Monday, November 16, 2009

The Chinatown Rama (Sri Meuang Theater) - Bangkok, Thailand

Back in June I wrote a short post claiming that the Sri Meuang Theater (currently called the Chinatown Rama) is still active as a porn theater. I was misinformed about that. Yes, it is still active, but it's not a porn theater. It's a double feature theater, in Thailand referred to as a "second-class" theater. There's a little more to it than just that, though.

The Chinatown Rama is on Yaowarat Road in the Heng Seng Li Building, which looks like it was once an office tower of sorts. Locals date it to some time between 60 and 70 years ago. Initially the theater was designed as a Peking Opera hall, but as film grew in popularity the theater followed suit, switching over to silver screen entertainment in the 1950's.

Located in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown, the Chinatown Rama screened mostly Chinese movies. Shaw Brothers films were standard programming, among other non-mainland Chinese movie production companies.

Retail space, occupied by the jewelry shop pictured in the above and below photos, is on the ground level of the Heng Seng Li Building


View of the lobby, with the ticket booth in the corner. When I visited they were playing a double feature of District 9 and Loveaholic, with the former dubbed in Thai.

In terms of design, the Chinatown Rama is one of a kind in Thailand. It's the first theater I've visited in which the majority of the building is dedicated to other functions. The auditorium itself is fairly small, with no more than a few hundred seats. Movie goers climb the steps depicted in the photo above and then turn left up another half-flight of stairs to reach it. After passing through a set of heavy curtains, you're in. The screen - not so big - is set back behind a wooden stage, a reminder of the theater's early days as a Peking Opera hall. Overhead, a old balcony wraps almost completely around the perimeter of the room, narrowing as it gets closer to the screen.

Yai, the ticket seller/projectionist, poses beside the ticket booth. The sign on the ticket window glass reads "Chinatown Rama: double features showing continuously all day long."


Peeking out

A theater employee reads the paper prior to showtime.

A poster for "Phobia 2" (Haa Praeng) hangs from the exterior side of the staircase.

There were a bunch of cats hanging around the lobby, including this little kitten.

Facing the camera is Mr. A. He works for a local film distribution company that supplies all of Bangkok's double feature movie theaters. I met him before at the Mongkol Rama. Affable guy, Mr. A is. He sits there with a hand-held tallying devise, counting the number of people who enter the theater. The guy with his back facing the camera is the manager at the Chinatown Rama.

Mr. A: always the dignified film distributor.

I bought a ticket and entered 10 minutes after the start of District 9, finding a seat in the center aisle, which runs the width of the auditorium. The stuffed seats were old and worn, but comfortable - as old furniture tends to be. I sank down in the creaky chair, allowing my head to tilt back as I did so, scanning the interior up, down and side to side. Having already seen the critically over-rated District 9, I paid little attention to the the screen other than its physical dimensions and placement. Narrow, yet long. I tried to picture the screen illuminated by a film with Gordon Liu brandishing a cudgel, lunging towards Wang Lung Wei in one of their many epic Shaw Bros. battles (presented in Shaw Scope, of course). Every time Gordon Liu struck Wang Lung Wei, my imaginary packed house errupted in cheer, leaping out of their seats at the final, freeze-frame blow. But no, instead of a Shaw Bros. classic I was fixated on corny CGI aliens in a cheap allegorical, sci-fi version of South African apartheid.

After a few minutes of sitting there, a man from the row in front of me got up and moved to the seat to my right. I pretended to ignore him, while prepping myself for what was coming next. His hand gently slid across my forearm as it lie there on the arm-rest. "Uh, please don't do that," I said turning to him with as stern, yet nonthreatening a look as I could muster. "I'm only here to watch the movie."

He politely withdrew his hand and smiled slyly. From the glow of the screen he appeared to be in his 40's or 50's, neatly dressed in a polo shirt and black slacks. Behind his smile a set of brown, decaying teeth shown in the dim light. "You know this theater is for gays?" he asked me.

"Oh! No, I didn't know that" I replied.

"Well it is," he ensured. "Why didn't you bring a friend?"

"Actually, to be honest, I just came to check the place out; see what it's like inside. I've already seen this movie. You see, I'm doing a project about old movie theaters like this. Taking pictures and stuff. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?" I expected him to shy away at the idea of being documented, but he didn't.

"Go ahead," he conceded

"This isn't the only gay theater in town, is it?"

"You're right, there are others."

"So do you only come to this one, or..."

"No, I go to some of the others. Hey, are you sure I can't put my hand on you?"

"Totally sure, dude. I'm really not gay, nor am I looking for any favors. But you know what? I went to the Phaholyothin Theater before; with my girlfriend. She didn't understand why everybody kept changing seats and going in and out of the bathroom."

He laughed out loud. "That's funny! Did anybody approach you there?"

"No, because they saw me there with my girlfriend, I suppose."

"Oh, I see," said the man. The conversation stalled for a moment. We both looked up at the screen, drawn in a by the sound of a loud explosion and some fancy graphics. A few moments passed in silence before he put his hand on my arm again. "Would you like it if I did this," he inquired, hoping I might change my mind in reward for opening up to me about his life in theaters.

"Seriously, man. I really don't want any of that." He slumped down into the lower depths of his seat; dejected, exhausted. "Just out of curiosity," I continued, trying not to make the man feel ostracized for his libidinous actions, "do you charge for your services, or do you do it for free?"

"Oh, for free," he answered. "I just like to do it. Others do charge, but not me. This isn't my job, you know."

"Will you stay here all day?"

"No, just for a few hours. Sometimes nothing happens at all."

"Such is life, I suppose." I picked up my things and sat forward in my chair. "Well, look my friend. I'm outta here. Off in search of more dilapidated theaters. It's been very good talking to you and I wish you the best of luck."

"You too," he said, with a big toothy grin. And with that I left.

I don't know if the Chinatown Rama is an exclusively gay theater like the man claimed it is. There were a few women with their toddler children who entered while I was taking pictures of the lobby, as well as several old men from the neighborhood who seemed to me to be genuinely engrossed in the movie; regular customers, I assume, from the days when the Chinatown Rama was the Sri Meaung Theater, a Chinatown movie institution. It's hard to say for certain, though. Twenty minutes in a place that's been around for seventy years is hardly enough time to get the full story. Maybe it did screen porn in the recent past, which is what many of the locals told me on my first visit to Chinatown. Maybe it's now in the process of changing back to be a regular double feature theater, yet there's still a lingering sexual element. Maybe it is a gay theater which occasionally attracts non-gay patrons who go in just to watch movies. After all, they were showing current films at the affordable price of 50 baht per ticket, much cheaper than the typical Bangkok multiplex. Whatever it is, the Chinatown Rama is one of the oldest functioning movie theaters in all of Thailand. For that reason alone it should be seen.


9 comments:

  1. Great text and great pictures. Visiting old cinemas can be a dangerous task :)

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  2. When the theater you're visiting actually happens to be operating, well why not write a movie review. I enjoyed your views on District 9. I think critics who were weary of the likes of Transformers 2 and Terminator 4 thought District 9 was a breath of fresh air. And I thought it was pretty entertaining.

    Wouldn't be awesome if the Chinatown Rama could be transformed into a kung-fu flicks revival house, showing nothing but old Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest films from the '60s and '70s? What a dream.

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  3. WiseKwai, this is the theater that I said we should visit! Walked by it many times but never gone it, great writeup, I'll have to check it out.

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  4. A regular venue for old-school Hong Kong cinema would indeed be a dream; a dream I've been having since I was but a wee lad, roaming the streets of Philadelphia. I'm not sure, but I think Shaw Bros. once owned a theater in Bangkok's Chinatown. Which one it was I don't know.

    You know, I read so many glowing reviews of District 9 before I saw it, I was expecting the best sci-fi film since Blade Runner. To me it was about one step above T4 and Transformers. It wasn't terrible, but I was so incredibly let down by all the hype that it will forever stand as one of those movies that I love to hate.

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  5. I love your review and the photos! I am gay and have been going to this establishment for several years, but this article exposes the place in a whole new light.

    Richard

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  6. Cheers Richard. It was very much an interesting experience for me as well, I can assure you.

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  7. What a unique story! Most enjoyable read.

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  8. was in the cinema last week when 8 men arrived and spent a while looking at the walls, banging on the structural work and writing things down. They were not interested in other activities and seemed to be measuring. I doubt the cinema will be renovated and given the subway extension, maybe the building will be demolished for condos!!

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  9. http://thailandgek.actieforum.com/t252-video-chinatown-rama-cinema#252

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