Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Chalerm Sin Theater, chopped

Never mind that it wound down its cinematic life as a double-feature theater that was, by all accounts, a deviants' paradise, demolition of the Chalerm Sin Theater marks yet another loss to Bangkok's dwindling stock of stand-alone movie theaters. While it's no surprise that this one in particular is currently getting smashed out (it wasn't much of a looker to begin with), it is a shame to see nearly the entire inventory of this structural type and the culture it embodied getting collectively tossed into the trash dump of existence.

For the past few months, a wrecking crew has been painstakingly dismantling the 60 year old cinema building. A condo is slated to rise in its place.

The Chalerm Sin Theater from 2009. Its days as a movie theater were long over, but the building was in decent shape, having just been converted into a badminton hall. 

Gap toothed signage atop the Chalerm Sin Theater, with its missing letter 

The three images below were taken this morning, October 19th, 2016.

They taketh away.

Looking from where the screen would be, with the balcony in the distance.

Demolition man surveys his work. Decades ago, this same guy was a regular at The Chalerm Sin for movies.

Again, it's neither surprising nor much of a loss to Bangkok that The Chalerm Sin is being wrecked. While it certainly holds dear memories for the many who experienced it over the years, it was not a particularly important structure - cinema or otherwise - in the grand scheme of things. Its loss should, however, serve as a reminder that there are only a few of this type of building left in the city, most of which have great architectural and/or cultural worth. 

It's time for Bangkokians to start thinking very deeply about what kind of city they want Bangkok to be.   

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Sein Aung Win Cinema - Kyaukme, Shan State, Myanmar

If one were to take inventory of the many colorful towns in Myanmar and rank them in order of their physical character, Kyaukme would sit very near the top. This large town is one of those uncommon places that is worth visiting for no other reason than the place itself. All of its varied parts intermingle like clockwork, with no one aspect any more or less outstanding than the next. 

Despite the overall lack of any specific site or destination, everything in Kyaukme compliments everything else. There is no single anomaly of siting or design that throws off the balance. Even the newer buildings seem to have been built in consideration of those that were erected a century before. Suburban sprawl, chief denigrator of all urbanism, does not exist.

A street lined with shop-houses just a few blocks from the train station.

At the center of Kyaukme is the old market, a low slung wooden structure taking up an entire square block. From this commercial core the town pushes out into a high density grid. The buildings, while diverse in age and style, have a uniformity of scale that runs through the whole town. Everything seems accessible. Everything very human. The scale of its streets in relation to the size of its buildings; its steady commercial buzz and busy street-life, sans the gridlock and pollution induced by cars. 

Kyaukme owes at least part of its past prosperity to being on the train line, the primary economic lifeline in centuries passed. But where most Southeast Asian towns that were built up along a train line have outgrown their original confines, in Kyaukme they seem to have changed very little. Add to this thriving human scale environment the flourishes of antique architecture in good condition and you have a living piece of history. A very special place, to say the least.

The U San Baw Building, one of several ornate old department stores in the center of town

A nice old building near the train station.

As in much of Myanmar, the well preserved structures of Kyaukme were not necessarily preserved out of intention. Years of economic isolation has meant that the financing needed to replace old buildings with new was often absent. 

Kyaukme, like a number of other cities in Myanmar's ethnic states, has the added obstacle of war in the surrounding rural areas to further stifle investment, freezing the townscape in an unintentional time warp.  

While war and disinvestment make for an ugly combination, the effect of the two on Kyaukme's physicality - aesthetic, functional, what have you - has been a boon, ensuring a well preserved stock of buildings and the accompanying culture that makes use of them.

Old department store

One of Kyaukme's many understated structures



View from the steps of the temple on the hill.

What would a well preserved Southeast Asian town be without a cinema to document? The silly but true answer is it wouldn't be one that you'd hear about on this blog. We like to stick to our proverbial guns here at The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. Fortunately, Kyaukme still has The Sein Aung Win Cinema, the existence of which gives me a bit of licence to boast about the town in general.

Elevated view of The Sein Aung Win Cinema in downtown Kyaukme.

With a synoptic description of the larger town in mind, it should come as no surprise that Kyaukme's lone theater is too a bit of honey for the eyes. But that's true of most of the theaters in Myanmar. The unfortunate thing is that said theater, The Sein Aung Win Cinema, is no longer a contributing to Kyaukme's steady din of vitality, having been mothballed since 2012.  

Multicolored louvre windows highlight the central tower of The Sein Aung Win. A golden star with a red outline sits at the top.

Sein Aung Win means "Victorious Diamond"

Perforated, decorative blocks comprise the central strips in the theater's cornice

Ticket windows

A poster case behind the concession stand decorated to resemble a diamond.

The Sein Aung Win Cinema was built in 1957, at the height of Myanamr's movie theater construction boom, which dated roughly from 1947 to 1962. Politically, the period corresponds to the brief window between independence from British rule and the ascension of General Ne Win's military dictatorship. That short democratic interlude saw an explosion in the arts in Myanmar, then Burma, as post-World War 2 rebuilding kick-started the economy.  

In the realm of design, The Sein Aung Win is a bit of a puzzle. Not the typical Art Deco or Art Modern that characterized a large portion of Burmese cinema architecture of the era. While I'm no architecture expert, I'm also no rookie, but this has got me scratching me head. I can only conclude that this is some sort of composite.  

Pilasters and weeds

The date of completion, 1957, is molded onto the side cornice, now obscured from view by a newer structure. The only way I was able to find it was thanks to a tenant in the neighboring building who led me up to a second floor balcony so I could take this picture.

From its heyday in the late 1950's to its closure 4 years ago, The Sein Aung Win Cinema saw a gradual loss of viewership until running it proved too much for 75 year old U Kyaw Aung, owner of the theater. The Kyaukme native picked up the reins from his father, who opened it 59 years ago. 

When asked what he thought the future of the theater would be, U Kyaw Aung was not very hopeful, expressing doubt that it could ever be made operational again.

"I'm too old, anyway," he said. "There needs to be a younger generation to do the work." 

For the time being The Sein Aung Win stands in a lull. Mothballed, presumably, until some investor makes a move on it. Hopefully that move will be in line with Kyaukme's immaculately well preserved character. A rare example of a Southeast Asian town that has managed to avoid, whether intentionally or not, the trappings of progress and the piecemeal destruction of history which it so often brings. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Sein Myit Tar Cinema - Hsipaw, Shan State, Myanmar

The next major town to the west of Lashio in upper Shan State is Hsipaw (pronounced See-Paw). This little hamlet has gained some renown over the past decade or so among travelers for its vintage atmosphere and sedate pace. A freeze frame of the old upland Southeast Asia once romanticized in Western literature and film. Comparisons to Luang Prabang, Laos, minus the tourist hordes have been tossed around with some accuracy, though that same reputation has led to a steadily increasing stream of them. Visitors hoping to experience a pristine Shan princedom devoid of other map-toting, rubber-necking travelers will be let down.

That said, Hsipaw's old school authenticity is still present. Like most small towns in Myanmar, regardless of what part of the country, a human scale, pedestrian oriented intimacy prevails. Those who come from lands where the car has gained primacy as a way of life will find their relative absence in Hsipaw refreshing.

Another relative absence, though maybe only noticeable to that slim subset of architecture enthusiast with an affection for them, is the movie theater. The last one in town - The Sein Myit Tar Cinema - had been turned into the local branch of Myanmar Apex Bank in the past year or so, replacing the leisurely pursuit of movie-going with the serious business of finance.

For history's sake, at least, the Art Deco exterior of The Sein Myit Tar has been kept intact, a visual reminder of the cinematic pleasures once shared within. But only for those old enough to know it.

Now you know it, too.

A quintessential Myanmar Art Deco movie theater, whose name I forgot to record.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Thein Htaik Cinema - Lashio, Shan State, Myanmar

Rounding out the trio of active stand-alone movie theaters in Lashio is one that differs markedly from the majority of Myanmar's mid-century cinema stock. Go figure! It's not actually a mid-century movie theater at all, nor was it designed in either of the hallmark Art Deco or International Style which, in Myanmar, are so indicative of the form.

The Thein Htaik Cinema was erected in the 21st century, probably the first single screen stand-alone to arise in the country since the 2000's began. True to the era, it bears none of the aesthetic charms that most older Myanmar theaters come standard with, and all the drawbacks of contemporary stock architecture, with one particularly biting shortcoming - Lashio's unfortunately easy access to cheap Chinese building materials.   

The Thein Htaik Cinema looks like it was ripped straight off of a Chinese mass construction site, the prevailing aesthetic logic of which is whatever the building, slap some glazed tile, vinyl panels and/or imitation varnished stone onto the facade and call it a castle. It's the latter material that mars the exterior of The Thein Htaik, a decor that announces the accumulation of wealth sans any accompanying notions of good taste, not unlike much of its freshly constructed ilk throughout China. Add some vertical strips of tinted glass, and voila - we've managed to achieve an opaque gangland sort of look. 

While on the subject, multiple sources claimed The Thein Htaik Cinema, as well as a nearby hotel, belong to a certain, shall we say, "Golden Triangle" business man. As part of said business man's amnesty deal with the Burmese military government back in the 1980's, he was given concessions to operate some of the local movie theaters. The 2003 grand opening of The Thain Htaik Cinema was an outcome of that. 

A stand-alone theater for its times - The Thein Htaik Cinema

Despite aesthetic lampooning, The Thein Htaik is an overall welcomed addition to downtown Lashio. The movie watching experience therein is copacetic, taking place inside a comfortable and spacious auditorium, equipped with all the latest in digital sound and projection technology. Though it may fall short in the looks department, the bi-level lobby is reminiscent of the older variety of stand-alone movie theater in Southeast Asia, designed with ample space for movie goers to lounge around and socialize before the start of a film. And in typical tropical architecture fashion, both levels are open air around the perimeter, allowing the bustle and spontaneity of the city street to blend with the fantasy world of the cinema. Simply stated, it makes the outside feel inside.

At night, The Thein Htaik punctuates the urban landscape of downtown Lashio like few other buildings do - a typical attribute of stand-alone movie theaters, whatever their aesthetic shortcomings.

But above all, it's the theater's superb interplay with the city that is its greatest strength. A lively city center is a healthy city center, where numerous opportunities to socialize and do business exist for one and all. Assuming that movie going remains a popular enough activity to attract large crowds, movie theaters like The Thein Htaik - by their very nature - help facilitate such opportunities like few other types of businesses can. Located in Lashio's commercial core, just around the corner from the much older Aung Thiri Cinema, The Thein Htaik adds the excitement of mass entertainment to a vibrant downtown atmosphere. After sundown, with it's neon lights aglow and colorful movie advertisements hanging over the street, there is no more punctuating sight in town than The Thein Htaik Cinema, confirming the adage coined by renowned American theater architect S. Charles Lee that with a good movie theater, "the show starts on the sidewalk."


Sunday, August 28, 2016

PRINT SALE - "Forgotten in Plain Sight"

As the month of August winds down, so does my latest exhibition of movie theater photography. "Forgotten in Plain Sight: Photographs of Southeast Asia's Disappearing Movie Theaters," spent most of the month covering the walls of The Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art. PhilaMOCA for short. The set consists of 20 images, featuring a variety of theater views from Thailand and Myanmar, a good portion of which have never before been exhibited. 

This also marked the first major exhibition of my work in the United States, and possibly the best one to date in terms of content and presentation.

For those interested in owning a piece of this exhibition, individual images are on sale for $90 each (plus shipping), unframed. Each image is part of a signed and numbered limited run of 100, printed at an 18X24 size on high-quality archival photo paper with a matte finish. As usual, each sale will go towards supporting the Southeast Asia Movie theater Project, enabling me to continue documenting the region's disappearing stand-alone movie theaters. 

To get your photograph just click the PayPal "Buy Now" button below. Unfortunately, only 10 of the 20 images are indicated in the PayPal button, but if you are interested in one that's not listed, or you want one printed in a different size, please email me directly at

Happy viewing.


Tea at the Aung Theit Hti 
Myaungmya, Irrawaddy Region, Myanmar

Final Stage 
 The Sri Burapha Thaeater
 Chanthanburi, Thailand

Mingala Thiri Light Beam 
The Mingala Thiri Cinema 
 Dawei, Thanintharyi Region, Myanmar

The Bang Khae Rama 
 Bangkok, Thailand

The Fa Siam Theater 
 Suphanburi, Thailand

The Pak Nam Rama 
 Pak Nam, Samut Prakarn, Thailand

The Sein Aung Win Cinema 
 Kyaukme, Shan State, Myanmar

The Serm Suk Theater 
Kumpawaphi, Udon Thani Province, Thailand

The Siri Phanom Rama 
Phanom Sarakam, Chachoengsao Province, Thailand

The Win Cinema 
Toungoo, Bago Region, Myanmar

The Thwin at night 
 Yangon, Myanmar

The Trang Rama 
Trang, Thailand

The Peth Rama 
 Loei, Thailand

Front row kids 
The Aung Thiri Cinema 
Lashio, Shan State, Myanmar

Balcony View
The Tun Thiri Cinema
Pyay, Bago Region, Myanmar

Thamada Auditorium View
The Thamada Cinema
Yangon, Myanmar

Oscar's Prostitutes
The Oscar Theater
Bangkok, Thailand

Siam Diamond in Post Life
The Siam Diamond Theater
Sri Samrong, Sukhothai Province, Thailand 

Rama Ticket Taker
The Nonkorn Non Rama
Nonthaburi, Thailand