Friday, August 23, 2019

The Kithi Cinema - Mogok, Mandalay Region, Myanmar

There's a bit of magic being performed upon Myanmar's movie theaters these days. A celestial twist of collective fate that has been working its way from town to charm-stuffed town across the country. The magic is that for the past couple of years a good number of theaters have been ushered out of purgatory, and the eventual rubble heap, through the shimmering gates of salvation. That's right, old movie theaters throughout Myanmar are being renovated at a fairly high rate. The lone down side is that for this new generation of theater renovators, the shimmering part is literal. Crimes against architecture are being perpetrated one cheap, shiny piece of vinyl at a time.

Take, for instance, the Kithi Cinema; a classic Tropical Art Deco theater right in the heart of Mogok. The Kithi was contracted at the height of Myanmar's movie theater construction boom, which followed independence from Great Britain in 1947. In the years to follow, Tropical Art Deco came into vogue among the country's builders and architects. As the style proliferated, many of its finest examples found expression in the form of movie theaters, matching these iconic cultural venues with the most lavish architectural trend of the era.

In a shining sign of these current times, however, some of Myanmar's nascent theater renovators seem to have little regard for yesterday's design sensibilities. Case in point, the Tropical Art Deco facade of the Kithi has been completely covered up with uninspired, vinyl paneling. It's a bittersweet outcome for an otherwise positive development. Getting a reactivated original movie hall - with all it's crowd-drawing potential and landmark status right in the center of a historic town - is a good thing. Getting mutilated architecture in the process is bad. The most unfortunate part is that it's completely unnecessary.

The original Tropical Art Deco crest of the facade of the Kithi Cinema peaks out from behind the hideous vinyl paneling 

Beast kills beauty.

From this angle, a corner of an adjacent building is visible in the foreground. Though in dire need of some sprucing up, this is the type of simple, but elegant architecture that much of Mogok - and Myanmar cities in general - is comprised of. The the same type of architecture that has been needlessly obscured in the Kithi Cinema.

When modernizing old movie theaters it's not uncommon for the theater's functional components to be completely replaced. Take seating, for example. Before renovations, the Kithi was making use of its original teakwood seats. While beautiful in their own right, hard wood seats do not sit well (no pun intended) with 21st century audiences. The newly installed cushioned seats, on the other hand, mark a technological upgrade that will make watching movies more comfortable. As will the new and improved sound system and digital projection. With such improvements, a bit of provenance is sacrificed for an enhanced user experience.  But unlike the functional aspects of movie theaters - seats, the screen, audio and projection - the facade is strictly ornamental and should be restored to its original look.

The Kithi's grand auditorium has been completely gutted and modernized. A section of it has been cut away to make room for a second, mini-auditorium, so that the theater can screen two films at the same time. Overhauling a square box auditorium to improve the movie-watching experience is acceptable so long as no rare architectural elements are removed. Obliterating an original facade is unacceptable.

A smaller, secondary auditorium has been cut from the original.

Galaxy Cinemas, the company behind the revival of the Kithi, is attempting to brand itself with a distinct visual identity. All of their theaters feature the same boxy facade of red and silver, whether built from the ground up or from existing movie theaters that they renovate. Ostensibly, their design concept is riding the wave of the current building boom that is making its mark on many parts of the country. As such, the upstart company is attempting to make themselves appear sleek and new.

As important as brand identity is, it's a poor excuse for covering up good architecture. Galaxy could have achieved the same visual branding simply by tidying up the original tropical Art Deco facade. The company logo, moreover, placed in a suitable spot on the old facade, would have served as a fine branding marker, without dishonoring the architecture and the theater's long history. This is a conceptual error that I see being corrected, at great expense, years later all over the west.

Oddly enough, the lobby area, including a pair of beautifully crafted teak stairs, wooden poster cases and wood paneled ticket booths, have been painstaking restored to their original mid-century look. If the same attention had been paid to the facade, this would count as a stellar renovation job.

Restored poster display case and stairs in the lobby if the Kithi Cinema.

Had I arrived in Mogok just a month or so earlier I would have been able to document the Kithi in its original Tropical Art Deco guise. Thanks to the power of the internet, I was able to track down an image of it pre-mutilation courtesy of photographer Jamie Johnstone. Click here to view the photo.

Below is a sample of other Tropical Art Deco movie theaters I've had the good fortune to document throughout Myanmar.

The Yuzana Cinema - Pyin Oo Lwin

The Myoma Cinema - Pyin Oo Lwin

The Aung Tha Pyae Cinema - Yemathin

The Aung Mingala Cinema - Dawei

The Win Cinema - Toungoo

The Aung Theit Thi Cinema - Myaungmya

The Hla Thiri Cinema - Minbu

The Kemarat Cinema - Keng Tung

The Thwin Cinema - Yangon

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Baho Cinema - Mogok, Mandalay Region, Myanmar

The 6 hour car ride from Mandalay to Mogok began at dawn. Soon after passing the city limits we became entangled in a sea of oncoming motorbikes, crawling in from the outskirts to city center. This daily commute of rural labor into the booming markets of Mandalay was further exacerbated by an over turned truck blocking one half of the road a few miles out. Once past the twisted metal, with its cargo of bricks spilled across the cratered bi way (see video below), the pace of things quickened and we cut through dusty, roadside villages en route to the mountains. 


Mogok is a storied place. A mountain top "Ruby Land." The historic source of much of the world's supply of high quality rubies. 

The origins of this spectacular town on the Shan plateau begin centuries ago when what is now Mogok was nothing more than a high altitude hinterland of the Shan princedom Mong Mit. Legend has it that a band of Shan hunters casing the forest for a good kill chanced upon some lovely red stones in the foot hills. The hunting band gathered up said stones and brought them to the Sawbwa of Mong Mit, who later organized mining expeditions to the hills above.

Some time later, the mines of Mogok were bequeathed to the Burmese king at Mandalay, who continued excavations in the name of the crown. To this day, Mogok township is located in Mandalay Region, even though its geographic kinship is with the Shan plateau, not the alluvial plains of the former.

In the age of European imperialism, it was the French who initially had interests in the gem mines of Mogok. But it was only after the British conquered upper Burma in 1886 that its ruby mining industry took on an industrial character. An excavation firm called the British Ruby Mines Ltd. took charge of the mines, as the colonial administration turned what had been a collection of makeshift mining camps into a permanent town.     

Stunningly framed by a string of verdant hills, the Baho Cinema of West Mogok. 

Mogok consists of two unequal (in terms of size and population) halves. East and West Mogok, for lack of better designations. Both halves developed in the vicinity of nearby ruby mines, and both halves were eventually graced with their own movie theaters. 

The theater highlighted in this post, the Baho Cinema of West Mogok, is a real jaw dropper. I would go out on a limb to say that it is very possibly the most strikingly situated movie house on this warming planet. Its monumental scale juxtaposed against a low slung residential neighborhood and tied together by a backdrop of verdant peaks calls to mind an alpine village, cinema substituting for church.    

The neighborhood across from the Baho is built into the side of a steep hill, offering excellent views of the cinema and surrounding landscape. 

The Baho Cinema was built in 1961. It was the first permanent movie theater ever built in West Mogok and the second in the city overall.

It's not clear whether or not the Baho was ever nationalized. During the Ne Win government (1962 - 1988) the vast majority of Myanmar's theaters were brought under state control. But due to its relative inaccessibility (there's no airport and the road is slow and treacherous) and the fact that ethnic armies opposed to the central regime were stationed nearby, Mogok retained a larger degree of autonomy than many other places. 

Whatever the case, the Baho remained in operation until about 2013. It's been dormant ever since. But not for much longer.

Late last year, a permit was obtained from the Ministry of Construction to start renovations. A local entrepreneur has apparently purchased the Baho and plans on restoring it to a fully functioning movie theater. Had I arrived just a few weeks earlier I've have been able to photograph the auditorium with its original wooden seats in place. It was completely gutted during this photo session in mid-January.

Old posters still cover the walls in the main office of the Baho Cinema

The former projectionist of the Baho Cinema demonstrating how films were rewound by hand. 

While the exterior of the Baho Cinema boasts of a svelte modernist design, interior details like the stairs to the balcony seating are elegant works vernacular architecture, utilizing tropical hardwoods.  

Staircase details

Facade close up

Getting the best views of a theatre - or any urban building, for that matter - often involves accessing nearby buildings. In the above photo, the daughter of the shop-house owners posed for a portrait on her rooftop, which offered the best view of the Baho around.    

Some elevated footage of west Mogok and the Baho Cinema.

Mogok is one of those spirited kinds of cities that are few and far between these days. Upland Southeast Asia at its most charming. It deserves a lot more attention than I'm willing and able to give it in this little post. For one, getting there alone requires advanced permission from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, a private tour guide and a private driver, all of which can become quite costly. 

The second theater that I documented in Mogok isn't nearly as visually dramatic. For my next post -if I can dislodge my head from my mundane reality at the moment - I'll spend less time on the theater and go into more detail about Mogok itself. 

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).