Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Waziya Cinema AKA The Excelsior - Yangon, Myanmar PART I of 2

The prospects were too good to wait til morning. I threw my bags in my hotel room and ventured out into the darkened streets. Having hovered over maps during the weeks prior, I knew that my hotel was barely a betel nuts throw from Cinema Row - the mythical strip of cinemas across from Yangon's main train station. Walking east on Bogyoke, past the Traders Hotel, across Sule Pagoda Road, past the Sakura Tower, there it was, a string of pearls in the dark. But I forgot about the dark. Electricity supply in Yangon is intermittent and street lighting pale, at best. Cinema Row after sundown seemed more a haunt for vagrants than the movie theater paradise I was hoping for. Bodies moving in the shadows, under the fluorescent glow of generator-produced illumination, was a bit dream-like to a Yangon rookie. Cowed on arrival, I was. Stupefied, really. A daunting task lay ahead. At least it seemed so at this first noir encounter. Maybe waiting til dawn was the better option.

Dawn arrived. Leaving sleep behind, I retraced my steps from the night before. Moving west to east along Bogyoke Aung San Raod, the Waziya Cinema looms as the golden gate to Cinema Row, standing at the corner of 33rd Street. In the day-light hours all was well. An exquisite introduction to Myanmar's cinema halls was this Beaux-Arts masterpiece. Smitten, awestruck, put under its spell, I drifted in for a closer look.


Ionic columns support a portico over the Waziya Cinema's front entrance. Below, the portico is alive with activity all hours of the day.

Longyi strut

"What's showing?"

20 minutes before showtime

Looking eastwards, through the portico

The area surrounding the Waziya Cinema is bustling all day long and into the night. Noodle stalls and sidewalk tea shops, tri-shaw drivers waiting languidly by the curb; Cinema Row anchors a street-level economy that pulsates with life. Throw into the mix one of Yangon's few modern sky-scrapers right next door, and the train station across the street and you've got a pedestrian super-highway against the backdrop of cinemas.

Vendors at night. Tobacco products and betel for sale.


Blocking the sun with a magazine. In the background a woman vends ice-water in front of the Waziya.


If you hang around the Waziya long enough, you're bound to come across the Cinema Kids. Their parents operate some of the vending stalls lining Cinema Row, from where they peddle cigarettes and cheroots, betel nut wraps, sodas, candies and other snacks. The street economy in full swing. The Cinema Kids, comprised of a half dozen young souls, ranging in age from infancy to about 12, spend most of their time milling around the theaters and between the vending stalls of their caretakers.

The Cinema Kids in one of their favorite spots, the front steps of the Waziya Cinema.

Kids will be kids


One of the Cinema Kids takes a seat at the base of some columns.

It was the street life of Yangon which most captivated me, Cinema Row included. Coming directly from Chiang Mai, where to be a pedestrian, in the literal sense of the word, is to flaunt bohemianism (or poverty), Yangon presented an entirely different scenario for those inclined to walk. No, it's not a pedestrian's paradise by any means. Far from it. Although the design and scale are in place, the pieces are sorely missing. It's more of a pedestrian's purgatory. On the one hand, downtown Yangon is perfectly arranged for ambulation. Broad sidewalks along the main thoroughfares, with enough space to accommodate numerous vendors and pedestrians at once, proliferate. On the other hand, years of neglect by certain governing bodies have left the streets and sidewalks something to be desired. Cracked, crumbling and full of gaping holes into the sewers just below. The word 'cesspool' fits the descriptive bill for the city.

But Yangon is no ordinary cesspool. It's a gilded cesspool, and one which I quickly learned to appreciate, goop and all. The Waziya Cinema, keep in mind, is just one among thousands of architectural gems that give the city an aesthetic edge unparalleled in this region of the planet. The potential is there for a world-class metropolis to rise from the muck some day. When that some day comes, however, Cinema Row and the street life it supports will likely get swept aside for things deemed more critical to the new economy. I hope that's not the case, but history is against me. Progress can be a clumsy s.o.b..

Next time I'll show you inside the Waziya.

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