Saturday, August 13, 2016

"Philly artist traces decay of Asian movie houses - and of his city's"

Last week The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about my latest exhibition "Forgotten in Plain Sight: Photographs of Southeast Asia's Vanishing Movie Theaters," now on display at PhilaMOCA until August 25th.

531 North 12th Street
Philadelphia, PA, USA

Click the images below to enlarge for reading

Philly Voice also covered the opening with an interview.

The demolition of the Boyd Theatre last year marked the end of an era for Philadelphia, erasing the last of Center City’s bygone movie palaces from the local landscape. Philly native Philip Jablon has witnessed a similar phenomenon taking place halfway around the world in Southeast Asia. Since 2009, Jablon has made it his mission to document the region’s disappearing stand-alone movie houses with the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, a photo blog where he posts images and observations about these vanishing cinemas. The project began as a distraction from several frustrated attempts to write his thesis while attending grad school at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, which has since become his home for much of the year. The hobby gradually evolved into his thesis and, from there, into a full-time focus; he now shows his photographs in gallery shows while writing advocacy pieces for local and international publications. This month, PhilaMOCA will exhibit “Forgotten in Plain Sight,” a selection of Jablon’s photographs. He talked about his curious passion project while back in Philly for the summer.

You earned a degree in Asian studies at Temple and went on to graduate studies in sustainable development in Thailand. How did you initially become interested in Asian culture?
It was really from cinema. The exact instance that really sent me on that path involves one of the last movie theaters here in Philadelphia. In about 1992, when I was 12 or 13, my dad took me to the Roxy, where they screened Jackie Chan’s 'Supercop.' It was a Chinese print with English subtitles, not dubbed, and this was before Jackie Chan made it big in the West. I was blown away. I specifically remember walking back through the streets of Philadelphia toward home, still amped up from this exciting action movie, and my dad saying to me, 'You know what’s great about a movie like this, son? It shows places in the world where people like you and I will probably never go.' And I was like, 'Oh, I’m going there, Dad.' That was a really influential experience.

How did your interest pivot from the movies to the theaters that showed them?
That was a little bit later. I started grad school there in 2006 and had gone through several thesis topics. As a way to dull the pain of the idea that maybe I wouldn't finish school, I started doing this side project photographing old cinemas. It wasn’t a planned thing. As a movie lover, I’d go watch movies in my free time. There were two cinemas that I was aware of in the city, and they were both on the top floors of these rather large shopping malls, which I always thought was kind of boring, but I figured that was just the way it was over there.
Then one day while riding my bike through town, I took a turn down a small alley and came across this old stand-alone movie theater. That really opened my eyes to this whole other facet of life and culture that had gone under my radar. A few months later, I went back and it had been demolished. That was the impetus. I made a conscious decision that if this is happening here in this city, I’m sure it’s happening elsewhere in the country and I’d like to make a record.

Is there a particular architectural style for these theaters? From what I’ve seen on your site, these buildings don’t resemble American-style movie palaces.
Architecturally, they vary from country to country. The vast majority of them were built in one variation of modern architecture or another. In the U.S., most of what we think of as the grand stand-alone movie theaters were built in the late teens up through the ’30s. With the exception of the art deco ones, we were building them in one form or another of pre-modern, European revivalist styles.
Whereas in Southeast Asia, the vast majority of those that are still in existence were built from the ’50s up through the early ’80s, depending on which country you’re in, and that point in time corresponded directly with very strong movements in modern architecture. So you’ve got some brutalism, some international style, some forms of tropical art deco, and some countries have their own unique language for theater architecture.
Burma has a particular style that I’ve informally dubbed 'Burmese polychromes.' It’s just a boxy fa├žade, but there are these beautiful multi-colored patterns all across the front. So I’m trying to get it into the mind of the Burmese, 'Hey, look, you’ve got your own unique style of movie theater, this is something you should treasure a little bit more.' I’m trying to spur the preservationist sentiment.

How endangered are these theaters?
When I first started this project, there were still probably about 30 operating stand-alone movie theaters in Thailand. Now there are a grand total of four, not including a few theaters that are operating on the sly showing porn. There are literally entire regions of Thailand where the culture that was embodied by that form is completely gone.

Are the theaters and their styles reflective of the cultures or history in these countries?
If you look at when the theaters were built — in Thailand, for instance, you start to see a boom in development, including movie theaters, in 1961. That corresponds with the year that the U.S. set up military bases in Thailand because they were flying recon missions over Laos and Vietnam, who they were on the verge of getting into wars with. So the U.S. was sending military aid and economic development assistance in, and this was trickling down to society across the board.
The Motion Picture Association of America also had agents in Thailand and was bringing in films that expressed certain kinds of political messages, so it was very much part and parcel of the U.S. nation-building effort in that part of the world, trying to combat the spread of communism. At the same time, you had the development of indigenous film industries, so some theaters would specialize in Hollywood films while other theaters would specialize in Thai films or Burmese films. I’ve learned so much about how geopolitics actually works on the ground level in terms of cultural indoctrination and propaganda.

Do you feel like your work has had an impact?
Yes. I was actually just voted by Time Out Bangkok magazine as an 'expat we love.' Seven years ago, nobody cared about these buildings, and now there’s actually an active movement to revive select ones. It was really a rediscovery for a lot of people, particularly younger people. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Aung Thiri Cinema - Lashio, Shan State, Myanmar

Myanmar's movie theater business has been acting a bit schizophrenic of late. On the one hand, at an estimated 49 active theaters nationwide, the country has the fewest number of movie theaters since World War Two, when its theaters were often on the receiving end of aerial bombings. Nationwide, dozens of 3rd tier and even a handful of 2nd tier cities have lost their last operating theater over the course of the past 5 years. In all of Irrawaddy Region, for example, a paltry two cinemas serve a Region-wide population of over 6 million, hardly an apt ratio for a country  poised to see high levels of economic growth.

But there's an atypical corollary to the dwindling number of theaters. As a sizable portion of older theaters across Myanmar go out of business, an opposing trend towards renovation and technical upgrades is being seen in select cases (including one of the two remaining theaters in the aforementioned Irrawaddy Region). Economic confidence, sparked by the relaxing of some trade embargoes in the wake of political reforms has, it would seem, trickled down to the film industry. As the Ministry of Information privatizes its stock of old theaters, some of them have been acquired by cinema-minded entrepreneurs.

Though still by far the exception, this slowly expanding phenomenon represents a bright spot for preservationists, while offering a glimmer of hope that a human-focused, anti-sprawl form of development will find some adherents in Myanmar. Aside from Yangon and Mandalay, the numbers one and two largest cities, Myanmar's many towns and cities tend to be compact and centralized, with work place and residence often in the same location. This pre-suburban sprawl living arrangement is the reason why so many of Myanmar's old theaters have managed to survive in the first place.

To put that in context, cities across the developed world are pursuing policies that aim to curb sprawl and revive historic town cores. In that sense, Myanmar's long stagnation has left it in an advantageous position if it takes strides to limit private car ownership, enhance public transit and preserve its historic urban cores. Stand-alone movie theaters - the cultural anchors of modern urbanity - can play a major role in keeping the downtown core vibrant.

That said, Lashio in upper Shan State has the distinction of being home to two recently renovated stand-alone movie theaters. The first of the two was highlighted here a few months ago. The second and more recent upgrade is the Aung Thiri Cinema.

The commercial core of Lashio is built on the side of a hill, giving the town a naturally textured siting. Its topographical charm is further complemented by a medley of buildings from different eras, some made of wood, some brick and plaster, some concrete. Space in front of the buildings, from the sidewalks and to the edge of streets are the preserve of hawkers, peddling wares from fresh fruit to cheap electronics. Pedestrians are more or less confined to the streets themselves, reflecting what is at best an early motorized society. In other words, the strict delineation of space has yet to be hashed out.        

At the center of this city organism, hidden from plain sight behind a wall of concrete retail stalls, is the Aung Thiri Cinema. To reach the theater, one must go through a passage way between the little stalls which opens onto a plaza surrounding the theater. 

The architecture of the Aung Thiri is simple. The main structure is brick and concrete, though some interior parts are made of wood. Semi-circle arches sit atop concrete pilasters stacked vertically in the lengthwise procession of the facade. A very common orientation for Myanmar movie theaters. Logical in some ways, as it makes entering and exiting less of a bottle neck. 

There is no real lobby area to speak of, just a row of benches within a veranda. Folding wooden doors lead directly into the 400 seat auditorium.

New dimensional signage on the roof advertises the Aung Thiri Cinema and its recently installed 3D projection system

Poster examination in the theater's veranda 


Evidence that the charms of the old can live harmoniously with the efficiency and sophistication of the new: the Aung Thiri's original wrought iron ticket window is looking as good as ever, while the ticketing system has been upgraded to a computer system.  

Upgraded seating, sound proofing and new lighting have been installed, ushering the Aung Thiri into the contemporary age. 

A theater from 1960's Burma looking much like a contemporary multiplex anywhere in the world.

Revitalization of the Aung Thiri Cinema comes at the behest of Yangon-based Mingalar Cinemas, Myanmar's largest theater chain and a proactive player in the preservation of old stand-alones. In 2014, Mingalar partnered with local operators to bring new life the Aung Thiri, which had been dormant since 2003.

Seating was modernized, replacing the theater's original teak wood bench seats with the contemporary cushioned and folding kind. An air-conditioning system was installed for the first time. A brand new screen. But above all else, a digital projector replaced the antiquated if still functional carbon-arc projectors, allowing for the latest in international productions to be screened in top notch quality.

For Lashio, a town once at the far end of accessibility in a country that had long been blocked from the goings-on of the wider world, movie-going is officially in the 21st century. Accompanied, no less, by a treasured piece of the town's social history. 

The Aung Thiri at night.

Photography and research at the Aung Thiri Cinema was made possible by the man in the photo below, Mr. Sai Ni Yon, whose impeccable English and generous nature made an often challenging task a breeze. Not only was I granted full access to the Aung Thiri, but he very kindly imparted the historic details of this recently resuscitated cinema treasure. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Sermsuk Theater - Kumphawapi, Udorn Thani Province, Thailand

It was a blazing hot afternoon when I arrived in the town of Kumphawapi. Though only an hour by minivan from Udon Thani - the gritty economic capital of northern Isan - Kumphawapi feels much further removed. A prototypical Isan market town, in many ways. Rural in essence even if the physical town is somewhat built up.

As I recall it, and the photos below attest to, the sun was beating down relentlessly, casting the town in bright hues that made it resemble the set of a Spaghetti Western. The townsfolk had apparently all sought refuge from the heat, leaving the streets deserted save for a troop of macaques lazing around in the shade of an ancient Banyan tree. 

No more than 10 minutes after my arrival I was standing in front of Kumphawapi's lone movie theater, The Sermsuk. Naturally it was out of business, though in surprisingly good condition, or so its seemed from the exterior.

I snapped off a handful of shots before retreating to a local eatery for shade and sustenance, never following up on it, never digging into the theater's past. A brief conversation with the restaurant owner about its was as deep as I got. 

What can I say? 

Sometimes I'm just not in the mood.   

The Sermsuk Theater

Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Bang Pa-In Rama - Bang Pa-In, Ayuthaya Province, Thailand

To most of the world, if not most of Thailand itself, Ayuthaya is synonymous with the stony ruins of an erstwhile capital city. For decades the town has been one of the country's top tourist destinations, playing a key role in the tangible side of Thailand's national narrative. 

Beyond the smartly curated monuments of Ayuthaya Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, wider Ayuthaya Province is the main node of an industrial belt occupying large swaths of Thailand's vast central plains. Between the eponymous provincial capital and Bangkok - the center of industry and the center of finance - are a number of districts which have more or less been subsumed into the Bangkok megacity and its industrialized outskirts. Among them is the town of Bang Pa-In, at Ayuthaya's southern tip.

Like almost all of Thailand's 3rd tier cities, Bang Pa-In was once home to a locally owned stand-alone movie theater. As universal as these structures once were, they are today universally blighted, if standing at all. Those that still stand are silent bonds between a recent past and the present.

The Bang Pa-In Rama came into existence under historically telling circumstances. A journey back in time can place it, with near lapidary accuracy, in a moment when Ayuthaya's industrial economy was growing by leaps and bounds. 

By the early 1980's, Thailand's industrialization project had revved up to new highs. Foreign investment in the manufacturing sector, led by Japan, resulted in many of Bangkok's satellite cities transforming from minor market towns catering to agriculture and whatever cottage industry might therein lie, to centers of highly capitalized manufacturing. Outlying land, once the reserve of paddy rice and jungle, was claimed for the construction of industrial parks and housing estates for workers.

As for  Bang Pa-In, seat of the southern most district in the province, it was transformed from a sleepy market town, best known for having a summer palace of Thailand's royal family, into a feeder town for both Ayuthaya and Bangkok. The need to transport labor from Bang Pa-In and its environs to factories to the north and south necessitated a wider transit network. And so, at the highway junction towards the southern end of town arose the Bang Pa-In Commerce Center, anchored by two important institutions - a bus depot and the Bang Pa-In Rama. The year was 1983.

Late stage International Style architecture characterizes the Bang Pa-In Rama.

 Signage on the facade in 80's digital font. 

The growth of cinema halls around transit hubs was once fairly common. In fact, it might be said to be one of the more typical couplings of the 20th century when it comes to modern infrastructure. Usually it was train stations that movie theaters sprang up around, but bus depots have been known to have theaters in close proximity, as well. The reason for it simple: Passengers arriving from far and wide at a given transit station often have time to kill. Movies are one of the great pass-times.  

Faded posters on the staircase landing

The upper lobby is now occupied by a billiards hall.

Switchback staircase leads from the bi-level lobby below to foyer and auditorium

Ribbon windows and dilapidated benches highlight the foyer.

One of the former projectionists at the Bang Pa-In Rama, now working as a motorcycle taxi driver.

Faded poster in the projection booth.


Stadium seating in the auditorium


The Bang Pa-In Rama and the commercial/transit center that it stands in has remained in the hands of the family that built it back in 1983, though it has since been passed down to the second generation. The theater itself closed up in 1994, but  part of it is rented out to a billiards halls.

Minivan services to and from Ayuthaya, Bangkok and points between continue to operate out of the center. That aside, a smattering of shops and low-rent eateries catering to transit passengers round out the commercial tenants

"My father was never really passionate about the theater," explained the current owner, who requested anonymity. "He was told it would be a good business to go with a bus depot - and it was for a while - but the business went bad pretty quickly. I don't really think about it much these days. It generates a bit of income from the billiards hall, and motorcycle taxi drivers hang out in the lobby. Otherwise it's just there. It's structurally sound so there's no good reason to knock it down."

Thai PBS followed me to the Bang Pa-In Rama to film a short entertainment news feature about The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. This aired on January 15th, 2016.

Just a reminder, there are now only 3 out of a limited run of 35 copies remaining of The Movie Theaters of Thailand photo portfolio. Once these are gone they will never be printed again. The entire box set is on sale here and here exclusively for $300 dollars, including shipping. By making this purchase, you will become the owner of unique work of photography, printed on handmade mulberry paper from Chiang Mai, Thailand. You will also be supporting the continuation of this project, as all proceeds go directly towards future movie theater surveys in Southeast Asia.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Thida Aye Cinema - Lashio, Shan State, Myanmar

Undulating Lashio, the economic capital of northern Shan State, is home to three stand-alone movie theaters. Each of the three is operating. Each one unique. Each adding a distinct flair to the city streets. Three welcomed sights in a bustling, modestly dense town in the Shan hills. 

Two of the three theaters in Lashio, including the highlighted Thida Aye Cinema, have been fully modernized in the last few years, moves which contrast sharply with mainstream developments in big screen movie exhibition. The third theater in town was erected this century, another cinematic anomaly in this day and age. 

While improvements to two and the erection of a third stand-alone movie theater in a single Southeast Asian town is a trend bucking phenomenon, it begs the question of whether this is a self-conscious effort, or simple coincidence. Indeed, the last few years have seen this endangered form find its way into conversations about cultural preservation and the limits of consumerism in rapidly growing Southeast Asia. But as Lashio lacks the institutional forces that help turn such conversations into action, it stands to reason that the investments made to its trio of cinema halls have more to do with local exigencies than any broader capitulation to sustainable urbanism, as romantic as the notion may sound. Either way, as far as Southeast Asia goes, Lashio can consider itself ahead of the curve in the realm of cinema preservation. 

The Thida Aye Cinema in all its horizontal glory

The Thida Aye was built in 1956, probably making it the first structurally concrete theater to be built in Lashio. Don't be fooled by the wood and glass facade, everything else is solid cement.

One Myanmar architect who studied Shan temple architecture in northern Thailand, claims that the architectural style of the Thida Aye belongs to the "contemporary Shan" school. That designation makes it extremely rare among movie theaters in Southeast Asia which, although having often developed their own regional architectural languages, fall almost exclusively within the modernist school of design. A local traditional style is practically unheard of. 

The day time manager selling tickets in front of the theater before the box office opened.

The Thida Aye was fully modernized within the last two years, a clear indication that an appetite for big screen entertainment still persists among Lashioans. Along with the standard upgrades to digital sound and projection, the theater's original wooden bench seats were replaced with contemporary cushioned seats in a bid to make patrons more comfortable. Foam wall panels were likewise installed to sharpen the sound quality - an unfortunate addition from an aesthetic point of view.

Sadly, one of the reasons for the Thida Aye's recent renovations was born of an unfortunate sociopolitical episode, one which has reared its ugly head more than once in Myanmar in recent years. 

In a number of cities across the country, Anti-Muslim riots have broken out intermittently, marking the violent extreme of a Buddhist-nationalist ideology which espouses a Bamar-centric world view in conjunction with a heavy dose of xenophobia. The worst and most well known case occurred in the city of Meiktila in 2013, when a large swath of town was burned to the ground during an outbreak of violence. 

A similar, if slightly less destructive pogrom erupted in Lashio that same year. Among the places set on by the angry mob was the Thida Aye Cinema, which has long been owned by a local Muslim family. The extent of the damage incurred to the cinema is hard to determine. Subsequent repairs, however, turned out to be segue to a full-on makeover for the 60 year old cinema hall, the lone silver lining in an otherwise dark corner of Lashio's long history. 

Tickets for cash

Staff lounging in front of the Thida Aye before the day's first screening.

The Thida Aye auditorium. Black foam wall panels now cover the entire interior, detracting from the aesthetics as it improves the audio quality.

Layered view from the projection window. 

A brand new Sony 3D capable digital project anchors the projection booth at the Thida Aye Cinema

Ticket seller

The Thida Aye Cinema at night.

One can only hope that in its new found splendor, the joys of cinema and the act of movie-going will set the Thida Aye Cinema apart from the perversions of hate.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Aung Theit Hti Cinema - Myaungmya, Irrawaddy Region, Myanmyar

When entering Myaungmya by road, the first notable site is an enormous brick church at the edge of town. The scenery at this early entry point is leafy and green, giving said church an out sized, almost medieval look against the sparse surroundings. 

Moving further into the urban core, modest, mostly two story residences and shop houses unfurl on both sides of the contoured street. When town center is reached, the architectural sobriety gives way to the recherche ornamentation of Myaungmya's waterfront shop houses. These bejeweled trophies of plaster and brick, built in the middle decades of last century by the town's wealthy merchants, form the low-rise pinnacle of one of Myanmar's most enamoring cities. 

Like many towns in the Irrawaddy Delta, Myaungmya has a waterfront buzzing with activity. Squadrons of dockworkers still unload small and medium sized vessels by hand into low slung godowns just next to the river. And among the industries still found along the water's edge is boat building, a sign that riparian trade continues to play a major role in this low lying corner of the country. 

So long as poor road infrastructure in the Delta keeps trucking from being a cost-effective form of transport, it's likely that Myaungmya's busy port will stay busy. 

As for its movie theaters, that's another story. 

The Aung Theit Hti Cinema - the oldest standing cinema structure in Myaungmya

While not on par aesthetically with the opulent structures that inhabit Myaungmya's commercial core, the Aung Theit Hti (Hti is pronounced Tee) Cinema blends perfectly in with its surrounding residential neighborhood. Set back from the street side building line and a few steps below street level, the modest former movie hall occupies a nearly anonymous nook of the city. If it were not pointed out to me by a local shop-keeper, it would have gone altogether unnoticed. 

The name and year constructed are faintly visible on the upper edifice of the Aung Theit Hti

A poster board sits slatternly among the debris of the open air lobby 

30 years have gone by since the Aung Theit Hti was operational. Three decades worth of neglect have likely wreaked havoc on the place. But besides the exterior, with its brick patio now leased out to a tea shop, I wasn't able to see for myself, nor share my findings with you, thanks to a kernel of fear planted in my head by the shop-keeper who led me there. After taking me to meet the owners, a frail, elderly couple who live in one of the ornate shop-houses in town center, I was offered the chance to photograph the Aung Theit Hti's interior. Victory, I thought, especially after learning that the theater's components - the seats and screen and curtain - apparently stood as they had been left when it closed. For an architectural photographer, particularly one who specializes in modern day ruins, this was music to my ears. 

Just as we departed the theater owners home, the shop keeper said to me, "You're young and strong. It would be no problem for you to deal with the giant snake that lives there. But I'm too old. You can go in alone."

He said "giant snake." In my mind's eye, I saw the world's largest cobra curled up in the filth of the theater. I imagined it lurching at me as I accidentally kick it while setting up my tripod. The headlines splashed across the Myanmar Times: American Photographer Bitten by Cobra, Dies in Abandoned Cinema.

He was bluffing, of course, to keep me from going in. And I'm a fool for buying it. But hindsight is 20/20, and the thought of a painful death by snake bite in putrid cinema hall caused me enough doubt to halt the survey.