Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Nan Daung Cinema - Mawlemyine, Mon State, Myanmar

The Nan Daung Cinema is yet another example of what I've been pitching to the architecture community as a form Burmese vernacularism within the modernist movement. Burmese Polychromes, I've dubbed them. 

My rationale is pretty simple:

1) These buildings all have multi-hued (polychromatic) patterns on the otherwise plain, boxy facades. All display key elements of mid-century International Style.  
2) I've only seen this look in Burma/Myanmar. Theoretically, this design style gained popularity among cinema architects, professional or otherwise, during the 1950's and early 1960's. As a result, within the closed circuit of builders and architects working in the country, this became a common look.

Combine the look with the location and you've got a newly minted architectural genre: Burmese Polychrome Cinemas. 


The Nan Daung Cinema in the heart of Mawlemyine.


Night time street view of the Nan Daung Cinema.


The only visual evidence that the Nan Daung remains is the minuscule drooping signage clinging to the facade.

In its current state, the Nan Daung is a little known, scarcely remembered blighted ruin. When talking to locals about where I might find old theaters around town, nobody made mention of this place. It only dawned on me after multiple strolls past it that I was indeed strolling past an old movie theater. 

My attempts at getting inside without trespassing went nowhere. Workers at the surrounding businesses, usually the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to getting information, seemed completely disinterested. A young woodworker employed at a neighboring furniture manufacturer looked at me like I was mad when I inquired with him about the mold covered structure next door. Most other folks simply shrugged.

It's likely that the interior is either a dilapidated mess, or is being used for storage of some kind, though there didn't seem to be much activity to that end. 

After some friendly leads put me in touch with a former employee, and the brief conversation which transpired, a date of construction sometime around 1960 was established. 

Beyond that, the Nan Daung Cinema remains a very big unknown.  

  



Thursday, August 10, 2017

"A cinema to be treasured in Mon State"

From FRONTIER MYANMAR July, 12th 2017

Myanmar's architectural treasures include an ornate teak cinema in Mudon that was built nearly 100 years ago and is probably unique in Southeast Asia.

Words and Photos by PHILIP JABLON

Myanmar’s reputation at Southeast Asia’s jewel box of heritage architecture is well established. From colonial-era masterpieces and rare examples of Tropical Art Deco, to vernacular architecture of every age, Myanmar likely contains the best-preserved collection of vintage buildings in all of mainland Southeast Asia.

Almost as well established is the precariousness of that status. Due to lax zoning regulations and weak enforcement of cultural heritage laws, many of Myanmar’s historic buildings stand in existential limbo, with market forces holding ultimate sway over their fate....

Click here for full article  

Scroll down for expanded photo essay.




The Aung Nan Mingala Cinema


A very simple ticket window. The smaller hole on the left was for the purchase of balcony level tickets.




The name of The Aung Nan Mingala Cinema on the gabled facade.


Auditorium views. The bare circles on either side of the screen once held paintings that were commissioned specially for the cinema.


The cartouche atop the proscenium, welcoming one and all to a world of escape.



Details of a balustrade surrounding the veranda.


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Saturday, August 5, 2017

The King's Cinema - Mawlamyiane, Mon State, Myanmar PART 2

It took a bit finagling to finally gain access to the King's Cinema. Several shop keepers that I inquired with in town suggested talking to the people who run the noodle shop next door to it. "The two are owned by the same family," they'd say. "They can help you." 

My first attempt at talking to the noodle shop proprietors was met with cold dismissiveness. The shop was nearly full with what seemed like regulars, all of whom turned their attention from their steaming bowls to the disjointed negotiations being had between the owners and the disheveled foreigner muttering in incoherent Burmese about movie theaters and taking pictures.

After a few minutes of pleading my case to no avail I departed, bitter, resigned to the fact that I would never see the interior of this fortress movie hall - my primary reason for being in Mawlamyiane. 

A few hour later, though, I got a second wind. If I didn't give it another go I'd knew I'd be kicking myself down the road, so I strode back down to the noodle shop hoping for the best but expecting the worst. 

Other than the owners the shop was empty, which I figured would work in my favor. Any fears the owners may have had of losing face in front of their customers by admitting a complete stranger to their rundown heirloom was moot. There would also be ample time for me to make my case to them. I took the trusty camera out, inserted a memory card and scrolled through the thousands of photos I'd taken of theaters throughout Myanmar, naming each one and its location as I went. Being old movie theater hands, they were familiar with most of what I showed them, and nodded in recognition of their former cohorts.

Judging that I meant no harm, they acquiesced, calling for one of their young staff to lead me into the cinema next door. I bowed and thanked them profusely before being escorted into the abandoned hulk.


View in the vestibule area, with one of two ticket booths visible in the background. 

My escort pulled open the steel gates to the theater and we slipped inside, passing through a vestibule before ascending a creaky wooden staircase to the projection room. The young man knocked on the closed door and called out in Burmese. The door opened just enough for the face of an elderly man to be seen, his eyes flitting between myself and the escort. A moment later he rushed out, buttoning up an over-sized collared shirt as he whisked past me. The King's resident caretaker, I thought. 

"Come, come," he beckoned, gesturing for me to follow as he descended the creaky wooden stairs. The escort departed, leaving the older man in charge. We walked a corridor along the perimeter of the auditorium until he reached a set of folding wooden doors which he flung ajar, allowing tropical sunlight to illuminate the auditorium. 



A simple proscenium frames the screen of the King's Cinema.


The ornament at the top of the screen is a metal cutout of the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise logo. Below it is the letters M.M.P.E.


Floral motifs on the facing of the balcony. For a brief time after it closed in the mid-2000's the theater was used as a motorcycle parking lot, hence all the old teak bench seats piled up beneath the balcony. But that didn't last. 

U Than Nainge is indeed the resident caretaker of the King's Cinema. He sleeps on a bed in a room just beside the projection booth. In former times, that room served as the theater's office, where all the accounting, programming and day to day business of the theater was carried out. 

Resident cinema caretakers are a common occurrence in Myanmar's ageing movie houses. These live-in employees often play multiple roles, including basic maintenance, janitor and watchman at night. A good number of them often serve as projectionists, as well. 

In the case of U Than Nainge, his attachment to the theater goes beyond the casual intimacy of the resident caretaker. His mother constructed the theater back in 1945 and his family, including the folks selling noodles next door, hold the title to this day.  



View from the teak wood balcony.


U Than Nainge standing in one of several old offices near the projection booth. Like much of Myanmar, this room has museum-like qualities.



Flipping through old print material stashed away in an old cabinet. 

I spent an hour or so trying real hard to elicit stories from U Than Nainge, but his English was only slightly better than my Burmese, which is awful. What I got was a bunch of truncated stories and incomplete factoids about what was clearly a voluminous career in the movie theater business. Such is research without a translator on hand. I do a lot better in Thailand, where I speak the local. 

Short of boring you with useless half-facts that I may have accurately recorded, I'll leave you with this: hope springs eternal. There is a bit of interest, vis a vis an unnamed party, in the purchasing and refurbishing of this classic old movie hall. 

Until then, Mon State can lay claim to the most eye catching abandoned movie theater in all of Myanmar. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The King's Cinema - Mawlamyine, Mon State, Myanmar PART 1

Please excuse the abrupt halt in publication here at the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project website. It's by no means intentional. I'm just itching to unload my photos and accompanying drivel onto anyone willing to look and listen, but finding the time to hammer out essays while at the peak of my working season isn't easy. So for the time being lets stick to the basics, like street views of movie theaters and cursory descriptions of what they're all about. 
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That down there is the King's Cinema. It's the riverside fortress of Mawlamyiane. Anybody strolling down Strand Road and the trash strewn banks of the Salween River passes by this building. It's a hard one not to notice. Whoever drew up its design clearly intended it that way. Although the facade and main entrance face onto a narrower street towards other buildings, the architect ensured that the King's couldn't be missed thanks to a vertiginous, curved sign stuck onto the corner facing Strand Road. The effect worked like a charm.  And the sign itself.....what a piece of work! It's alien without being alienating. Brutal without a touch of brutality, save for a vague resemblance to the Brutalist school of architecture that it preceded. I found it hard not to look at this building, and not just because I'm a sucker for cinema halls.   


The length of the King's Cinema fronting onto Strand Road is of a common ferrocement stock. Its low-slung breadth contrasts gracefully with the weightiness of the facade thanks to the slate-tiled shield of a sign between them. 


Wide view of Strand Road length of the King's Cinema.


A group of women working for a nearby bank stroll past the King's Cinema


A mobile lottery ticket vendor pushes his cart past the hulking carcass of the King's Cinema.


A game of Chin Lone being played in front of the King's Cinema.


Even from afar, the King's Cinema makes its mark along Strand Road. 


Mawlamyiane, city of Orwellian legend, of great historical and economic clout, has much to see. The town, for instance, is crowned by the Kyaik Than Lan Pagoda, sitting on the crest of hill that overlooks the various neighborhoods below. Across the Salween River, which the town sits at the mouth of, is the island of Bilu, known throughout the region for its many craft villages.

Few people come to Mawlamyiane for the King's Cinema, especially since it went bust six or seven years ago. But unless you're blind, the King's is hard to miss. 

Don't be blind! See the King's!




An ornate house bookends the King's Cinema at its rear.



Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Aung Tha Pyae Cinema - Kamawet Township, Mon State, Myanmar

In the great anachronism that is Myanmar (and I mean that as a compliment), the stand-alone movie theater abides. But barely. As the country gives embrace to the digital age, with its Pandora's box of new movie-watching platforms, the great public culture embodied in the stand-alone movie theater is finding itself cocooned a metamorphic stage. What it will look like in five to ten years is anyone's guess. 

Mon State, it turns out, is one of a few provinces that is a cinema dead zone. All but one of the State's inventory of oldies is in working condition, and that lone operator exists in the most unlikely of places: The glorified village of Kamawet.

For all practical purposes, Kamawet is a village. Even though it's administrative title is Township (the 3rd highest administrative level in the country) it looks and feels diminutive, villagesque, with an arboreal lushness that adds to the atmosphere. Not the kind of place one might expect to find a working movie theater.   


Street level with the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema, one of the most endearing bare bones movie houses you're ever likely to see. 


The Aung Tha Pyae Cinema is the definition of vernacular architecture. If the down home simplicity of its exterior isn't enough to convince you, then just take a peak inside. From the brick patterned flooring, to the threadbare curtains framing a simple cloth screen, right down to the hand-cut wooden seats, every inch of this theater echoes local craftsmanship. Skilled, yes; professionally trained, absolutely not. No chic accents or, or trendy flourishes mark this design. For the patrons of the Aung Tha Pyae, an appetite for the creature comforts required by movie-goers in most industrialized societies has yet to materialize. Could you, with your digital-age savvy, imagine sitting through a feature length film on a wooden plank? I don't think so.


Elevated view shows the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema looking not all that different from most other structures in Kamawet. 


Corridor from the lobby to the main auditorium



Perhaps the oddest form of seating ever found in a movie theater: three planks on one bench foundation, only one row of seating equipped with a backrest. 


The more luxurious balcony seating consists of rows of plastic chairs fastened together with a long wooden board.



The ever rare Myanmar production that's still made on film can play at the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema thanks to its vintage ShinKyo 35 mm projectors.


Before you get any cockamamie ideas of traveling all the way to Kamawet to watch a movie in what is clearly one of worlds most guileless movie theaters, you should know that these days The Aung Tha Pyae only screens a movie once, at most twice, per month. According to the owner, pictured in the photo above, Kamawet is such a small market that most distributors don't even bother bringing reels through.  

That said, it would be a real treat to see this theater up and running on one of those precious movie nights; in this time capsule of a glorified village in deepest Mon State. 


Ticket for the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema



Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema - Ye, Mon State, Myanmar

One of the surest ways to stoke the flames of interest about a place is to make it off-limits. Give it some time and the unknown - hence unverifiable - will invariably give way to rumor, myth or otherwise fantastical ideas about said place. The harder it is to access, the greater the fantasy will arise. 

Take Ye, for instance (pronounced Yay). In 2011, when I was first in the vicinity, overland travel between Dawei and Mon State, where Ye lies, was prohibited. The official reason was that a long running stand-off between the Mon National Liberation Army and the central Myanmar military, commonly known as the Tatmadaw, made travel unsafe. Foreign visitors were barred from entry, leaving the ancient Mon principality to take on mythical status in the minds of the excluded. That allure was further heightened, in my case, by a lone golden affirmation straight from the mouth of a Ye migrant cabbie that I had questioned in Yangon the week before: "Yes," he proclaimed, "there is a cinema in Ye." 

 

The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema. A staple of the Ye townscape since 1974.

The city of Ye and surrounding hinterland opened to tourism in 2013, allowing for all the speculation to be put to rest. There is indeed an old movie theater in town. Two, in fact; amid what is yet another leafy, human scale Myanmar city that anybody with penchant for charming urban forms should make a pilgrimage to. 


A man takes a short cut through the Yan Aung Thiri Cinema, abandoned or about 10 years.

A good number of the movie theaters I came across during my recent Mon State tour are, for lack of a better description, rudimentary structures. That's not to say that they're not well constructed, or made of fine materials. They are. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a theater builder anywhere in the world in this day and age build a theater that has hand crafted teak wood stairs leading to a teak balcony. Or a teak proscenium painted in pastel colors. How about exposed wooden support columns running up the side of the walls? Good luck trying to find anything close to that in a theater built today. But in the realm of decor and what you might call creature comforts, these theaters were simple creations. 

At the most extreme end of simplicity is the packed dirt floor of the Yan Aung Thiri. Structurally, while definitely a feat of craftsmanship, it is devoid of even the most basic ornamentation, or sveltness of design that most people associate with old movie theaters. Its brick nogging exterior surface and exposed wooden structure endow it with an anti-industrialism that echoes the Arts and Crafts movement in the West. That, however, is an unlikely connection for a small town Myanmar movie theater from the early 1970's.


There's some holes in the wall, where tickets were sold to all.


Rays of morning sunlight stream through broken windows at the rear of the auditorium


Cinema ephemera litters the floor beside hand-crafted teak stairs leading to balcony seating.


The most notable ornamentation at The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema is the multicolored proscenium that framed the screen, since removed.

By 1974, when The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema was built, Myanmar, then Burma, was well down "The Burmese Road to Socialism," the political philosophy developed by General Ne Win's military government. The basic principles of this ruling mandate were based on xenophobia and superstition, with the state as the guiding hand of everything. 

The Yan Aung Thiri was a product of that state. So, although it's a fine building in many ways, its simplicity probably has roots in the socialist values purported by the government, if not the fact the country had simply grown too isolated and poor to build anything much more luxurious.


Most of the rows of teak wood seats have been removed.


Discarded movie posters cover the floor of the balcony. 


Street scene in front of The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema. A woman came up to me while I was taking photographs and said she hoped that somebody would come and fix up their movie theater.

The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema is a bona fide landmark, albeit an under the radar one, in a town that for years had been completely off the radar. Like Myanmar in general, the self-sequestering of Ye led to severe stagnation. It also had the effect of freezing the town in time. To see the city now is to step into a past that elsewhere in Southeast Asia people are, more or less, beginning to lament the loss of. Such is the price of progress.

If Myanmar is wise it will take note of such sentiments and put resources towards preserving whatever it can of its prized past, movie theater or otherwise. Economic stagnation may indeed have inadvertently preserved countless cultural treasures. But preservation by neglect only goes so far. And now the far more tenacious adversary of demolition by progress is entering the ring.

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A moment of your time.....

Are you a fan of The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project? Want to see it continue and expand into new towns, cities and countries? If so, you might want to consider making a donation. As the sole proprietor of this project, I'm more often than not funding it on my own. And while I do so with pride and joy, it's difficult to sustain. Your modest contribution will help me reach these old theaters and continue raising awareness of them. Maybe even a few will be preserved along the way. 

Sincerely,
Phil








Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Aung Mingala Cinema Revisted - Dawei, Thanintharyi Region, Myanmar

Another Survey Completed


Round 4 of Myanmar movie theater surveying went off without a hitch and two bouts of food poisoning. The gut problems cut me down ten pounds lighter than when I started, but there's no burnt ankles or any other malady this year to speak of.

My range of research on this trip was relatively narrow, but also dense with findings. Movie theaters old and ancient came into focus, and I acquired a sack full of movie theater memorabilia along the way. Most of it is trash, for sure, but you all know what they about one man's trash.


The little red strip on the above map is Mon State, where I conducted most of my research.


Mon State was my primary research site, supplemented by a few short, precision guided excursions into adjacent States and Regions, including Ayerawaddy, Kayin and Thanintharyi. All were fruitful, even if the pickings get slimmer each year. But for now, lets get things started on the good foot, because that how the journey began.

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The Aung Mingala Cinema


If you've been following this blog long enough to remember my first visit to Dawei back in 2011 then you might recall pictures of a duo of pink movie theaters in a dust strewn backwater. Well the Dawei of 2017 is a bit different from the Dawei of 2011. Dust strewn it still is, though the backwater designation is starting to give way. The most notable change during my six year hiatus is the handful of mid-rise hotels that have been built. At least one other mid-rise tower is currently under construction. 

While the new giants are shockingly out of proportion for the low rise city of around 150,000 inhabitants, they are spaced out enough that the impact is not so dramatic.  

More dramatic is the noticeable increase in foreign tourists. In 2011, Dawei was still well off the beaten track for most of the trickle of foreign tourists that ventured into Myanmar. Six years ago, I remember running into a group of medical doctors on assignment for Doctors Without Borders who were flabbergasted at the sight of another foreigner. Today, the sight of the likes of me wouldn't amount to the bat of an eyelash. 

Most foreign visitors, however, seem to be more interested in intrepid travel to "unspoiled" hinterlands than the town itself. That's fine by me. All the more elbow room for when I'm seeking out the local cinema treasure.

The Aung Mingala in 2011 (left) and 2017 (right). While the new look white paint-job and tacky use of projected lights onto the facade has cheapened the aesthetic, it's the loss of the two palm trees behind the theater which most upsets me. 

Over the past few years a number of willing informants have brought me up to date on the Dawei cinema scene. "The Aung Mingala is now sporting digital projectors and showing 3D films, man" they'd announce. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, "that weird looking one - what is it called, The Mingala Thiri? - that one's gone under." (Kites Tales Myanmar put together a nice photo essay on The Mingala Thiri Cinema in November of last year.) 

Both bits of intelligence are legitimate. The Aung Mingala has indeed gone through an entire overhaul, including the installation of air-conditioning, digital projection and a brand new screen and sound system. Maybe even cushy new seats to replace the classic but uncomfortable wooden ones. I wouldn't know for sure, as they were much more protective of the place now that it's been upgraded. Interior photography was strictly prohibited.  

In the exterior looks department it has lost a a bit of its mid-century Tropical Art Deco provenance, but mostly in the details. By and large it's as I remember it. What changes were made are not irreversible and a few low road improvements are completely acceptable if it means the building will be around for the foreseeable future. 

Moreover, now that digital projectors are in place, the viewing fare can diversify beyond the super-low-production-value Myanmar movies that had been the exclusive viewing fare for decades. A poster for the most recent installment in the Resident Evil dynasty was tacked up in the lobby. Such Hollywood schlockbusters would not have been possible had the circa 1960's carbon arc projectors not been replaced.  


The same manager from 2011 running the show.


Ticket booth 

 All said, it was good to start out this survey with an active theater. Ever more so considering that much of the new investment in Dawei is being spurred on by the pending development of a nearby deep sea port. Once complete, the Dawei Deep Sea Port and accompanying Special Economic Zone is anticipated to be a game changer in regional trade. Roads cutting through western Thailand to Bangkok and all points east and north will theoretically make shipping from the Indian Ocean quicker, bypassing the long established Straights of Malacca route, where Singapore is the main hub. 
   
Aside from a new and improved road from Bangkok to the Thai-Myanmar border, little work on the mega project has occurred thus far. It seems like all parties involved are waiting to see what happens via the broader geopolitical reordering that is seeming more and more inevitable these days. 

For the time being, that's a good thing for old movie theaters like The Aung Mingala. As property values rise, old movie theaters and the large footprints they sit on become prime targets for redevelopment, particularly when speculation is coming from outside investors who have little interest in anything other than reaping maximum profits. 

The fact that The Aung Mingala was recently upgraded further signals that the ownership has confidence in its longevity. 


Long live The Aung Mingala Cinema!


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Donations warmly welcomed....


The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project is a one person show. Although I've had some generous grants over the years, by and large I'm self-funded. That does not mean that I'm independently wealthy, or living off of a cozy trust fund. When I'm not documenting, writing about or giving lectures about movie theaters in Southeast Asia, I'm a laborer in Philadelphia, PA. Part of the savings I generate from my labor goes towards this project, the aim of which is to promote historic movie theaters as preservation worthy sites. After 8 years of doing this work, old movie theaters have started to enter the collective consciousness in some circles within Southeast Asia. That's not completely my doing, of course, but I'm not too proud to accept a bit of credit. 

If you enjoy the photos and essays you find here and want to see it continue, please consider kicking in a couple dollars to help sponsor future surveys. Better yet, buy a photo off of me. Send me an email at sea.theater@hotmail.com and I'll send you a selection of images for sale. 

Thanks for reading,
Phil Jablon