a massive redevelopment. As of Raz's last visit in late 2014, the theater plot was sitting behind large metal hoardings.

It would be nice to see the developers incorporate a revived Federal Theatre into their upcoming project, but I would't hold my breath on that.

Remains of Federal Theater, Malacca

Federal screen

Balcony seating

Circle seating entrance

Projection room


Monday, March 9, 2015

SEAMTP on Thai Channel 11

A little help spreading the preservationist message from Thailand's Channel 11:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Limited edition Thai movie theater photo portfolio, now available

After 6 years of documenting the decline of Southeast Asia's stand-alone movie theaters, I've finally come up with a product to sell.

Over the last few months I've scoured my archive and carefully selected 20 images of Thai movie theaters for a limited edition, handcrafted photo portfolio set. The images are all straight-on facade shots done in the typologies style. Here's a sample:

To speak of mass entertainment during the 20th century is to speak of film, and the place to see films was in stand-alone movie theaters. This fact was no different in Thailand. Throughout the 20th century, Thai entrepreneurs constructed over 700 of these leisure palaces nationwide. Today there are less than 10 still in operation.

This collection is limited to 35 handcrafted sets which are available for $300US each (shipping and handling included). Every set comes in a handmade box with a hinged flip top. The front cover features gold leaf inlaid text, along with the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project banner photo. Inside are 20 images (that works out to less than $15 dollars per image) printed on A4 size handmade Mulberry paper, and produced right here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Each set is signed and numbered to ensure authenticity.

This sleek portfolio set can be neatly inserted among oversized books on a shelf, or laid flat on a coffee table. Otherwise, decorate a room by individually framing your favorite theater images.


Some of these photos have been featured in exhibitions across Asia. Others have never before been seen.

Keep in mind that only 35 of these portfolios will ever be printed, making them extremely collectible. Your purchase, moreover, will go directly to support further documentation of the stand-alone movie theaters of Southeast Asia. And believe me when I tell you that time is running out!

Many thanks for your support,

Phil Jablon

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Aurora Theater - Chanthaburi, Thailand

When a movie theater goes out of business but the building is spared the wrecking claw, there are innumerable potential ways to repurpose the space.  Generally speaking, however, only a few types ever come into being. 

Because movie theaters are big spaces, they are often used to store big things. Cars, for example - although the least flattering use for such cultural institutions - are commonly stored in old movie theaters, making them into parking lots.  

Space-eating furniture likewise finds its way into old movie theaters on the regular. Furniture warehouses. 

Department stores, or supermarkets are another common repurposing practice for former movie theaters. 

None of these secondary uses, of course, can match up to the sacred function that the theater was originally built for, but it's worth noting the post-cinema variety of conversions all the same. Not least of all because the Aurora Theater of downtown Chanthaburi has been given a most distinct post-cinema life. 

The street side marquee of the Aurora Theater, now faded, once added a bit of neon glitz to downtown Chanthaburi.

The facade of the Aurora. Elongated ornamental arches add a bit design flare.

When Mr. Prakorb Boonchauyserm bought the Aurora Theater from its original owners back in 2003, its days of screening movies were well behind it. But cinema was never on the agenda of the Bangkok-born gemologist. He had other plans in store for the mammoth former theater from the get go. With Chanthaburi's gem industry having slowed dramatically, Boonchauyserm sought to diversify his cash flow vis-a-vis new migrants to the region. Swifts, the birds famous for producing nests used in the Chinese delicacy Bird's Nest Soup, had recently taken up residence in parts of coastal eastern Thailand. "They flew up from Java and other parts of Indonesia to escape the bad forest fires they had down there in the late 1990's," explained Boonchauyserm.

Noting the cave-like proportions of the defunct Aurora Theater, Boonchauyserm surmised that making some minor modifications to the old building would attract the avian refugees to take up residence. Once a colony had been established, their nests could be harvested and sold to brokers who would supply the ever-growing market in China. 

Boonchauyserm's plan worked, and within a few years he was harvesting the salivary nests for tidy sums. Following his lead, other property owners in Chanthaburi began setting up "bird houses" on the higher portions of their own buildings. 

"Actually, I prefer to call them bird hotels, not bird houses," joked Boonchuayserm. "Because the birds leave a payment for the time they stay."  

Chanthaburi now has one of the highest concentrations of Swift hotels in all of Thailand.

Rooftop perspectives.

Seeking to expand on his success in bird's nest production, Boonchauyserm has most recently invested in processing equipment to turn the delicacy into a tonic. Once his recipe is worked out and government certification granted, he intends to market the bird's nest drink commercially.  

The boxy structure with the square holes in it on the roof of the theater is how the Swifts enter the building.

Prakorb Boonchauyserm with a bag full of cleaned and sanitized swift nests, harvested from the former Aurora Theater.

Aside from a well-established gemological industry and a growing bird's nest industry, Chanthaburi is also going through a bit of a cultural revival. Historic areas along both banks of the river front are quickly being renovated to accommodate new shops, hotels, bars and restaurants. 

Boonchauyserm has been a leader in this sector, as well. Just across from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Thailand's largest Catholic church, he is renovating an old wooden shop house to serve as a cafe, museum, as well as a production facility for his nascent bird's nest drink operation. 

"We're buildings mock caves to help tell the history of bird's nest," Boonchauyserm added. Other diorama-like attractions will also be included. 


With the Boonchauyserm's bird's nest drink pending certification, I inquired as to whether or not he'd sketched up a logo for the product. "Not yet," he admitted. This is the tricky part; creating a brand image that is distinct, but also relevant and tells a story.

Of course, what else would enter my mind but a way to connect the drink with the former movie theater that is its source?

"If I were you," I posited, "I would hire an artist to create a logo that incorporates the arches of the Aurora. It tells a story that is unique to Chanthaburi, to the theater and to your business, all in one. And to top it off, the arches are cool looking ."

Boonchauyserm paused for a moment to ponder my suggestion. Then, with the calm resolve of veteran entrepreneur he annouced "that's a great idea!"

So if you see a new bird's nest drink on the market, with some interpretation of these Brutalism-inspired concrete arches in the logo, you'll know it has a cinematic origin.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Chanthaburi Multiplex - Chanthaburi, Thailand

Don't let the Chanthaburi Multiplex fool you. The 4 screen cinema hall is only masquerading as a multiplex to avoid an "out of business" notice displayed at the entrance. 

Ok, Ok, so it's actually been of business since 2011, but the point is that this chopped up old dame was once a massive single screen stand-alone; the first to be built in the city of Chanthaburi during a theater construction boom that occurred in the early and mid 1980's. 

The Chanthaburi Multiplex: Its facade is partially obscured by neighboring shop houses built contemporaneously. As a result, the signage is off-center.

Said theater boom of the early 1980's was not without precedent. At the time, Chanthaburi was in the midst of a thriving economy due to a voluminous gems trade. Ruby mines in Chanthaburi and nearby Trad provinces had high yields in those days. Chanthaburi's well-established gemological industry served as a clearing house for the stones, enriching the town's jewelers and lapidaries in the process.

In fat times, build big, the logic goes. During those fat times, 5 theaters arose across the city.

Lobby of the Chanthaburi Multiplex. Terrazzo floor and solar system ceiling fresco. 

The theater opened in 1980 as The Chanthaburi Rama - an 880 seat single screener that replaced a decrepit wooden theater occupying the same plot of land for decades prior. The old wooden theater was called The Sin Tu Nawa.

By the late 80's, four newer theaters had been constructed across Chanthaburi, giving the town one of the densest concentrations of stand-alone movie theaters anywhere in Thailand. While this scenario must have been great for film enthusiasts, it made competition among the various theater owners stiff. As an adaptive measure, in the early 90's the owners of the Chanthaburi Rama divided their grand cinema hall into 4 smaller theaters, making it one of Thailand's first multiplex theaters. 

The procedure turned out to be a wise one. With four potential viewing options, the Chanthaburi Multiplex, as it had been renamed, could offer the same viewing fair as all the other movies theaters in town combined. 

One by one, Chanthaburi's others theaters began to close their doors, while the Chanthaburi Multiplex hung on until 2011. That year a brand new SF Cinema - Thailand's second largest cinema operator - opened a branch in a new shopping mall just outside of downtown. The Chanthaburi Rama/Multiplex's 31 year run came to a halt. 

Theater 4

Remaining details of theater 4

Exit of the stars

Rusting signage

Over the years, Chanthaburi's once hot gem industry has cooled significantly, slowing the overall economy of the city in the process. But the local business community has responded in haste, smartly adapting its historic urban core as an attraction in itself.

Chanthaburi's "Old Town" neighborhood is in the midst of an economic revival, as outside investors and locals alike renovate a 100 year old commercial corridor that winds its way along the edge of the Chanthaburi River. Most of the buildings in Old Town are neo-classical/sino-colonial shop houses, a few of which date back to the mid-19th century.

Across the river, the largest Catholic Church in Thailand anchors Chanthaburi's sizable Vietnamese community. There too, locals have started the process of renovating old houses and store fronts to meet the city's historic rebranding efforts.

All tallied, Chanthaburi's historic preservation initiatives have been successful, but it is still a work in progress. If it continues at this pace, downtown Chanthaburi could be a model for other areas of Thailand looking to capitalize off of their historic architectural and urban assets.

Unfortunately the 5 erstwhile cinema halls in town have not been given the same historic preservation treatment that other buildings have. Three of them, including two of the Chanthaburi Multiplex's four auditoriums, have been turned into nesting houses for swifts, whose salivary nests can bring a tidy sum on the open market.

Chanthaburi's lack of action towards it's collection of old cinema halls, however, is not unique. Thailand in general has yet to develop a workable model for resuscitating old cinema halls for contemporary cultural purposes. But as the phenomenon takes shape in neighboring countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Burma, perhaps Thai preservationists and developers will find inspiration to do the same with some of their own historic theaters.