Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Aung Mingala Cinema - Nyaunglebin, Bago Region, Myanmar

On the opposite end of town from the YMBA Cinema - a straight shot if you follow to the street parallel to the train tracks - is old Nyaunglebin. This section of town flourished in the heyday of train travel. The British-built system that slinks its way across Myanmar was at the forefront of the modern market economy when it opened - piecemeal, one section at a time - in the early 20th century. To this day, town centers in many secondary and tertiary cities are at their most elegant near the train station, reflecting the economic heft carried by the locomotive.  

Nyaunglebin fits that mold. From the faded elegance of the train station, the town's produce hawkers begin their serpentine rows down the sidewalks, their fresh fruit and veggies displayed in sprawling piles in front of them. Behind them stand the rows of architectural treasures; ornate old buildings, largely intact, but so badly neglected that they appear as slumping, brittle shadows of their former selves. 

Among this collection of vintage structures stands the Aung Mingala Cinema. Unfortunately, the exterior of the Aung Mingala was so far gone from modifications and neglect that photographing it would have been a futile effort. The interior, too, didn't have much to offer, except for a few hand painted flourishes on the proscenium, which are displayed below.

Abandoned auditorium of the Aung Mingala Cinema

A hand painted Zatt Minn Thar, or traditional Myanmar actor/dancer, flanks both sides of the wooden proscenium at the Aung Mingala Cinema 

The Zatt Min Thar

A painted Ga Lone figure, enemy of dragons, serves as a simple crest above the screen.

Looking back towards the projection booth and balcony seating. 

It's minutia like this that offers flickers of a forgotten past that will almost definitely be erased in the years to come. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Young Men's Buddhist Association Cinema Hall - Nyaunglebin, Bago Region, Myanmar

The Young Men's Buddhist Association has a storied history in Myanmar. Founded in 1906 to promote Burmese Buddhist values during the height of British colonial rule, the organization was an early incubator of the anti-colonial movement. It was at the insistence of YMBA members that the "footwear controversy" - a long-running debate between the Burmese Buddhist clergy and British officialdom over the practice of removing ones shoes when entering Buddhist sites (the Brits didn't expose their funky toes) - was pushed into the political sphere. Eventually the offending British were forced to capitulate, marking an important victory - if only symbolic - for the oppressed over the oppressors.

Despite the sectarian ring to its name, the YMBA had no formal connection to the then fractious Buddhist clergy. In practice, its function was much in line with its Western counterparts the YMCA and YMHA - social clubs based on religious affiliation, sans religiosity.  

A simple metal gateway to the right of the YMBA office once marked the way to the YMBA Cinema. The sign now advertises the YMBA football pitch, but in years gone by it was festooned with movie ads. 

The Nyaunglebin branch of the YMBA - founded in 1962 - was the only one in the country to ever have a purpose-built movie theater. The reason for this unusual coupling speaks volumes to the progressive nature of the organization, if not the local founder. 

Unlike other branches of the association, which depended for their survival on outside donations, the founder of the Nyaunglebin branch was intent on it being self-sustaining. This was as much a political sentiment as it was an act of entrepreneurship. His logic was to keep at bay those who sought to gain sociopolitical influence by donating money to a quasi-religious institution - an upstanding statement given the political climate of the times. Post-colonial Burma was a budding democracy. In so being, it was a highly divided and fractious society, in which money could go a long way politically. It was this state of affairs which ultimately and decisively came to an end with General Ne Win's military coup of 1962.

The YMBA Cinema was in essence the answer - at least in Nyaunglebin - to the day's political corruption.

Molded concrete signage is a common feature among on many early to mid-century buildings in Myanmar. The gold paint here adds a little bit of pizzazz. 

The building pictured in the two photos above, however, is not actually the YMBA Cinema. It's the head house of the larger YMBA complex, which includes the former cinema. This handsome building, which fronts onto the busy Old Yangon-Mandalay Highway, contains the office and meeting hall on the 2nd floor, with retail space (another way of raising funds) on the ground level. The cinema is located in an adjacent building just behind the office.

The logo for the YMBA symbolically situated above its founders on the office wall.

The YMBA Cinema was accessed by a long corridor on the side of head house. The cinema is now closed, but has since been transformed into a football pitch. 

Some ten years ago, the Nyaunglebin YMBA closed down the movie theater. Dwindling attendance was the main culprit. Keeping true to the YMBA community spirit, the large hall was converted into a football pitch, complete with AstroTurf. That's how I found it this past January. 

Teak wood theater seats, left overs from the days of cinema, are piled up at the far end of the hall.

From film to football - or soccer, for my American readers. This view depicts holes for the projectors flanked by balcony level seating.

Looking towards where the screen used to be.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

This Blog is not Dead

This blog is not dead and I can prove it. Just last week I was out in the field digging up the remains of old movie theaters which will be written up into drivulous little essays in due time. At this point I've got a backlog of material dating to 2015, October, which I've neglected to get around to for one reason or another.

Actually, the reasons are two fold. One, as I stand awkwardly on the doorstep of middle age, I've begun to care a bit more about my personal finances. Meaning I'd like to have some to speak of.

The second and more pressing reason is that what's left of my creative juices are being squeezed out into a book on Thailand's movie theater. In fact, it's called just that: "Thailand's Movie Theaters: relics, ruin and the romance of escape." After many delays and restarts, there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. Writing for a book, unlike writing for a piss-ant personal blog like this, is no easy feat. Not for a mediocre like me, anyhow. So rather than squander my creativity on senseless blog posts, I've been rerouting them to said book. Again, no easy task.

But in the name of keeping the SEAMTP faithful happy (if any of you still exist), here is a mini-post to prove, once and for all, that I still love doing this work, and that as long as there's a few people out there willing to read what I write and look at my pictures, I'll fulfill my end of the non-existent social contract we don't have between us.


Welcome to carbon monoxide corner. Better known as Rangsit. Thailand's tailpipe. The most charmless blotch of civilization ever. Within this context of ten-lane, at-grade highways and sub-brutalist retail blocks - completely devoid of plant life - stands an equally charmless stand-alone movie theater.

Say hello to the Petch Rangsit Theater. In its current condition, it's the type of place where street dogs go to die, but not before defecating in it while they're living. Whatever type of grace-saving signage this building once had has been removed, leaving a featureless concrete box covered in soot and tropical mold.

Rangsit was apparently once a relatively charming Bangkok hinterland. An agriculturally productive area highlighted by the eponymous Rangsit Canal. When built, the canal was one of those key infrastructure projects that solidifies a place's economic clout. After completion in the early 1900's, the canal helped further centralize Bangkok as the nation's commercial hub by connecting the Chao Phraya River with the Nakorn Nayok River and opening up huge swaths of land to agricultural production.

The canal made Rangsit into a junction from the beginning. But since the arrival of the highway system, Rangsit has been transformed into one of the country's biggest transit corridors, hence the pollution and general lack of charm.

By the looks of it, The Petch Rangsit Theater was built in the early 1980's, part of the larger commercial quarter described in not-so-glowing terms above. An edge city development predicated on cars and buses from the get go. The lot in front of the theater, in fact, is now a local bus terminus, which indicates that the theater was built to capture that transitory population.

In its working days, the Petch Rangsit was a second run theater that was routinely programmed with triple features, a business model which fits the come-and-go needs of a transient clientele.

Of the several thousand people that pass it on a daily basis en route to or from Bangkok and points beyond, very few likely have an inkling of what it was, or that it once made this slice of automotive hell a little bit better.

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Myoma Cinema - Letpadan, Bago Region, Myanmar

Letpadan had not been on my radar until early 2016, when, while at a photo exhibition in Yangon, I saw some shots of university students clashing with police there from the year before. Those images were the first I'd heard of the town, leaving me with an impression of a contentious little place full of disaffected youth and brutish cops.

Later on, a few older Myanmar friends mentioned that Letpadan was once a fairly important trading center, if not the primary town of Myay Latt - Myanmar's version of the English Midlands - an agriculturally rich area running northwest from Yangon up to the lower Dry Zone. Any place with that kind of clout, I reasoned, was bound to have had some movie theaters. 

Those suspicions were confirmed during last February's "Theater Hunt." Ledpadan is indeed home to two old movie theaters - The Myoma and Aung Mingala cinemas. Both share a similar architectural footprint and stand directly next to each other just off of the city's main traffic circle. Together they comprise what must have once been the commercial center of the town, with their broadside girth dominating the the low rise townscape.

The Myoma Cinema stands in the background on the left. The freshly painted Aung Mingala Cinema stands on the right. 

From the exterior, The Myoma Cinema has the appearance of a brick and mortar dignitary with a skin condition. One that could be easily remedied with a scrubbing and fresh coat of paint.  Nevertheless, The Myoma radiates an old-school charm despite its crumbly worn facade. 

The theater itself, which was located on the second and third stories of the building, has been closed for over a decade. But the shops that occupy the ground level portion of the structure, each situated in its on little nook behind the arcades, make the dormant theater lively even in its under-utilized state.   

The Myoma Cinema, dating to 1959, one of the more interesting buildings in Letpadan.

In an offhand way, The Myoma and other similarly designed movie theaters were the forerunners to the contemporary multiplex-shopping mall combo that make so much of urban Southeast Asia into an air-conditioned nightmare today. Retail space on the lower levels, movie theater on the top. Sadly, the new architecture of convenience tends to lack the human scale charms present in buildings like The Myoma, which are slowly being lost across the region with each passing year.

I can only image the time capsule of an auditorium, with its wood-worked balcony and hand-crafted ornamentation, all boarded up on that second level, but nobody seemed to have the key for it. Lucky for me, the Aung Mingala Cinema next door had a well preserved second level, which I was kindly granted permission to photograph and has an auditorium which I would guess approximates the Myoma's. Guess you'll just have to wait for the next post to see. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The Yadana Win Cinema - Thonze, Bago Region, Myanmar

Welcome to the "midlands" of Myanmar. Myay Latt, as the locals call it. This verdant section of the country spans the immediate northwest of Yangon, following the Yangon-Pyay train line up to its terminus in Pyay. Dotting the railroad, between emerald paddy fields and patches of scruffy forest, are a series of typical Myanmar towns. Low-rise, low-tech, quaint and human scaled. Products, mostly, of said British colonial-built railroad and the mercantile economy it spawned.

Welcome to Thonze, my first stop along the midlands trail after an early morning departure from Yangon. It was February 5th, which is noteworthy only because back in America it was the evening of the 4th and my hometown Philadelphia Eagles were playing the New England Patriots in the Superbowl. Philly is famous for its losing sports teams, so when any of them make it to the championship, I take note, no matter where I am. It's a simple matter of culture, what little of it we possess.

The bus pulled to the side of road so myself and a young Myanmar couple could squeeze out. Like most local buses in Myanmar, this one was packed to the gills with passengers and their baggage. Disembarking required a contortion act involving a bit of rolling and snaking.

After I had collected myself I reached for my phone to check the Superbowl score. Victory Eagles! I was overcome with a nebulous pride over this fickle civic achievement, followed by a brief desire to be among my friends and family, drunk, joyously celebrating in the Philadelphia cold. But as quickly as it had come, the feeling faded, as I turned to more immediate concerns.

"Hello my brother," I said to a middle aged man on the street. "Does Thonze have an old movie theater?"

"Yes," he said, pointing in the direction I could find it.

In a sense, it's more the typology and placement of the stand-alone variety of movie theater that interests me than anything else. Architecture, while always important, is secondary to how the theater interfaces with the town itself.

The Yadana Win Cinema wasn't exactly what I would consider a stellar find aesthetically. From the looks of it, I guessed it was a relatively recent build, maybe dating only from the 1980's or so. There was nobody around who could let me inside, nor anybody in the vicinity with a good enough command of English to impart me with a Yadana Win history lesson. So I decided that I would be satisfied with a few exterior shots and move on.

Cornice of The Yadana Win Cinema

As I was taking aim at the theater, offhandedly wishing that I was back in Philadelphia reveling a Superbowl victory, I started to notice something strange. The Yadana Win Cinema started to vaguely take on the appearance of a bird. The awnings above the windows had a striking resemblance to avian wings. The pillars were like legs. The ugly glass panels up the center of the building reminded me of a bird's neck. And with a little imagination, the peak of the cornice was like a bird's head.

Adding to the weird coincidence that you might, by now, be starting to piece together, is the theater's name. Yadana in Burmese has to do with royalty. Win is simply a common name. But in English we all know what win means.

Think about it for a moment! The Royal Win Cinema; the Superbowl champion Eagles; a theater with a bird-like visage; a wayward Philadelphian looking for movie theaters. 

Does anybody else see the bird?

If there's a god above, it's one cryptic mother.

(Disclaimer: to be honest,  I could really care less about football, professional or otherwise, but particularly so in the wake the NFL's announcement that it would fine players for taking part in non-violent protests, such as kneeling during the National Anthem).

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Padaythar Cinema - South Okkalapa, Yangon, Myanmar

Putting aside reports of ethnic cleansing going on in Rakhine State and the many unfulfilled political expectations, Myanmar as a whole has received glowing press coverage over the past several years. The super charged economy pegged to government reform, blossoming democracy and a budding arts and culture scene have made for many a fancy read about Southeast Asia's "final frontier."

That's all good. It's a fascinating country, after all, and I couldn't recommend a more worthwhile place to visit. But there is an egregious downside to the progress being made that isn't getting nearly as much attention as it deserves.

The unsustainable growth in the use of cars.  

In 2010 when I first visited the city, yeah, there were cars. There was even traffic jams. But now it's terrible. So terrible that the quality of public life has declined collectively so everyone can enjoy their own private ride in a car. Does that equation make sense? The total quality of life for all has plummeted, so that for the individual passenger in a car it can improve. It's a weird zero sum equation if you ask me.  

I know, I know. High traffic volume is an indicator of prosperity. A sign of progress. Please! Spare me the apologist sentiments for this pathetic century-plus lifestyle trend.

Yangon's charm is being choked out by the car. The municipal government chopped the sidewalks in half to increase the parking capacity. In the process they've kicked vendors who earned a living on those sidewalks off of them. All the quiet little side streets - the numerical streets - have become jammed with cars. It's really a pathetic scene. Anybody who tells you otherwise is clearly in love with their car-centric lifestyle.

Now that I've finished my rant, here's a little story about my trip to the South Okkalapa neighborhood to visit The Padaythar Cinema.  

I arrived there by taxi.

The Okkalapa's, both north and south, were essentially massive public housing projects. Their geneses began in the wake of the post-World War Two civil and ethnic conflicts that rocked newly independent Burma. Refugees fleeing the fighting poured into Yangon. The government responded by extending the city grid to the north and east, and filling it in with housing. A few movie theaters were built in the early 1960's to provide some much needed escape for the newly minted urbanites. Among them was The Padaythar.

The Padaythar Cinema stands in the middle of an overgrown field, gated off from the otherwise crowded South Okkalapa neighborhood. 

Cinema ruin in an overgrown field. 

Iron bars on the old ticket window

Nice foliage conveniently blocking my facade view. 

My cabby had a vague recollection of a neighborhood cinema tucked away somewhere in the middle of South Okkalapa. It's been at least 10 years since the Padaythar closed down; plenty of time for it to fade from memory. He stopped on few occasions to ask directions from various street hawkers and pedicab drivers until we found our way there. 

The midday sun was reddening my neck as I pushed open the shoulder-high chain link fence surrounding the cinema grounds. I walked across a dirt tract with what seemed to me like swagger, but I probably looked like a mad man. No more than 10 steps in and I was spotted by a rent-a-cop lazing in front of fan in the shade of the theater's veranda. He tried to wave me off, but I quickly turned the tables on him, beckoning him near as I strode purposefully towards the abandoned theater he guarded. As we neared each other, I slowly raised my SLR from its bag and, with the other hand, extended a finger towards yonder ruin. "I photograph movie theaters," I blurted in crummy Burmese. He shooed me off again, but I held tight, repeating my original phrase and adding "I like movie theaters very much," in earnest.

For my next gesture, I indicated with the flick of my hand that I only intended to shoot the exterior. With that he was convinced. Over the next ten or so minutes I made the photos that you see above. Interior shots were strictly forbidden.

When I had completed my work I thanked the guard, exited the theater grounds and haled a taxi back into town.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Goodbye, Lido

This movie is a real tear-jerker sans the Hollywood ending. For those that take pleasure - if not refuge - in vintage movie theaters, it's essentially a tragedy.

The story comes to a tragic finale with The Lido Theatre, one of Bangkok's foremost cinema institutions of the past 50 years, closing down at the end of May. All indicators point to a complete overhaul of the vintage movie theater. If it's not torn down altogether, it will be remodeled into yet another shopping center.

The way I see it, the loss of The Lido Theater is akin to performing a minor lobotomy on Bangkok. With so few places left to watch a movie on the big screen that doesn't involve a trip to a shopping mall, the Lido's demise will cut particularly deep. True, there are a handful of newer theaters  (House RCA, The Friese-Green ClubBangkok Screening Room and Cinema Oasis) that do a stand-up job of bringing unique programming to the city, but none of them are housed in a purpose-built, mid-century movie theater. There is something to be said for that.

When The Lido Theatre first opened its doors on June 27th, 1968, the Siam Square neighborhood it stands in saw its inventory of sleek, modern movie palaces double over night. The two-year older Siam Theatre, which stood about 100 meters away, had initiated the neighborhood's transformation from a peri-urban slum into Bangkok's main commercial hub. With The Lido, the area was further solidified into one of Bangkok's most vital shopping zones.

For a bit of historical context, Bangkok of 1968 was a city in the midst of a development frenzy brought on, in large part, by Thailand's Cold War partnership with The United States, which targeted the country as mainland Southeast Asia's bulwark against the spread of communism. As a result, Thailand and its succession of military governments were showered with economic development assistance, supercharging the market economy in the process.

Suffice to say movies and movie theaters played a critical public relations role in making Thailand one with free-market capitalist values. For a time, the Thailand rep for the Motion Picture Association of America was an active CIA agent, helping to ensure that the Hollywood movies screened in Thai theaters had a definitively pro-capitalist, pro-Western bias.

Lido Theatre on its opening day, screening The Guns of San Sebastian

The Lido chugged along through the 1970's and 80's, steadily providing a first-class cinema experience for Bangkok's cinephiles.

In 1992 The Lido was damaged by a fire, but instead of using that as a pretext to divest itself of the aging theater, Apex, the parent company of the Lido, Siam and Scala, reopened it a year or so later as a three-screen multiplex. For many Lido faithful of today, that's the only form in which it's ever been known.

The Lido, with elevated Sky Train tracks in the foreground

By the dawn of the new century, Bangkok was fast becoming a crowded movie theater market. While most of the city's stock of ageing stand-alone theaters was on the wane, a new generation of multiplex theaters were cropping up in shopping malls across the city. With them came the all-in-one convenience of shopping, eating, free parking and multiple films to choose from all under one high-tech, low-brow, climate controlled roof. Malls caught on like wild fire among Bangkokians. For some, they became the new symbolic standard for middle-class consumerism. Meanwhile, The Lido and its Siam Square siblings held tight, ramping up their specialized viewing fare as means of staying relevant.

Checking out the viewing fare in front of The Lido.

To say anything of The Lido without giving credit to Apex Theaters and the company's steadfast if taciturn owner, Nanta Tansacha, wouldn't be fair. Ms. Tansacha and her siblings inherited the cinema business from their late father, Pisit Tansacha, who despite his untimely death nearly fifty years prior, built the Apex brand into the largest theater chain in the country. He also became one of the wealthiest men in town in the process.

The Lido

The Lido was never an architectural masterpiece. But that's part of its charm. Simple, down home, no frills cinema experience. 

Indeed, when Nanta and her brothers took over, the Apex theater empire was in full swing. But the mushrooming of mall-bound multiplexes across Bangkok in the 1990's and 2000's would soon cut deeply into Apex's market share. Slowly but surely, the company divested itself of some of it's most beloved theaters until their chain was whittled down to the aforementioned Siam Square Three (two, after The Siam was destroyed in a 2010 fire). Beginning in the aughts, movie screenings with a single patron became commonplace at the Apex theaters. Yet Nanta and her loyal Apex staff persevered.

At the end of last December, that reliable perseverance ran out. Chulalongkorn University, landlord of Scala, Lido and the rest of Siam Square, announced that Apex would not be renewing their leases.

The outcry that followed was intense. An ad hoc "save the Scala" campaign erupted across social and mainstream media, highlighted by a #savescala hashtag. So fevered became the pitch that the Office of Property Management at Chulalongkorn University made it clear that Scala would not be harmed in any way.

While The Scala was being fussed over, plans to close and The Lido were being finalized. And so it is, in just a week's time old faithful Lido will be no more.

I once ran into Ms. Tansacha in the lobby of The Scala. Cornered her, really, just as she was about to leave. She's a tall, elegant woman; clearly a beauty in her younger years. I introduced myself as the schmo who had written the article for The Bangkok Post, "The Case for Preserving Scala and Lido." She knew the article, and much to my surprise stood there talking with me for nearly an hour. I missed the movie I was going to see on account of it.

Among the numerous anecdotes she left me with on that humid afternoon was one that stands out above all the rest. It's simple, really. Some might even consider it a bit trite:

The main reason that she kept The Lido and Scala up and running all these years, despite the diminishing returns, costly upkeep and general burden of it all is because it's family. The employees, the regulars, they're like family. You can't turn your back on your family.

At the end of this month, Bangkok will lose a treasured cultural institution, beloved cinema hall and one of the last great family enterprises left in Thailand when The Lido Theater closes its doors.