Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Chalerm Kiad - Bangkok, Thailand

The Chalerm Kiad is another product of the Banpreecha family. It was the second of their 4 movie theater empire, which began back in 1953. This second cinematic initiative has been standing on the Wong Wian Yai traffic circle since 1955, a neighborhood landmark for over 50 years.

The architectural details of this theater are quite attractive when you get up close. With that in mind, I asked the guy at the ticket booth if I could take some photos of the lobby area, but he denied me. "That wouldn't be a good idea," he said. "We show a special kind of movie here and the customers wouldn't appreciate you snooping around with a camera in your hand. It's bad for business, you know?"

An understandable position given the circumstances. Officially, pornography is illegal in Thailand, as is prostitution for that matter. But as with many prohibited goods and services, there are ways of getting around the law.

A surviving relic of Bangkok's days as a Mecca for movies.

The Chalerm Kiad Theater is no longer a Banpreecha family enterprise. Fred Banpreecha sold it off some time in last 10 years. Given its prime location on the Wong Wian Yai traffic circle and the fact that the Sky Train just extended services to this section of the city, I imagine the Chalerm Kiad will wind up a victim of urban renewal in the near future.

This marquee sits atop the Chalerm Kiad and is pivoted to face the Wong Wian Yai traffic circle. Below the sign, Chinese characters are moulded onto the wall, presumably the original Chinese version of the Banpreecha surname. The lettering on the sign reads "Showing 5 films in a row."

(Chalerm Kiad loosely translates to "Prestigious")
During this latest trip to Bangkok I encountered many older movie theaters that are now showing adult films, or used for other alternative purposes. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, mostly having to do with the economic viability of the medium. Owners of these theaters are in a precarious position. Usually the theaters are older and not desirable places for most casual movie-goers to see a movie. The hi-tech, ultra-modern multiplexes have that market. Theaters like this also tend to be in slightly poorer areas of town, where there is less of a viable market to begin with. Renovation costs are prohibitive and demolition costs are also quite steep, leaving the theater owner with few options besides catering to this underground corner of the sex industry, a reliable source of revenue, considering the elastic nature of that market.

This poses a moral question: do I publicize the prohibited, bringing attention to this lesser known movie theater sub-culture, or do I leave the subject alone and just stick to history and the like? Are there any journalism professors out there who can help me answer this?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Chalerm Sin Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

In the late 1940's and early 1950's, the Saphan Kwai region of Bangkok was almost completely rural. Village based wet-rice paddy cultivation comprised the economic mainstay in these northern Bangkok suburbs, though fruit plantations owned by city dwellers were also fairly common. Farm products grown out here were sent by canal, wagon or train into the city center for sale and processing. Post-World War II economic growth, however, meant that Bangkok would soon be bubbling out of its traditional geographic confines, incorporating the adjacent countryside as it grew.

An expanding network of paved roads replaced the canals, wagon trails and short-range train routes, as the primary form of transportation edged towards the automobile. At the same time a growing migrant population meant an increased demand for housing. Those who were keen on what was happening in the Bangkok area and who had the capital to do so, reacted by investing in land. That, in a nutshell, is how the Chalerm Sin Theater came into existence back in 1953.

A foot bridge crosses Pratipat Road in front of the Chalerm Sin Theater. When the theater opened in 1953 there was very little development in this area. The Chalerm Sin was a second-run theater in the rural Bangkok suburbs.

The Chalerm Sin Theater is now owned by a friendly gentleman by the name of Fred Banpreecha, though his father was its founder. In 1953, the Chalerm Sin marked Fred's father's first foray into the world of movie theater proprietorship in Bangkok. Apparently he owned another in Ratchaburi before the Second World War, but got rid of it when he moved his family to the capital. The Chalerm Sin was such a success that over the course of the next 16 years the Banpreecha family opened another 3 theaters (including the Mongkol Rama featured in the previous post).

The letter "sor seua" as in "sin" has gone missing from the old sign.

Fred Banpreecha closed down his Chalerm Sin Theater 7 years ago, though the building has found new use. The space in the front is rented out to a massage shop and the auditorium is currently being remodeled to house several badminton courts. Like most movie theaters outside of central Bangkok, the Chalerm Sin was a second-run theater from the time of its opening in 1953 until it closed. It was the first in a small empire of second-run cinemas founded by the Banpreecha family.

(Chalerm Sin roughly translates to "Great Wealth", though please call me on that if somebody can come up with a better definition)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Mongkol Rama Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Just as you step off the Sky Train onto the platform at Saphan Kwai station, you glance over your shoulder and notice an old sign rising vertically above the tracks. "That's a cool sign" you say to yourself while moving towards the stairs, or maybe you think it's old and ugly. Whatever you think of it, that sign's been towering over Phaholyothin Road since 1963, well before the Sky Train, or much else in this area of town for that matter. For 46 years it has been a guiding light for those seeking respite from the busy world of Bangkok inside the Mongkol Rama Theater.

Vertical sign for the Mongkol Rama, standing tall above Phaholyothin Road. When it was built the Mongkol Rama was one of the largest buildings in the area.

The street side marquee advertises "The Race to Witch Mountain" and "Khan Kluay 2" as part of a double feature. The Mongkol Rama is a second-run theater, double and triple features are common practice.

The Mongkol Rama was erected at a cost 7 million baht back in 1963, including the purchase of the land. In those days this area of the city was still mostly rural, not yet fully incorporated into the urban chaos of Bangkok.

One of two concession stands in the lobby.

The other concession stand.

Ticket windows. For 50 baht you can sit in the air-conditioned comfort of the Mongkol Rama all day long.

Pictured above is Mr. Anisat, venerable sage of Bangkok movie theaters. He was single-handedly able to point me in the directions of another 8 movie theaters that are still standing in Bangkok. I was never able to find out exactly what job he does, but he's been working at the Mongkol Rama for 30 years.

This is Lek, the ticket taker. He lives in the neighborhood and has been employed at the Mongkol Rama for 6 years now.

The owner of the Mongkol Rama and second generation movie theater proprietor, Fred Banpreecha

I had the very good fortune of meeting the owner of the Mongkol Rama Theater; a kind, soft spoken man by the name of Fred Banpreecha. He took me on a personal guided tour of his still operating theater, while schooling me on its history along the way.

Fred's father was a bit of a movie theater mogul in the 1950's and 60's. The Mongkol Rama was actually the third theater that he built. His first was the Chalerm Sin Theater, just around the corner on Pratipat Road, which he built in 1953. Next came the Chalerm Kiat Theater in the Wong Wian Yai area of town, which opened in 1955. The Mongkol Rama was Fred's fathers' 1963 venture and he built his 4th and final theater - the Amornpan - in 1969. All the theaters are still standing, though Fred has since divested himself the Chalerm Kiat. The Chalerm Sin is currently being converted into a badminton hall.

Staircase leading to the unused balcony and the projection room. 1960's style design throughout.

Dual projectors

Pictured above is Mr. Taek, the projectionist, rewinding a reel of film by hand.

Being a lifelong denizen of this area of Bangkok, Fred had some great insights into the way things were. For instance, a canal ran along what is now Pratipat Raod and almost all the land in the Saphan Kwai area was paddy fields - a far cry from today's urban congestion and grit. Acting on a tip that development was coming to this area, Fred's father purchased some land, later using a few plots to build his Chalerm Sin and the Mongkol Rama theaters. Keep in mind, this was the post-World War 2 years, when lots of money was being spread around Thailand for development projects. Bangkok, being the center of all finance and commerce in the country, was growing the fastest.

To give you some context, there were 5 movie theaters within walking distance of each other in this area of town, including the Phaholyothin Theater which is still standing directly across the street. Bangkok had a very strong theater-going culture in those days.

Fred poses with a role of preview film in hand. The room that he stands in the sound room, where in the past live dubbers would bring dialogue to films. (Fred gave me that role of film as a souvenir. It's a preview for the 2004 Thai film "The King Maker").

Patrons wait in a darkened auditorium between films. Those metal-backed seats are more comfortable than you might think.

View from the balcony

What struck me most about this personal tour of the Mongkol Rama was getting to meet some of the employees. Being a family enterprise, employment tenure is a much more personal thing, and almost everybody working their has been doing so for years. This is in sharp contrast to the modern multiplex theaters in Thailand, where their corporate nature helps ensure that employment is tenuous and the turn-over rate high. The old ways of running a theater and retaining your employees for life is they so choose is a rarity these days.

Fred has no intentions of closing down the Mongkol Rama Theater. Business is just good enough to warrant keeping it open. Besides that, it's a piece of his family's legacy, something that has been with him for nearly his entire life. It's also a source of income for the staff members who've been employed there for years. Fred's children are set to inherit the old theater, though it's unlikely that they will continue the family tradition into the third generation - especially not when the land it sits on is worth 170 million baht.

So while you still have the chance, why not spend an afternoon in the Mongkol Rama Theater. Tickets are cheap and you can stay to watch 2 movies. It's a huge old auditorium, with first rate projection, good sound and an air-conditioning system that will make you forget that you're in the tropics. The seats are comfy, too.

Who knows! Maybe if enough interest is generated and profits increase, Fred's children will see the value in this old theaters, just a stones throw from the Sky Train.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Bangkok retrospective

With my foray into Bangkok's movie theater history coming to a close, I find myself with a few hours to reflect before returning to my Chiang Mai routine. Here's what I think:

First of all, to my pleasant surprise I found more theaters that were still operating in one form or another than I expected to. Some, like the theaters that Apex runs in Siam Square, are functioning, world-class movie theaters, with one bona fide "palace" among them. Others were lesser known second-run theaters scattered throughout the neighborhoods. Others yet have turned into dens for the subaltern. I'm glad I visited all each of them.

Most of these past two weeks in Bangkok have been spent exploring sections of this sweltering city that I've never seen before. It was an enormously different kind of experience than anywhere else in Thailand or Laos I've explored; most certainly more physically taxing compared to the sleepy provincial towns which I've grown accustomed to. In more cases than not the hunt for Bangkok's antiquated movie theaters brought me into some of the city's most marginal neighborhoods. A few times I was warned to be careful walking around these areas flashing expensive camera gear and the like, but I had no problems. To tell you the truth, I had more friendly social interactions with the people I encountered on this trip than during all my other expeditions combined, I would say. I think that that will show in the coming posts.

Ultimately it was those interactions I had along the way which made the biggest impression. An old friend fore warned me to brace myself for hostility, coldness or indifference from the people of Bangkok, especially compared to the warm receptiveness of the small town folk. To the contrary, I found most people in Bangkok happy to talk, at the very least in a humoring way. It was pretty edifying, even when in some bizarre places, to chat with the locals about old cinemas. I really got a sense of how central they were to social life in the Bangkok of past generations.

Well, right now I'm feeling pretty wiped out from all the pavement pounding; ready to get back to the comforts of home and nestle in for a bit. The truth is though, I only found a fraction of the old theaters in Bangkok, which means I'm going to have to come back some day soon to shoot the rest before they're destroyed.

Stay tuned!

(Many thanks to Wicky, Lim and the Wise Kwai for their Bangkok hospitality and fun times. Also many thanks to Puangthong for all her insights into Bangkok movie theater history )

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Pratipat Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

In the years following the Second World War, Thailand came into the American "sphere of influence" as the Cold War expanded into this region of the world. This Thai-American political alliance spread into the business sector, opening the door for American film distribution companies, which began setting up regional offices in Bangkok. One outcome of this was the rise of large first-run theaters like the Pratipat. Soon thereafter, Japanese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong and European film distributors followed suit. By the late 1970's Bangkok had nearly 200 movie theaters, giving local audiences a varied international film fare, along with their own domestic productions.

As the Thai industrial economy grew, a middle class sprung from the old feudal order and theater-going developed into one of the most popular forms of entertainment for Bangkokians. In the 1970's, 80's and even into the 90's, Bangkok was well known for it's giant hand painted billboards strategically placed throughout the city, advertising the latest cinematic releases.

The Pratipat Theater was a product of the post-World War 2 film boom in Thailand. Located on Pratipat Road Soi 18 (if I remember correctly), the Pratipat Theater is within one square kilometer of another 4 theaters. There are likewise a number of aging hotels in the vicinity which by the looks of them were once pretty decent. The area is still densely populated and very active, though I think the glamour that once was departed this section of town a while ago.

The Pratipat Theater was built close to 50 years ago, though it's been decommissioned as a cinema for 10 years now. Like many stand-alone theaters in BKK, the Pratipat became an x-rated theater for some years before it shut down. But in its prime it was a quite classy first-run movie theater, complete with three levels of seating.

That's Mr. Ken in the above photo. He's the guard for the plaza that the Pratipat stands in and a life long resident of this area of the metropolis. According to him the Pratipat specialized in Hollywood films until it switched over to pornography in the late 1980's.

The old Pratipat Theater is now a restaurant.

The Sutthisan Rama Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The Sutthisan Rama Theater is about as derelict as they come. Once a fine place to catch a flick, time and neglect have taken their toll. I could almost feel the tetanus in the air.

Interestingly, like the New York Theater detailed in the previous post, the Sutthisan Rama was once a prominent enough land mark to warrant having a street named after it - Soi Rong Nang Sutthisan Plaza.

Like so many older Thai theaters, the Sutthisan Rama was built in the middle of a commercial/residential plaza. These now mostly defunct urban forms are quite common in Bangkok and throughout the provinces, as well. As a variant of the shopping center, it seems that they slipped into obsolescence as the number of car owners rose. A lack of parking makes them impractical compared to the shopping mall with its multi-level garages, designed for easy access and departure. Maybe as mass transit expands and becomes more efficient places like this will have a sort of revival. I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Beer and whiskey bottles litter the lobby. A few people working in the court said that the Sutthisan Rama is used as a meth den for local addicts. One woman said I could go inside if I wanted. No thanks!

The Sutthisan Rama Theater is close to 40 years old, but it's been shut down for 10 years. My guess is that it struggled its way through the late 80's and most of the 90's until the Asian Financial Crisis did it in for good. The blue collar neighborhood that it's located in was likely hit hard by the crisis, and as jobs were cut, audience numbers dropped and the Sutthisan Rama died.

Apparently the owner also ran another old theater in the Sam Yan area of town, which has since found new life of some sort.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The New York - Bangkok, Thailand

Just south of Pratipat Road on Phaholyothin there's a small alley locally known as Soi Rong Nang New York. As one would guess, the soi was named for the movie theater that has stood as its most prominent landmark for nearly 40 years - The New York Theater.

In its heyday Soi Rong Nang New York was a night life hot spot, filled with bars, night clubs and restaurants, and anchored by the bi-level New York Theater. There are numerous such commercial/entertainment zones like this in Bangkok, most of which have been all but forgotten, except for by the most marginal segments of society. If you were to trace the rise and fall of these places, you would probably get a pretty accurate view of the movement of capital in Bangkok over the last x-number of years.
Side view of facade, with boarded-up ticket windows.
Stray dog and abandoned theater.

Looking out towards the mouth of the soi from rear of the theater.

The New York Theater and the soi that's named after it are pretty desolate these days. Besides a few vendors who've set up shop under the theater's veranda, there are very few businesses in this court. A lone karaoke bar, a few businesses at the mouth of the soi and that's about it. I was warned not to return after dark, when Soi Rong Nang New York turns into a battlefield for roving teenage gangs.

Remnants of a failed business - post-theater - on the right hand side of the photo.

Movie posters for what looks like an older version of "The Headless Horseman" and "The Land that Time Forgot." The latter is a pretty good fit for the setting.

The New York Theater has been abandoned for over 6 years now, slowing rotting in a decrepit corner of the city. In its final years it resorted to showing adult films before it was shut for good. At one time, however, the New York Theater was a nice first run movie theater and the center of a vibrant commercial community.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Suk Siam Theater - Mae Sai, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Here it is folks, the northern-most movie theater that ever was in Thailand. The Suk Siam Theater is situated within a fresh market, just off Mae Sai's main road. If you've ever taken a border run to Mae Sai, crossing over into the Burmese market town of Ta Kyi Leik for that ever important stamp in your passport, then you have unwittingly passed right by the Suk Siam.

The Suk Siam Theater was a product of the early 1980's. It opened in conjunction with the expanding border trade between Thailand and Burma, which accelerated after China embarked on the path to market integration and started exporting its products abroad en mass. Being a central border crossing in the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), a term used to denote the economic and infrastructural development schemes linking China's Yunnan province with all the countries that the Mekong River bypasses, means that Mae Sai will continue to boom. Unfortunately, all those bootleg DVD's that have been coming into town from China likely contributed to the Suk Siam's closure about 8 years ago. Yet another unintended victim of free-trade.

A final vestige of its former glory.

Believe it or not, but little Mae Sai was once home to two other single screen theaters, the Racha 1 & 2, but they have since been torn down. According my sources in Mae Sai, the Racha theaters stood a few blocks to the south of the Suk Siam Theater, definitively confirming the fact that the Suk Siam was Thailand's northern-most cinema ever. Ta-daaaa!

The Suk Siam Theater: once Thailand's northern-most movie theater, now Thailand's northern-most demolition project.
On a side note, while in Mae Sai I took a trip across the border to Ta Kyi Leik in Burma. As I was getting my passport stamped I asked the Burmese immigration officer if Ta Kyi Leik had any movie theaters. He answered in a way that I would say is typical Burmese officials: "The people of Ta Kyi Leik are simple. They don't have a need for cinema."

Upon further inquiry I found that Ta Kyi Leik once did have a movie theater. The savvy people of Ta Kyi Leik, it turns out, found that it was much more practical to buy, sell and watch bootleg DVD's from China than to pay for the state-sponsored propaganda that was shown in the town's theater.