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.


Monday, May 2, 2016

Thailand's Vanishing Movie Theaters: Submissions to the 2016 Angkor Photo Festival

The following series has been selected for submission to the 2016 Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Thailand's Vanishing Movie Theaters is a collection of images depicting the remains of some the country's many architecturally unique yet abandoned movie theaters. As 20th century ruins, these buildings serve as windows into Thailand's more communitarian recent past and the rapid development that has eroded it.

Burapha Theater - Ban Chang, Rayong Province, Thailand

Final Stage

Khemsawad Papphayon - Fang, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand

Kosit Theater - Ban Pong, Ratchaburi Province, Thailand

Oscar's Prostitutes: The Oscar Theater in Bangkok was once one of the city's premiere movie theaters. Since closing down in the mid-1990's it has stood vacant, except for the lower lobby, which serves as a cafeteria for off duty prostitutes working in nearby massage parlors. 

Pak Nam Rama - Pak Nam, Samut Prakan Province, Thailand

Peth Rama - Loei Province, Thailand

Sermsuk Theater - Kumphawapi. Udon Thani Province, Thailand

Siriphanom Rama - Phanom Sarakam, Chachoengsao Province, Thailand

Solemn ticket window

Som Det Theater - Som Det, Kalasin Province, Thailand

Sri Kabin Rama - Kabinburi, Prajinburi Province, Thailand

Sri Nakorn ticket window details

The Good Seats

Trang Rama - Trang Province, Thailand