Friday, July 29, 2011

Dropping like flies

My eyes on the ground in Laos have reported that Luang Namtha's lone picture hall, the long-decommissioned Tungsavang VDO, has been demolished. Word of this comes as a slight surprise. When I photographed it back in early 2009 the Tungsavang VDO was undergoing a makeover into a "youth activities center" courtesy of the local Ministry of Culture. Either the Ministry found additional funds to build a bigger center, or, the more likely case, somebody got hold of the land for private development and is cashing in.

Row "S" placed in front of its former refuge, before it was razed.

The Tungsavang VDO was built in the early 1980's. When first opened, it would have represented one of the very few tools used for political indoctrination by the State in this remote mountain region of the country. Such application would have been particularly pertinent due to Luang Namtha being home to numerous ethnically non-Lao residents, for whom a Lao national identity, communist or otherwise, would have been alien. Nationalistic messages, lets not forget, can easily take on the guise of good old fashioned movie entertainment. Though to be realistic about it all, the Lao Communists never did a very thorough job of developing their nation-building propaganda techniques. With the Tungsavang VDO, though, I'm sure that's what they had in mind.

Hand painted signage on the cornice of Tungsavang VDO, reduced to memory.

There's a fancy new all-weather highway bisecting the province, which makes overland shipping between Kunming, China and Singapore, and all points between, a reality. The economic benefits it will bring to Luang Namtha, however, probably won't be felt by too many locals, but rather outside investors capitalizing on the new business opportunities.

The likelihood of Luang Namtha ever being home to another movie theater is practically nil. Lets not forget that it used to have one.

Monday, July 25, 2011

'Cinemacide' in Udon Thani

After more than a decade of abandonment, one of Udon Thani's last remaining stand-alone movie palaces, the Amporn, has been demolished.

My lone visit to the Amporn back in early 2009 is memorable for being the first instance of awe I experienced at the sight of a Thai movie theater. Despite its already deleterious condition, my jaw dropped at the sight of it, and I recall with crystal clarity wondering if somebody would actually have the thoughtless audacity to knock it down. Surely not, I convinced myself, because movie theater or otherwise, the building itself is too prized to let nonexistence repossess it. A repurposed future is in store!, I cheered inwardly. Wishful thinking, that was. The lesson reiterated: when a bottom line itches, all else is lost in the process of scratching it.

The Amporn Theater was erected in the 1960's, when Udon Thani's Royal Thai Air Force Base was a front-line facility for the US Air Force in its sustained bombing of Laos and Vietnam. Udon Thani, awash in Yankee green, went from a sleepy provincial capital-cum-market town to a regional hub with a pulsing war economy in a few short years. In the interim, six or seven massive movie palaces were built across town, the Amporn among them.

(For musical accompaniment cicra 1960's Udon Thani, click the above link. The song, sung in Thai and broken English by Mani Moneewan, is entitled "Love Letter from a Rented Wife")

If my sources are correct, the Amporn was built by a local developer named Dr. Sukhum. Endowed with the rare status of celebrity businessman, and riding on the coat tails of the American military machine, Dr. Sukhum's palatial movie theaters helped usher Udon Thanians into an era of high modernity. His architectural legacy - including the said series of elegant, modernist cinemas, which brought a much-needed touch of monumentalism to the city's soot-coated streets - is now in the process of being dismantled.

News of the Amporn's demolition reached my desk via

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Radiance Mini-Theater - Magwe City, Magwe Division, Myanmar

There was little reason to doubt Mandalay's distinction as home to Myanmar's most recently constructed stand-alone movie theater - a state-built giant called the Myoma. In the 1980's, Mandalay, the second biggest city in the country, was struck by two massive fires, leaving large tracts of devastated city in their wake. Over the following two decades the government allocated funds to help rehabilitate certain aspects of the city. In the process, three new movie theaters were erected, the most recent of which was the above mentioned Myoma in 1998. Noting that the private contracting of these iconic buildings has been moot since the current regime seized power in 1962, it seemed logical that, under the circumstances, Mandalay's Myoma Cinema would be the newest of the new. That, however, was an erroneous assumption on my part, quickly dispelled after a more thorough survey of Magwe.

Front entrance of the Radiance Mini-Theater

Magwe is not exactly a bustling metropolis, nor the kind of place where one would expect to find the progressive social forces needed to support a new stand-alone theater. To be sure, in Myanmar old stand-alones are kept in service mainly because a hyperconsumerist shopping mall culture, spurred on by global capital flows, barely exists. From the stand-point of architectural conservation, this is an unintended benefit of economic sanctions. With no money to support this kind of consumption, there is no need to redevelop the prime lands often occupied by movie theaters for more profitable structural types i.e. shopping malls, condominiums, office towers.

In this regard, Magwe's brand new Radiance Mini-Theater circa 2010 is an anomaly. A newly built stand-alone theater in a provincial backwater doesn't seem to fit easily into any equation. However, when looked at in terms of local geography the mystery is solved. The Radiance is indeed the product of global capital flows, but not the kind predicated on mass consumption. We have to look towards Myanmar's most powerful entity, the military, to find its source.

A few kilometers east of downtown, along Magwe's main east-west thoroughfare, the imposing gates to the Magwe Air Base rise skyward. Socialist authoritarianism in poured concrete. As dominating a sight as this entryway is, the gates were manned by a lone security guard slumped in a folding chair, fidgeting with a pocket radio in a desperate attempt to neutralize his boredom. San San Pwit - my indispensable interpreter - and I, were scarsely noticed as we strolled past.

A few short blocks later, we turned off the main road and found the Radiance Mini-Theater, Myanmar's latest stand-alone. Impressed by its shiny newness amid the dusty provincial mellow of Magwe, we exchanged a few pleasantries with the staff, bought our tickets and went in, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness before taking our seats. The film was a typical low budget Myanmar comedy projected from a DVD - viewing fare which ensured that we would depart quickly. We stuck around just long enough to get a feel for the interior: the auditorium was small (it is a "mini-theater") with seating comprised mostly of fake leather love-seats. Once our eyes adjusted we could see that a handful of them were taken up by young couples slouched in intimate entanglement. The Radiance, we concluded, is a den for the young to radiate their love for one another. We left them to their privacy and bad movie.

Back out in the lobby, San San Pwit eased into a restrained conversation with one of the staffers, hoping to glean a bit of information about the new picture house. The key here was to do so without arousing suspicions. The Radiance, after all, is a mere stone's throw from a major military installation. Harmless questions about a topic as seemingly benign as movie theaters can send paranoia levels through the roof. Being in close proximity to a military base makes tensions that much higher.

In spite of the looming unease, San San Pwit glided and glottal stopped her way through a cordial-if unrevealing conversation, while I snapped off a few lackluster photos of the newest movie theater in Myanmar. In the end we concluded that the theater was built to provide entertainment (and a little privacy) for family of personnel stationed at the nearby Magwe Air Base. This theory was partially substantiated by three framed photos above the ticket window depicting military men apparently giving their blessings to the new Radiance Mini-Theater on what was likely opening day.

Lobby view of the Radiance Mini-Theater, with photos of opening day ceremonies presided over by military brass hanging above the ticket window. Who exactly is in the photos is unknown. We didn't dare ask.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The San Pya Cinema - Magwe City, Magwe Division, Myanmar

Following our brief visit to Minbu, made short by a lack of hotels licensed to accept foreign guests, we crossed back over to the Irrawaddy's east bank and the eponymous capital of Magwe Division. Here too the pickings were slim for accommodation. The few hoteliers licensed to host foreigners drove a hard bargain, knowing that it was either their disproportionately high rent or the street, where we would become food for mosquitoes.

Therein lies the chief dilemma of venturing off the beaten track in Myanmar: hotel accommodation is not universal for non-nationals. In more than a few towns, particularly those not on the tourist circuit, finding a hotel with a certificate to accept foreign guests is no guarantee. In such cases, a local authority figure - usually police, sometimes immigration officers - will urge the visitor to leave town as soon as possible - "Get on a boat, bus or train, but be out of our town before the sun sets!" - thus alleviating themselves of the responsibility of having potential saboteurs under their jurisdiction. The political peons of Magwean municipalities were especially nit-picky in this regard.

In the division capital itself there is shelter to be found, thankfully. After a short rest in our dingy room we returned to the streets in exploratory mode. Venturing down what seemed like a main thoroughfare, away from the older wards along the waterfront, we were soon standing in the shadow of Magwe's last operating cinema from the Independence era - the San Pya.

While I perused the grounds of the San Pya, San San Pwit, interpreter extraordinaire, commenced conversation with a local restaurateur, gathering bits and pieces of information about the colorful old theater and the town that it's in. The following abridged history was the outcome:

The theater was built by an ethnic Indian doctor who'd grown wealthy by developing real-estate throughout the city, we were told. Adored by the people of Magwe because of his kindness and generosity, seeing patients even if they were unable to pay for his services, he left the city a poor man after nationalization in 1962. To this day the doctor-developer-movie exhibitor is held in high esteem among those old enough to remember. As one shop keeper near the San Pya put it, "they could take his wealth and holdings, but never his good name."

The role that ethnic Indians played in the modern history of Burma/Myanmar should not be disregarded. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the British colonial administration encouraged migration from India - likewise a British colony - in order to create a non-agricultural labor force. Indian migrants with higher educations, moreover, often took relatively prestigious jobs in the colonial bureaucracy. In the eyes of many Burman, this "Indianization" of the civil service, combined with the powerful economic role played by Indian businessmen throughout the country, was a cause for outrage. Burmese nationalism manifested a strong anti-Indian undercurrent. When the Burman-dominated military seized power in 1962, the nationalization of various industries was seen in the eyes of the perpetrators as a retrieval of Burman power and prestige, even though it was done under a socialist banner. Movie theaters, previously owned largely by ethnic Indians and Chinese, were now owned by the Burmese state.

Magwe's San Pya Cinema.

Close up at a slight angle.

Architecturally, the San Pya boasts a design which I have identified as definitively Burmese, though not to the exclusion of other styles. The facade, boxy and rectangular, features a pattern of brightly colored squares repeated throughout. With at least 5 other theaters across the country that share this aesthetic, and having never seen it in Thailand or elsewhere, in my mind, at least, it is indicative of 1950's Burmese theater architecture.

"Motorcycle parking"

Wooden seats in the San Pya's auditorium.


Today the San Pya Cinema is an ailing relic. On our first night in town, the film was canceled due to a shortage of customers.

"The best way to revive the place would be to install 3D projection, " mused one shop owner. "People don't want to go to the cinema to see movies they could just as easily watch at home."

That sentiment was quickly disregarded after locating the other, brand new cinema in Magwe.