Thursday, August 18, 2011

Anthropology of the Cinema

A little over a year ago, while gathering data on the old movie theaters of Chiang Mai, I learned that the long-closed Suriwong Theater was one of the few in town where American and British films could be watched with their original English language soundtracks - as opposed to being dubbed over in Thai. On account of this premium service, Chiang Mai's resident Anglophones turned out regularly as early as the 1950's. In those days, the ex-pat community was a fraction of its current size. What there was of it was limited to missionaries and their families, staff at the handful of local consulates and a small community of foreign "experts" conducting studies and surveys of various kinds.

One of my informants, a Chiang Mai native-turned anthropologist, recalled as a young man frequent trips to the Suriwong to get his fix of English, hoping to improve his listening skills. Always intrigued by the cosmopolitanism fostered by the theater, with its international crowd and viewing fare, he would quietly observe the attending notables before entering the darkened auditorium. As an aspiring anthropologist himself, seeing the well-known American anthropologist Clark Cunningham taking in movies at the Suriwong in the 1960's stuck in his memory. More than 40 years later, he shared those memories with me.

I later looked up Dr. Cunningham, wanting to pass on word that his name was mentioned in conjunction with Chiang Mai movie theater history. Not only did he promptly respond, but he had the thoughtfulness to send me a few photos of the Suriwong Theater that he snapped in 1968, along with a letter describing them:

Dear Mr. [Projectionist]...
The actor portrayed in such grand size was [a] college friend, the late James Franciscus. (The Valley of Gwangi was not one of his stellar roles!) The painting of him on the poster was very good indeed, and I recognized him immediately when I passed the theater. I don't know whether such movie poster art still exists, but much of it was quite impressive. I don't have much to tell about the movie house. As you know, it was the one place with an original sound room for the farang, mainly English since most of the movies were American origin (and it was air-conditioned, which was good since it was confined). It was a good place for the farang kids when films like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music came there.

Good luck in your research. When you publish, please let me know

Clark Cunningham

(photos courtesy of Dr. Clark Cunningham)

For anybody familiar with Chiang Mai, the Suriwong Theater was located opposite Tha Pae Gate. The building was demolished in the last 10 years, but the replacement structure utilized the same footprint. Its occupancy is shared by a McDonald's restaurant and a boutique hotel.

The Suriwong opened in 1956, built by a member of Chiang Mai royalty - Chao Chaisuriwong Na Chiang Mai - his first of four stand-alone theaters in the city. By the 1980's it was purchased by exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, back when he was attempting to become a movie theater mogul, prior to politics (Thaksin's father was also in the movie theater business). Needless to say, his movie theater empire failed. In the early 1990's Thaksin closed the Suriwong and turned it into a department store.

(Many thanks to Dr. Clark Cunningham and Prof. Suriya Smutkupt for sharing their memories of the Suriwong)


  1. Thanks for another great post!
    I've walked past that location hundreds of times and never knew!

  2. your blog is fantastic. I also look forward to your publication, and hope it will include nice quality reprints of the photos you have been including in your posts. - stefan

  3. Always with a supportive comment, Stefan. Thanks.