Monday, August 16, 2010

The Nawaday Cinema Garden - Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon's northern reaches differ vastly from the southerly tip with its gilded grid city, coarse and gritty. The density thins out considerably up here. In many ways it's a typical "other side of the tracks" division, minus the rigid social dichotomy so often associated with the cliche. The changes are more physical than they are demographic, but by no means exclusively so. In fact, this is where most of the country's elite make their homes, hidden away behind imposing stone walls, crowned with rings of tightly coiled barbed wire.

In contrast to the cramped time capsule of architectural intrigue to the south - the grid city proper - Yangon north of the tracks is a sprawl of development, some parts leafy and suburban, others just as built up as the grid below. The entire stretch is bound together by a network of winding roads, peppered throughout with lush parks, shanty towns, socialist-inspired housing blocks, retail shopping centers, fortified designer homes and pockets of jungly vegetation yet to be cleared. Perched above it all, near 8 Mile on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, is the grand Nawaday Cinema Garden - a movie behemoth the likes of which I've seldom seen.

The Nawaday Cinema Garden, with brass statue and water fountain in front.

I ought to know the significance of this statue, but I never found out. It looks like a mythological being from Buddhist lore holding a socialist star.

The Nawaday was one of the rare theaters which actually intimidated me at first sight. Neither beautiful in design nor charming in detail, its grounds felt more like a government compound, with the 4th plenary session of the politburo's 5th commemorative celebration of the 12th 5 year planning failure being held inside. I crawled out of the taxi half expecting to be dragged away by armed guards. "You've seen too much, imperialist swine" they would say, while driving me blindfolded to a malarial detention center.

Overlooking the grand atrium of the lobby

The domineering aesthetic, it turns out, is no accident. This mammoth of movie theaters in Yangon's northern suburbs was built by the government; a State-conceived effort in mass appeasement circa 1990 - May 30th, to be precise. Yes, the Nawaday was the first of four such theaters I would come across that were commissioned by the State, the other three being in the city of Mandalay.

Movie theater construction is not usually a priority of government. That being said, across the eastern border in Thailand there are a few that can be traced to the Fascist government of Field Marshall Phibunsongkram, and another which was financed by King Prajodhipok back in 1932, but other than that, cinema building has been a private affair. Myanmar's case differs slightly, however. Despite state ownership of the cinema halls, they're almost all leased out to private entities who run the day to day operations. The Nawaday is no exception. This one-thousand seat megalith has been under contract by the San Shwe Co. since 1997.

Nonetheless, it's interesting to note that the State was behind the construction of at least 4 theaters between 1984 and 1998.

An expansive lobby, bathed in natural light, brings to mind train stations and other grandiose public structures.

Ticket queue beneath the stairs

Ticket windows

Up to balcony seating

The little bucket is not a waste bin, but a spittoon. Myanmar is a betel chewing country.

The Nawaday Cinema Garden and the little Chinese restaurant beside it.

The farewell committee

The next time somebody says "Myanmar's government has never done anything good for the country," remember the Nawaday.

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