Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Laem Thong Theater and the Scraps of Empire - Bangkok, Thailand

Empires are a fact of life in the civilized world. That a given region’s resources are so often consolidated under one supreme ruler is no case of fiction. Empires rise and fall with the flux of economy and trends in technology over the course of time. But I’m not here to harangue you with dictionary definitions of what an ‘empire’ is. We’re all here for the joys of decay and the annals of movie theater history, set against the backdrop of a part of the world with tumultuous and multifaceted recent past. So lets not waste time with banalities. Instead, lets take a look at an existing empire; one which currently controls over 70 percent of Thailand’s film exhibition market. Under their corporate guise they go by the name ‘Major Cineplex’ and ‘EGV.’ But behind the brand synonymous with Thailand’s most prolific theater chain is a family that has been in the theater business for more than half a century. Without neglecting the present generation of theater emperors, lets take a sneak peak into the illustrious story behind Major-EGV empire. Here’s the short of it:

It all started with Jaroen Poonworaluk back in the early 1950’s. After running a small coffee shop in the Thonburi section of Bangkok for a few years, young Jaroen (then going by his Chinese given name of Peng Piang) was invited to become partners in a movie theater that was being built on the Wong Wian Yai traffic circle – the Chalerm Kiad. Novice Jaroen had little knowledge of film exhibition or running a theater. His entrepreneurial lean, however, was a hard one to contain. The idea of playing a lead role in the entertainment of the masses was intimately appealing to a young man who himself spent many leisurely hours beneath the flicker of the rolling reel. After carefully weighing the pros and cons, he decided to go in on it, trading the coffee cup for the silver screen in a move that would eventually result in empire. Eventually, that is.

Jaroen and his new partners had taken a major risk by building the largest theater in all of Thonburi for the time. The area around Wong Wian Yai in particular was a section of the city just beginning to break from its bucolic legacy of pineapple and durian plantations. It had yet to congeal into the established Bangkok neighborhood that it is today.

Business was sluggish the first year at the Chalerm Kiad Theater. With dividends below what was anticipated, disagreements over the direction that the theater was going in broke out between Jaroen and his partners. The burgeoning theater boss felt constrained by the protocols of sharing. His ideas and energies were unable to find full expression as a last ditch invitee to a struggling business.

The Chalerm Kiad, his initial movie theater venture, ended up being a bust for Jaroen Poonworaluk, who soon sold his portion of the theater to the remaining partners. Divested of this stuffy partnership and bubbling with a newly acquired set of skills and knowledge about the movie theater industry, Jaroen bought a plot of land in Talad Plu (Plu Market), near where his old coffee shop once stood. On that land he built his own movie theater – the Sri Talad Plu Theater. Success was almost instantaneous and the quick profits were enough to persuade three of his brothers – Jamroen, Jaran and Kasem – to come into the business with him. Together the Poonworaluk boys founded Co Brothers Theaters. Over the years they would grow to become a bona fide theater empire in the greater Bangkok area, vying for the loyalty of the city's movie-going public along with their rivals, the Pyramid Co. (the predecessor to Apex). The Co Brothers empire included nearly sixty stand-alone movie theaters across the Thai capital, with the Laem Thong Theater and Klong Toey Rama among them.

Street side marquee for the Klong Toey Rama, once the sister theater of the Laem Thong, is the sole remaining relic of the now-destroyed theater. Both were part of the Co Brothers Bangkok movie theater empire.

Street side marquee for the Laem Thong Theater, advertising 4 movies in a row. Pornography is the only film fare showing these days.

Like many of the stand-alone theaters in Thailand, the Laem Thong was built within a commercial/residential development, surrounded by multi-lane streets. This particular development, located off of Rama IV Road near the Klong Toey MRT station, seemed to be in good shape economically when I visited it. The theater itself is also still working, though under x-rated circumstances.

Rong Pappayon Laem Thong

Beside the theater there is a food vendor and tables. This man fiddled with his phone while waiting for a plate of rice. Above him, an old poster case contains movie posters from the 1980's and 90's.

The lobby, adorned with colorful 1960's decor and outdated movie posters. The latter is usually a sign that they're playing dirty movies.

Patrons loafed around the lobby an hour before show-time, awaiting their skin flick fix. My own presence was unwelcome. It was one of the few times where I felt like I might get into trouble if I wasn't careful. I tried to start a conversation with one of the men hanging around the lobby. All I got in return was an angry scowl. His unblinking, blood-shot eyes told me to leave, to get out while I still could. No need to say it twice. But I'd managed to linger around long enough to get a feel for the place. Scotch-taped to the wall was a small poster, printed out from a computer printer, advertising some kind of herbal scabies remedy. Another for a super-potent energy tonic. Fitting advertisements for what is likely a filthy porn theater. As I was walking away, a ladyboy pulled up on a motorbike. Seat by seat service is apparently available in this den of desperation.

Its current condition aside, I don't know where the Laem Thong ranks in the movie theater hierarchy of the erstwhile Co Brothers empire. I'm not even sure exactly when it was built, or any other stats like that. Probably in the 1960's sometime. That's when Co Brothers was at its most prolific regarding theater building, as was the case in general with Thailand's movie theater industry.

Co Borthers is now defunct, but the offspring of Jaroen, Jamroen and Kasem have continued the Poonworaluk family tradition of owning movie theaters. Two of Jaroen's boys, Vichai and Visuth, founded Entertain Theater Network, the predacessor to Entertain Golden Village (EGV). One son of Jamroen, Vicha, was the founder of Major Cineplex. EGV and Major were embroiled in a bit of a family rivalry for a while until they burried the hatchet and formed Major-EGV, the largest theater empire in the history of Thailand and a publicly listed company. A few of Kasem's kids are in the business too, owning Century the Movie Plaza near Victory Monument.

It's safe to say that the current generation of Poonworaluk theater emperors no longer own the Laem Thong Theater. It's unlikely that they would dare risk scandal by operating a porn theater when they've got most of the country paying a premium to watch new releases in their shiney, mall-bound multiplexes. Which brings me to another point.

I'm prone to rant and rave about the multiplexes because, if for no other reason, I find them to be as soulless as the shopping malls they're attached to. I could go on and on, boo-hooing about how modern cities are lacking a social dynamic which was exemplified in the neighborhood stand-alone theaters of lore. Blah to the third power. Sometimes I even halfway believe my own bullshit. The fact is that the multiplexes, in all their homogeneity, came about because of larger changes in the physical and social structures of our cities. They just exploited an opportunity. Even though I think of Major-EGV as the Wal-Mart of film exhibitors in Thailand - opening up impersonal and over-formulaic behemoths in towns across the country, while crippling the home-grown industry - I must give credit where credit is due. They're good business men. They give we the people the dross that we the people ask for and we pay through the nose for it. The only way forward is to show them that we liked what their daddy's built better. The question is, do we really?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Queen's Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The air was so thick that you could cut it with a knife, and it hadn't even reached 9AM. It was shaping up to be one of those miserable Bangkok days; the kind that natives of the city have adapted to by restricting anatomical motion to a bare minimum. I considered taking the day off, maybe spending it in the physical comfort of one of Bangkok's air-conditioned nightmares, a shopping mall. But stillness in the face of oppressive heat is an adaptation which eludes me when it comes to old movie theaters, often at the expense of my health and well-being. Had I given in to the logic of rest on that burning Saturday, I may very well have never come across the Queen's Theater - an accidental find with a regal past.

The land that the Queen's Theater stands on was formerly home to a royal palace known as Wang Burapha. This elegant structure was commissioned in 1875 by King Chulalongkorn for one of his brothers. It stood as a neighborhood landmark until the middle of the 20th century. During the life-span of Wang Burapha, the surrounding neighborhood became a center of commerce for an increasingly foreign-born population. Indians and Chinese, many fleeing the political tensions that had been mounting in their homelands prior to World War Two, settled in the area, giving it a motley mix of ethnic diversity which exists to this day. Pahurat Road, center of Bangkok's Little Indian, borders the grounds of the old Wang Burapha compound. Chinatown is a short walk away.

A husband and wife team of scrap collectors gather used cardboard boxes from businesses across from the Queen's Theater.

Looking down over the lobby of the Queen's Theater. A marble staircase ascends upwards, leading to what was once the balcony.

In 1951 Wang Burapha was sold to a business man named Osot Kosin. The old palace was razed to the ground, but in its place three movie theaters were built, along with a hotel and shopping plaza. In honor of the area's royal legacy, two of the theaters were regally dubbed: The King's Theater and The Queen's Theater. The third movie theater was called the Grand.

According to a description in the book "The Lengend of the Movie Theater," by Thanatip Chatraphum, the King's and Grand theaters stood beside each other on Mahachai Road. Between them ran a narrow alley which led to the front entrance of Queen's Theater. This trio of movie theaters served as the prime destination for Bangkok's teenagers during the 1950's and 60's until it was eclipsed by the next generation of cinemas to rise from the Earth.

A man with a cell phone repair business operates out of the old lobby, a customer waits while his phone is fixed.

The Grand and King's theaters bit the dust a while back. In their place stands the Merry Kings Department Store - one of the most decrepit department stores I've ever seen. The seven story building was itself once topped off by a movie theater, but it's since been ripped out. Regardless, I feel obliged to pitch Merry Kings. The place is literally a retail time capsule, and not on purpose. I think business is just really bad. In the electronics department, for example, they are selling boom boxes with audio cassette players circa 1982, rabbit ear antennae and other forms of analog technology that usually get shipped to China for recycling. Other than employees, I was the sole person milling about the aging retail center. I'll bet you can get some good deals there!

Depicted in the photo above is Mr. Chamnian, a 72 year old man who has been working in the Queen's Theater since it opened in 1954. For the theater's cinematic life, Chamnian was employed as a ticket taker. When it shut down in 1987 he parlayed his loyalty and strong work ethic into a job in the parking garage that the Queen's became. The fast-talking ticket taker-turned-garage attendant keenly recalled the Hollywood films distributed by agents working for Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures studios that graced the Queen's screen. "In the 1950's," he told me, "the joint was packed on a daily basis. Standing room only, was how we worked."

But Chamnian's memory predates the existence of the Queen's Theater, dating back to a grim episode involving the old Wang Burapha palace. His recollection of the incident, which he claims occurred during World War Two, is not mentioned in any of the literature I've read about the palace or the theater:

"It was bombed!" he exclaimed. "Yup, that's right, they dropped a bomb on the palace during the war. Lots of people died. About 80 of them. I remember them pulling the bodies out of the rubble. Later, when they built the theater, ghosts of the dead used to come out some times. I never saw one, myself, but I remember the projectionist saying ghosts would hang out in the projection room, and sometimes on the balcony. They're still here in the parking lot, but I've never seen one. That's because I appease them everyday, like I've been doing for 55 years. Nope, they don't bother me at all."

Again, I've yet to find reference to a bomb being dropped on the Wang Burapha palace during World War Two, or any other violent incidents on the palace grounds, but Chamnian swore by it. The accounts I've read claim that the palace functioned as a girls school before it was sold to Mr. Kosin and torn down. It's possible that the Japanese Army used it for some purpose during World War Two and that it was consequently hit by an Allied bomb. If that's the case then it would stand to reason that most of the ghosts who haunt the theater are Japanese. But again, that's all just speculation. Nonetheless, it's nice to think that old Mr. Chamnian remembers a piece of World War Two history that has otherwise been forgotten.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rama Sam Yan - Bangkok, Thailand

T'was the day before Sunday
and all through the theater
not a human was present
except two bums and a cleaner...

Even in a state of decrepitude, the Rama Sam Yan Theater inspires. Seldom have I seen a building of this caliber anywhere. As a venue for film, it must have been on another level. Film, however, was just one, albeit the most vital component of this complex. It seems that the person who conceived of the Rama had in mind more than simply a place to watch movies. He had a vision of the future. Conceptually, it was beyond the tacky temples of consumption embodied in the shopping mall with their branded multiplex theaters. Rather, the Rama was a center of production and play in one - a slightly Orwellian combination, if anything.

The Rama Sam Yan Theater stands on Rama IV Road, not far from Hualamphong Train Station. A highway overpass, now in the process of being resurfaced, rises in front of it.

The mind behind the masterpiece was apparently a notable player in Bangkok's erstwhile cinema scene, though I wasn't able to come up with a name. Another of his cinema contributions that I know of was the Sutthisan Rama, in the neighborhood of the same name.

A very spiffy sculpture is embedded in the exterior wall of the Rama Theater. Besides a theater, Rama contained bowling alleys, as is depicted in the sculpture.

I am a fan of this work of art!

Passing under the marquee, one enters a central atrium - five-stories high, with sky-lights in the ceiling. A stand-alone ticket booth occupies the center of the floor. It resembles a pagoda in a Japanese rock garden. The different ticket windows sold tickets at various prices, depending on where one sat.

The wrap-around balconies flanking the atrium led to offices along the perimeter. Several of those offices are still occupied, including one which houses a branch of Amway. Otherwise they are completely vacant like the rest of the building; a solitary work-place in a structural apparition. To the best of my knowledge the office space was always just that, not retail, which is why I say it was a center of production more than consumption. I could be wrong, though.

Bird's eye view of the ticket booth

In a glass case off to the side of the atrium lobby is a model of the entire Rama Sam Yan complex. At last, a full perspective of the scale of this structure. In the above photo you can see the slightly pitched roof in the center of the complex. That was the Rama Theater auditorium. The surrounding buildings appear to be more offices. In the rear you can see a another pitched roof building; a low one, but extremely broad. Was that where the bowling lanes were? It looks more like a factory space of some kind.

The section of the complex fronting on to Rama IV Road, where the marquee hangs, used to have a free-standing sign saying "The Union Rama Enterprises Co. Ltd." I would love to know more about this company, but as I alluded to in my modified version of "the Night Before Christmas" poem at the top of this post, there was only a cleaner and some vagrants around to talk to.

Escalator and poster-case. Entrance to the auditorium is on the 3rd floor.

Through the tinted glass doors is a waiting room with chairs and a mounted TV. Past that is the entrance to the auditorium itself - a world of film-induced fantasy, gone extinct.

Bangkok natives of every mould recalled the Rama Theater with fondness and nostalgia. It was one of the city's foremost movie palaces in the 70's and 80's. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the place ends at that. Judging by the design, I'm guessing that it was built some time in the 1960's. Maybe I'm making things up, but it seems to have a slightly Japanese architectural look to it. I can picture Sonny Chiba chasing a Yakuza hitman across the roof in a Yokohama version of the Rama. Frankly I think it's a sexy building and I'll bet that Sonny Chiba films did play there in the 1970's.

Gloomy Thursday

I had all intentions of making a new theater post today, but I'm so distraught over a certain unfortunate state of affairs that I just had to express myself. You see, it's Thurday in Chiang Mai, usually one of my favorite days of the week. That's because on Thursdays the new movie releases open at the local theaters. Here in little old Chiang Mai there are two operating cineplexes to choose from: Vista, which is locally-owned and has their 7-screen cineplex on top of Central Gad Suan Gaew, and Major Cineplex - the national chain owned by the Bangkok-based Poonworalak family - atop Robinson's Airport Plaza. Between the two theaters there are 14 operating screens in Chiang Mai. Of those 14 operating screens there are two different movies playing, both of which I'd rather stick my tongue in an electric socket than go see.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that what's being shown on Thailand's big screens has as much to do with trends among movie distributors as it does the theaters themselves, but give me a break! This is absolutely pathetic! This is almost a breech of anti-trust law, isn't it? I mean, it's well known that most film production companies cater to the teenage movie-going market, a demographic that is usually more concerned with how they're perceived by their peers than the quality of movies they watch. Market-savy movie producers can get away with creating cinematic puke and still turn a profit because they understand these unfortunate circumstances. But what's the deal here in Chiang Mai? Can't one of the two theaters take the effort to squeeze in something just a little different? The Twilight Saga: New Moon and 2012 is all you're gonna give us?

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.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The London Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Sign and marquee for the London Theater hang over Sukhumvit Road, the automotive Thames of Bangkok.

A clinging vestige of the London Theater remains, bolted to the facade of a three-story shop house on Sukhumvit Road just south of Soi 71. The theater itself, once accessible by walking through a narrow passageway beneath the marquee, is no more. A new structure has been built in its place.

Food vendors occupy the space next to the entrance of the old passageway, with a hand painted sign deceitfully claiming "Entrance to the London Theater" nailed overhead.

Roast Duck

"Entrance to the London Theater"

The interior of the passageway is lined with tables, where customers dine on the delicacies prepared by the two vendors out front. One can imagine the walls of this passage once adorned with movie paraphernalia.

If I understood correctly, the London Theater was once part of a movie theater collection owned by a man named Chansak. Apparently this man was a prominent figure in the Bangkok movie theater world of the 1970's and 80's. Some of his other holdings that I'm aware of included the Hawaii, New York, Asia Rama and Washington theaters. Noting his proclivity for naming theaters after American cities and states (barring, of course, the London Theater and the Asia Rama), I wonder if he was the same person behind such other movie houses as the Las Vegas, New Orleans, Chicago, California and Texas theaters. A bit of trivial knowledge I look forward to finding the answer to. If anybody has any further information regarding this mystery, please feel free to write in.