Monday, April 7, 2014

Singapore firm to restore city's historic Capitol Theatre

There's huge news out of Singapore for movie theater enthusiasts. The city's historic Capitol Theatre is to undergo a full restoration as part of a 1.1 billion dollar integrated development project, which will also include a hotel, a shopping mall and residential units.

The Capitol Theatre circa 1964

While the overall project is quite enormous, the fact that a restored Capitol Theatre is the centerpiece of it all shows great foresight, and confidence that the cinema's illustrious past can also lead the way for the future.

Policy makers and developers across Southeast Asia should take note. Restoration of the Capitol should set a new precedent for restoring and preserving key movie theaters across the region.

Find the full story from Channel News Asia below:

Monday, March 31, 2014

Thailand's two award winning theaters: does it mean anything?

As with many places the world over, architectural preservation in Thailand can be a haphazard affair. While there are indeed organizations which undertake preservation as part of their informal agenda (architecture faculties at a number of universities, for instance), there are few government or quasi-government departments that are charged with the task. For this reason, structures not included within the national narrative of "Nation, Religion and King" are often fair game for demolition, regardless of their architectural or social importance.  

As a result, Thailand is regularly losing good architecture. In particular, it is regularly losing good mid-20th century modern architecture, the same time period corresponding with a boom in movie theater construction.   

Basing architectural value almost exclusively on a national narrative, however, is short-sighted. The merit of structure with an outstanding design or rare construction technique can be equally as beneficial to a country as any building upheld by an origin myth might be. Fortunately for Thailand, the Association of Siamese Architects recognizes this fact, and bestows preservation awards on account of it. 

As of now, the ASA has granted their preservation award to two movie theaters, both of which are in Bangkok. 

The first award recipient was the Sala Chalerm Thani, AKA Nang Loeng Cinema, in 2011. Dating to 1918, the Sala Chalerm Thani is one of only several theaters left in Thailand dating from the earliest era of movie theaters in the country (1904 - 1932). It's age, wooden walls and timber frame make it an extremely unique architectural specimen. 

The theater's owner has claimed that the Crown Property Bureau, which is the landlord of the entire Nang Loeng neighborhood, has plans to restore the Sala Chalerm Thani, though a definitive time frame has yet to be given. If this happens, and the theater is returned to a film showing venue, it would constitute the oldest active, purpose-built movie theater in all of Asia.  

A recent survey by the SEAMTP found that a 4-story concrete structure was being erected on open space to the front-right of the theater, partially obscuring the theater's historic facade.  

The Sala Chalerm Thani AKA The Nang Loeng Cinema

Cornice detail and signage

Interior of the Sala Chalerm Thani Theater facing the screen.

Interior of the Sala Chalerm Thani, looking towards balcony.

Old wooden seats on display outside of the Sala Chalerm Thani.

In 2012, the ASA made Bangkok's Scala Theater the second movie theater to receive its prestigious architectural preservation award. 

The Scala is the last active stand-alone movie palace in all of Thailand. Many would argue that it's the most architecturally significant movie theater anywhere in Southeast Asia. 

Opening on December 31st, 1969, the Scala is a mid-century modern masterpiece designed by the once-prolific architect Chira Silpakanok. Its over-wrought lobby, featuring a 5-tiered frosted glass chandelier, tapered columns, golden star ceiling medallions and a 60-foot long wall relief above the auditorium entrance are some of the highlights of this a one-of-a-kind spectacle. 

Distressingly, it took a proposal to destroy the Scala Theater before the ASA bestowed its award. In early 2012, Chulalongkorn University, landlord of the entire Siam Square neighborhood in which the theater stands, revealed a redevelopment plan which called for replacing all existing structures in Siam Square with a series of shopping malls.  

The announcement raised considerable objection from a broad spectrum of Thai society, after which the university decided to reconsider the plan. 

Most recently, rights to redevelop Siam Square were allegedly purchased by ThaiBev Co., the company that produces Beer Chang and Mekhong Whiskey, among other things. 

Plans for the Scala have yet to be revealed.

The Scala

5-tiered chandelier over the imperial staircase in the Scala.

Upper lobby of the Scala

Award for architectural preservation given to the Apex Co. for the mid-century classic Scala Theater, on display on the landing to the staircase.

Nocturnal Scala

The architectural preservation award from the Association of Siamese Architects should be the start of a formal preservation process. The end result should be a codification of preservation law, making it illegal to demolish or significantly alter the Sala Chalerm Thani and Scala theaters. Whether or not the awards will have any broader effect is yet to be seen. But it's a start, nonetheless.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

SEAMTP on Thai PBS for the 3rd time in 5 months

Thai PBS has been extremely kind to the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. This program is the third and longest feature they've aired about it to date.

Don't miss it!

Part 1

Part 2

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Mahachai Rama - Mahachai, Samut Sakhol, Thailand

The Mahachai Rama makes for one of the best terminated vistas anywhere in Thailand. What, you might ask, is a terminated vista? Well, it's exactly what it sounds like it is: a view, or vista, which ends, or is terminated, at another structure. The term is most frequently used in the fields of architecture and urban planning to denote a street view that instead of going on uninterrupted until it fades into the distance, ends by virtue of a physical entity - either man-made or natural - obstructing the thruway.

While it may have a negative ring to it, terminated vistas are considered assets. They give a definitive destination to the streets which they book-end. For instance, to see a terminated vista is to know that the given route has a discernible end point. A somewhere to go to. 

The Mahachai Rama is a prime example. Perhaps one of the most striking in any small town in Southeast Asia.

It must have been an amazing sight to look down Soi Baan Chao towards the Mahachai Rama 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, the bold dimensional signage would have been accentuated by neon lighting, not to mention the giant hand-painted movie billboard that would have been fastened to the theater's facade. This truly would have been the visual pinnacle of Mahachai. Even in its current run down state, it's hard to deny the beauty that crowns this sliver of mid-century Thai modernism. 

At the far end of this sightly street stands a modern movie palace with bold dimensional signage serving as a beacon to another world.

Up close with the Mahachai Rama. The signage on the facade is for a pub that used to operate out of a corner of the building. It was called the Pyramid Pub featuring the Pharaoh's Room. 

Ticket window with image of King Chulalongkorn in the background.

Dog in lobby

Poster case

Just too late to see the Mahachai Rama in its original condition

Auditorium preparing to undergo a conversion into a parking lot.

Beautiful dimensional signage; a signature of Thailand's stand-alone movie theaters.

As far as stand-alone movie theaters in central Thailand go, the Mahachai Rama managed to cling to life longer than most, staying in business until 2012 - a mere 2 years ago. 

The theater's extended life was the result of the particular demographic situation in Samut Sakhol - one of Thailand's most industrialized provinces, and the center of the country's food processing and canning industries. 

The vast majority of labor in those factories comes from Burma, and a good portion of them are in the country illegally. 

As low wage earners often living under tenuous circumstances, thrift is essential. But so is entertainment. The Mahachai Rama thus played the role of entertainment center for Samut Sakhol's Burmese laborer community, charging a mere 50 baht per ticket for a few hours of much needed escapism. That's roughly 200% cheaper than the standard multiplex ticket prices.

But trips to the movie didn't always have happy endings. A local shopkeeper recalled that once the police became aware that there were potentially illegal immigrants congregating in the Mahachai Rama, they would set up stings and round up undocumented Burmese for deportation, or more likely, extortion. Once word spread among the migrants that going to the movies could end badly, attendance dropped off and the theater shut down for good.

When I visited the Mahachai Rama late last year, it was in the process of being converted into a parking garage.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Athid Rama - Tha Mai, Tha Maka District, Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand

Traversing the western fringes of central Thailand is to witness a crevice of country colored by the agro-industrial complex. Between the seemingly endless fields of paddy rice and sugarcane, gargantuan mills and processing plants pepper the landscape. The wealth created by this industry once brought leisure-time luxury in the form of elegant, stand-alone movie theaters to the lazy towns that flank the Mae Klong River - the region's traditional lifeline. Case in point: Athid Rama of Tha Mai, Kanchanaburi.

A faded modern cinema palace: the Athid Rama.

Lobby shots.

Like almost all Thai theaters built during the 1980's, the Athid Rama was built as the grand anchor of a commercial/residential plaza. Rows of two story shop houses wall in the theater on three sides, creating a delineated retail/entertainment zone. In many regards, this kind of development was the direct ancestor of the shopping mall/movie theater combination that now dominates the urban Thai retail sector.  

Pieces of a dream

Ticket booth with most recent ticket price: 40 baht.


Local residents dated the theater to 1987, which ranks it as a later addition to Thailand's stand-alone movie theater set. One local, an lifelong resident of Tha Mai named Tact, recalled the construction of the Athid Rama and its surrounding plaza:

"This entire plot of land was nothing but jungle before the theater was built," he revealed. "I remember watching workers clear it to make way for this development. It's pretty quiet here these days, but when the theater was up and running, this was a lively area. Full everyday."

As for the name of the theater (Athid means "sun" in Thai), Tact attributed it to the fact that the theater faces east and this is thus graced by the golden rays of the sun for many hours per day.

The light of prosperity, however, did not shine on the Athid Rama for very long. It's been closed for over 10 years. The ground level is now rented out as a snooker hall.

Travel to Tha Mai was made possible by Learn Thai from a White Guy.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Ladies and Gentlemen, the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project proudly presents its first sojourn into the realm of motion picture making. After 5 years of working exclusively with still photography, we've teamed up with Bangkok-based VS Service to produce a short documentary film about a one-of-a-kind movie theater in Thailand's lower north.

Our hope is that this short will segue into to a feature length documentary project in the foreseeable future.

Stay tuned, trusty viewers! Great stuff is soon to come.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Wik Kru Thawee Cinema - Photharam District, Ratchaburi Province, Thailand

Opening the old-fashioned, wooden bi-fold doors of Wik Kru Thawee Theatre is reminiscent of a scene in a mummy movie where the lead actor – perhaps an intrepid archaeologist, or explorer - pries open a long-sealed tomb. Dust stirred as the stagnant theatre air mingled with air from outside. Rays of midday sunlight beamed across the darkened chamber, only instead of revealing a gilded sarcophagus flanked by riches galore, the only treasure to be found was row after row of wooden bench seats; the thrones of movie-goers of decades passed.

The Wik Kru Thawee Theater: A cinematic gem from 1958

To be sure, the Wik Kru Thawee Theater is the Photharam equivalent to a cinematic tomb. The quaint little town in central Ratchaburi Province has only ever had one venue dedicated to the exhibition of film, and it’s been shuttered - tomb like - for 16 years. Its worn and weathered appearance blends  seamlessly with the rustic two story shop houses – some approaching the century mark – that comprise a good portion of the town.

Heritage preservation is high on the collective agenda in Photharam, once a key stopover for riparian travelers going between Kanchanaburi and the Gulf of Thailand via the Mae Klong River. Unlike many of Thailand’s older river port, Photharam’s core is still characterized by narrow lanes and wooden shop houses. The gradual widening of roads to accommodate cars and trucks has little presence in much of the town’s core. Conscious of its early 20th-century aesthetic and human scale, residents have made efforts to keep it up.

Under the veranda of the Wik Kru Thawee.

Timeworn photos of the King and Queen still hang above the poster board. Judging from their look, they probably are as old as the theater itself. 

Ticket booth

Wooden bi-fold doors: a mainstay of Thai movie theaters built before the 1970's.

The Wik Kru Thawee Theater featured prominently on the list of Photharam’s preservation initiatives, a landmark institution since its grand opening in 1958. Though out of business since January, 1998 (the last movie screened there was James Cameron’s Titanic), in recent years local activists have sought ways to revive it, with the aim of using it to educate future generations about the community spirit that once accompanied movie going.

“We’ve tried to build support around the old theater,” said Mr. Weewat Suweerathanapat. “But it needs a lot of investment to bring it up to code. That’s not easy to find.”

Mr. Suweerathanapat is well acquainted with the old theater. During the 80’s and 90’s he was employed as the theatre’s art director, tasked with painting the giant movie cut-outs and posters that advertised the day’s film. His long association with Wik Kru Thawee also positions him as the theater’s de facto historian, able to detail its back story in full.

“The theatre in its present form,” he explained, “was built in place of a much older theater made entirely of wood. In the late 1950’s that original theatre was demolished, then rebuilt out of concrete and steel and given its present name.”

Wooden bench seats and a screen best suited for 16mm film.

Balcony seating.

Former poster painter at the Wik Kru Thawee, Mr. Weewat Suweerathanapat. 

Signage for the Wik Kru Thawee Theater is barely visible any more. It used to be on the windows.

The name “Wik Kru Thawee,” it turns out, is a composite of the given name and occupation of the builder/owner – a local school teacher named Thawee Aekarath. Kru Thawee (Kru, in Thai, means teacher) was passionate about film and viewed the medium as good way to expand the horizons of the people of Photharam. His love for film was also inherited by his son, Thira Aekarath, who went onto to an illustrious career as a cinematographer, best known for shooting the 1970 watershed film Monrak Luk Thung.

As far as Thai stand-alone theatres go, the Wik Kru Thawee comes from an unusual era. It was built in a transitional period for Thai movie theaters, well after concrete had replaced wood as the material of choice, but just shy of the nationwide theatre boom which began in 1961. That same year the United States government started pumping millions of annual aid dollars into the Thai economy, a political countermeasure aimed at thwarting the spread of communism. That aid stimulated social change far and wide, spurring development and market integration in even the most far flung corners of the country. With growing wealth and sophistication, a taste for cinema blossomed, and for roughly the next 20 years stand-alone movie theaters were constructed in nearly every district in every province of Thailand.

The theater boom gave international movie distributors a healthy market in Thailand. Although dominated by imports from Hollywood, the international viewing fare was rounded out by films from Hong Kong, Japan, India and Europe. In fact, a glimpse of a newspaper’s movie section from the 60’s or 70’s will reveal a far more diverse range of available films than is shown in Thai cinemas today – ironic considering the far more cosmopolitan Thailand of today than of 40 years ago.

The domestic film industry also began to flourish, breaking with tradition in order to keep stride with technical innovations from abroad.  Some of Thailand’s most iconic stars - the likes Mitr Chaibancha and Petchara Chaowarat, Sombath Metanee and Aranya Namwong - became household names during this era.