Monday, December 6, 2010

The Ma Soe Yein Cinema - Mandalay, Myanmar

If you merely take a quick scan of 81st Street north of 28th, the building in the photo below appears barely distinguishable from much of Mandalay's more recently built structures.

Glazed ceramic tiles grouted to the facade are an architectural hallmark of this late-20th, early-21st century construction boom; a boom spurred in part by a massive wave of Chinese immigration to the city over the last twenty years. Some accounts tally the new Chinese community at 40 percent of the city's population, while comprising the majority of residents living downtown. Huge tracts of land left vacant by the Mandalay fires in 1981 and '84 have since been bought up and redeveloped largely by Chinese immigrants.

As for the proclivity towards tiled building facades, I can only assume that trade connections established between Mandalay's newcomer Chinese middle-class and tile manufacturers in Yunnan Province, China account for its widespread use as a building material. Myanmar is an easy destination for Chinese-made goods.

In some cases the use of tile creates a unique look, like a city built of Legos. Other times it comes off as wholly uninspired. What's for sure is that the tile profusion on building exteriors gives some Mandalay neighborhoods an uncanny resemblance to a present-day Chinese boom town.

But lets forget for a moment the contemporary, industrial Chinese aesthetic slapped over Myanmar's historically most Burmese city. Look a bit closer at the building on display and you'll notice a movie poster hanging above the archway. Festooned to the wall above the poster is a plastic sign announcing the Ma Soe Yein Cinema. Pass through the archway below and step back from the tiled present into a Burmese neoclassical past - yet another living example of the post-WWII movie theater boom.

Passing through the arch into a world of cinema.

Architecturally, the Ma Soe Yein Cinema shares features common to numerous older structures found throughout Mandalay Division. One-storied and symmetrical, utilizing a series of contiguous archways to provide natural light. Short of definitive knowledge on the subject, however, the closest I can come to describing this unique theater architecturally is neoclassical. But make no mistake, this is a distinctly Burmese form of neoclassicism, even if it lacks any indigenous inspired ornamentation.

1950's Burmese neoclassicism

Hidden away in a small court behind mostly newer construction, the Ma So Yein Cinema entertains in seclusion.

Doors to auditorium

Passing through one of the eight arches opens into a narrow veranda; a space of quiet leisure, where patrons spend idle minutes waiting for the next show to begin.

Veranda views

The manager of the Ma Soe Yein shines a light on the LCD projector set up at the front of the auditorium.

"Ah! Mr. Projectionist. We've been expecting you," said the manager in my imagination. "Please, pull up a seat. Would you care for tea? Perhaps a morsel of fried dough?

"Where to begin, then? The Ma Soe Yein was built way back in 1955, commissioned by the husband and wife team of U Win Aung and Daw Nain Hmwe Kyaing - the original owners. As I'm sure you're well away by now, it, along with all the other cinema halls in the country, was nationalized by the State in 1962 and has been owned by the Ministry of Information ever since. In fact, their Mandalay offices are housed in that ugly, Chinese-inspired building you just passed through to get here. The one covered in white and blue tiles.

"You might be wondering about our seating capacity, no? Well I'll tell you that we can hold a total of 664 film fans in our comfortable, amply-cushioned seats. And as you have noticed we are one of the few theaters in Myanmar that does not have a balcony. Instead, the seating is all arranged on one level on gently rising gradient, stadium style; a feature which is ahead of its time given the age of the theater.

"As for me, I have been overseeing a staff of 19 full-time employees for the past number of years now. We try our best to run a tight ship, as you can surely see. Business is not exactly booming, but we have our regulars. The prices we charge are much lower than at, say, the Myoma or Win Lite. But they are operated by a rich company. Nonetheless, I think you'll find our services up to snuff, though unfortunately we rely on an LCD projector instead of the classic carbon-arc or xenon bulb kind. Such is life under sanctions! It's not easy to get state-of-the-art technology."

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