Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Vieng Samay Revisited

On a recent trip to the Laotian capital, I made a stopover at the old Vieng Samay Theater, now the last theater structure in the city with visible evidence of its former life. It takes little more than a glance at the building's facade to understand its place in Vientiane's history. From the rusting marquee, to the faded, trilingual letters of the roof-top sign, there should be little doubt as to the building's past life. On the other hand, just next door stands the Sang Lao Hotel, which opened in 1953 as the Sang Lao Theater. The completeness of its functional conversion, however, has left it without a trace of its cinematic days. One would never know unless they knew.

All tallied, there have been eight different stand-alone theaters in Vientiane over the years. That's three more than I'd ever known about, but this figure was concluded by a lifelong city resident now in his late 50's, who'd taken a day to think it over. I take the man's word.

A group of young monks stroll past the remains of the Vieng Samay Theater, Vientiane's last theater structure with visible evidence of it cinematic days. It closed shortly after the Communist ascendancy in 1975.

A noodle vendor, beneath the green umbrella, rents the part of the open-air foyer.

Eating noodles in a lobby-no-more.

Forgotten ticket windows obscured by time and the accoutrements of a noodle soup business.

The owner/builder of the Vieng Samay Theater is apparently still alive, residing in a shop house just next to the theater. My requests to meet with him were turned down, however, on account of his fragile health after 90-plus years of life. Too bad, as that would have made for an insightful interview.

Like many privately owned enterprises in Vientiane and elsewhere in the country, soon after the royalist-to-communist regime change in 1975, the Vieng Samay Theater closed its doors, never to open again.

A salon table and sink in front of an old poster case, evidence that a beauty parlor has occupied a portion of Vieng Samay's lobby in recent years.

Art in an old poster case.

The Vieng Samay Theater dates to the late 1950's, a legacy of the first years of American economic and technical "assistance" to Laos during the Cold War era. As a palimpsest on Vientiane's urban landscape, it is a critical piece of the city's social past; one that certainly adds architectural and historical capital to an already varied urban tapestry. Unfortunately, such sentiments are likely not universally shared:
"Today, the Lao Communist Party (The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP))... is seeking new sources of legitimacy as the old sources - the struggle against foreign intervention, the construction of socialism - are rendered redundant. The LPRP has turned to the Lao past, presenting itself as the defender of ancient national and cultural traditions, in order to bolster its claims to power"*
Somehow I don't think the preservation of an American-era movie theater fits in with the LPRP's definition of "ancient national and cultural traditions" worthy of protection, even if the definition does comprise architectural-geographic heritage sites. In other words, I wouldn't count on the Vieng Samay being around much longer.

*(Askew, Long and Logan. (2010). Vientiane: Transformation of a Lao landscape (p. 5-6). New York: Routledge Press.)

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