Monday, August 2, 2010

The Cathay Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon is an inexhaustible treasure vault of culture and history. It greets the pedestrian with a neglected sort of decadence on every block; arcane to the untrained eye, yet illustrious all the same. With each turn of every corner, the sight of intrigue pierces through your thoughts like a bolt of cerebral lighting. Other times you turn that corner and meet a creamy, red stream of betel juice projectile across your shoe, ejected from the pursed lips a street side chewer. Let it soak in like crimson dye, pick your head up and step back into the swing of things - there's endless delights to be discovered in the gilded cesspool.

On the northwest corner of the Shwe Taung Dan Street and Anawratha Road, on the edge of Chinatown, stands a lusterless jewel of cinema past, masquerading as a retail rug shop. That's the former Cathay Cinema, known locally as the Kay Thwe. It's been 20 years since the Cathay Cinema was converted, though its memory still stands out crisp in the minds of most Chinatown residents.

Formerly the Cathay Cinema, now a rug shop on the first level and a karaoke parlor on the second.

Here's where the history gets rich: Yangon's Cathay Cinema was part of the Singapore-based Cathay Organization - once one of East Asia's most prolific cinema companies. Cathay opened its first theater in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia in 1936 under the company name of Associated Theaters Ltd.. Then in '39 they opened their flagship theater in Singapore, never to look back again. Within two decades they had branched out into film production and distribution, while presiding over an empire of more than 75 theaters throughout Singapore and Malaysia. In a bid to ensure that their products got screened further afield, Cathay built a network of theaters located in Chinatowns throughout Southeast Asia and beyond, including in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Distribution even reached to such far flung regions as Europe and Latin America.

Architectural details

Triple themed balustrade: a common design on many older buildings in Myanmar.

Painted mural on the staircase landing, inside the former Cathay Cinema

Exactly when the Cathay Organization made this Yangon (then Rangoon) addition to their holdings is unclear. Chances are, however, it was in the 1960's or 70's when they were branching out across the region, peddling their cinematic wares in stiff competition with Shaw Brothers Studio for control of the Chinese-language movie market. But as one might have guessed from its architecture, the theater actually predates Cathay's tenancy by a long shot, dating way back to 1929. Like many old Chinatown movie theaters, it may very well have started out as a Chinese opera hall before making the switch to film.

As for Cathay's once widespread distribution network, it has contracted over the years, as evidenced by the sight of this rundown former fun factory. In fact, most of their overseas cinema holdings have been dissolved, save for a few in neighboring Malaysia. But don't mistake a less expansive network for overall recession. Far from it. They have since gone into just about every type of leisure related industry you can think of and more: they run malls, cable television services, bowling alleys, hotels, property development companies and, of course, movie theaters. Along with their numerous subsidiaries, Cathay Organization is now the biggest entertainment conglomerate in Singapore.

To this day Singapore remains one of Myanmar's most reliable trading partners and political supporters.

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