Thursday, March 29, 2012

Pending victory for Scala Theatre, Bangkok cinephiles

In a recent e-mail exchange with the general manager of Apex, an interesting new development was made known.

Apex president Nanta Tansacha has applied to the "Architectural Society" - which I'm guessing is the abbreviated title of "The Association of Siamese Architects Under Royal Patronage" - to have the Scala Theatre certified as architecturally/historically signifigant. The certification will be made in April or May.

No further details were made available.

If this designation comes to fruition, it ought to make it illegal to demolish the Scala.

Still no word about the Lido.

The tropical deco facade of the Scala.

View of imperial staircase, lower lobby

Rotating poster case beside imperial staircase, with five-tiered chandelier in background.

Concession stand

Lobby views

Above the door to the auditorium, a 50 foot long bronze relief depicting Asian civilizations.


The 1000 seat auditorium during the premiere of a locally-produced skateboarding movie held at the Scala in 2009.

You'd have to mentally ill to bring this down.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Sins against city's cinemas"

The Bangkok Post
Monday, March 19th, 2012

By Usnisa Sukhsvasti

"There is hardly a person in Bangkok whose life is not linked in some way to Siam Square. It has been the hangout for people of every age group and gender. It does not discriminate against social standing and pay cheque. You can go there whether you travel by chauffeur-driven limousine, BTS or public bus.

In 2010, Siam Square went through a crisis when the Siam Theatre was burned down during the red shirt riots. People actually saw their lives flashing past in their mind's eye. By "people", I mean me.

Siam Theatre was the cinema where I passed many a delightful hour in front of the huge screen on modern reclining seats. Previously there was Chalerm Thai on Ratchadamnoen, Chalerm Krung near Pahurat, King and Queen in Wang Burapa, Hollywood at Ratchathewi, Paramount and Metro on Phetchaburi Road.

Actually, if you want to go way back, the first film I remember watching was a horror movie which starred a jelly-like monster that could slide under doors in liquid form and build itself up into some weird menace that seemed to have a preference for beautiful blondes talking on the phone. This was shown at a wooden cinema somewhere near Asok Market, and probably created a deep-rooted trauma for a three-year-old child. I've never got over my dread of horror movies.

I watched a lot of movies as I grew up. As the youngest child in the family, I was the only one available to accompany my mother who was the ultimate film buff. We used to do two movies in a row, and the traffic being light as it was in those days, it wasn't impossible.

Her taste ranged from Indian movies (Angulimala, who went around chopping off his victims' fingers to hang round his neck), Chinese (The Goddess Guan Yin), and endless Hollywood films. I must have watched all the early James Bond movies with her.

What I also remember is the film G.I. Blues starring Elvis Presley. I must have watched it at least five times when I was four, much to my mother's chagrin.

And that's why the Siam Square cinemas meant so much to me. My student days at Chulalongkorn University revolved around Siam Square, watching movies for 15 baht per ticket.

First it was the Siam that bit the dust. Now it's the Lido whose days are numbered. I watched MacKenna's Gold three times at the Lido! My former in-laws owned one of the first bakeries in Siam Square on the Lido block. I was there when Prince Charles married Diana Spencer.

Next year, the Lido is going to make way for a "high-rise walking street", which I assume is a newly coined term for "shopping centre", of which we only have a few hundred in Bangkok.

The Lido, on the other hand, provided film buffs with an alternative venue where they could watch some of the more artistic but less commercial productions, at only 100 baht a ticket. Now we have no choice but to watch 4D flicks at astronomical prices, or stay at home. I know what I'm going to choose.

We need another shopping centre like we need a hole in the head. The social networks are abuzz with comments against this new project, and against the people at Chula who must have holes in their heads to come up with this idea in the first place. There's even a "Save the Lido" campaign brewing.

I can only assume that in time, the Scala, the Grande Dame of old-style cinemas, will face a similar fate.

One comment from a youngster on went: "It seems strange that the younger generation are the ones calling for conservation, while the older (and supposedly more intellectual _ my own insert) generation are destroying old traditions and promoting materialism."

I couldn't have put it better, my dear!"

Monday, March 26, 2012

"Chula asks us Lido-lovers to feel the pain"

The Bangkok Post
March 24th, 2012

By Kong Rithdee

"Alarmed and despondent, readers have sent feedback to me
regarding last week's column on the forthcoming demise of the Lido Theatre. For
a second, I thought I had struck my Kony moment, though I'd promised I'd never
end up the same way as that video-maker who was caught naked, drunk, and
allegedly performing al fresco masturbation just days after his
socially-conscious campaign had gone viral. Don't let the urge to save the world
short-circuit your head, that's the lowdown.

And yet, the reaction of Lido lovers is passionate. So please allow me
another take at the issue this week, for among those who wrote in, there were
calls for protests, petitions, a siege, while many were simply outraged at what
they see as the "wanton" destruction of an icon. Lecturers, students and media
personalities share their anguish, and even war cries. Right now, there is at
least one online petition urging Chulalongkorn Uni, which owns the area around
Siam Square and has unveiled a plan for a major facelift that will affect the
iconic cinemas, to reassess it."Spare a creative space: We want Lido and Scala,"
reads the title of the campaign. A Facebook page has been created to ruminate on
the cultural loss if the theatres actually come down. On the popular Pantip
website, fans have shared pictures of old and extinct movie houses that once
graced Bangkok, not just the Lido or the Scala, but a fantastic array of
modernist architecture of the Chalermthai, Odeon, Chalermburi, Empire,
Paramount, Athens, all fossilised in sepia photographs and funereal melancholy.
Many point out the fact that nearly all the functional stand-alone theatres in
Bangkok - except the Scala - have metamorphosed into seedy venues of
pornography, since to live underground has become the only way to live at

We'll weep later; let's take a deep breath first.

For a start, no one will touch the Lido until late 2013. And although the
prediction that the Scala will become the next target isn't merely a hunch, the
fate of that majestic dame hasn't been decided. Earlier this week, Assoc Prof
Permyot Kosolbhand of Chulalongkorn's Property Management Office gave an
interview to Matichon newspaper in a tone that was more compromising than when
he first talked about the Siam Square overhaul and showed the sketch of the
planned development - published in this newspaper - that seems to obliterate the
Lido and the Scala.

"We will try to find a way to preserve the symbols of the area, but at this
point we have no details," he said.

The academic cited safety reasons for the need to renovate the buildings in
Siam Square, but he stressed that he would need to talk to the operator of the
Lido and Scala - the Tansacha family - before deciding what to do with them. He
didn't mention whether Bangkok really needs another mall.

When Sala Chalermthai Theatre was demolished in 1989 to make way for the
re-aestheticisation of Ratchadamnoen Avenue, there was an outcry and protests.
They didn't work, and how monumental, how historical that cinema was! Likewise,
a number of grand old movie houses were felled and replaced by (hideous)
buildings. This doesn't mean that we should just whine and wait for the first
blow to strike the Lido and the Scala; the protest movement today, should we
really come to that, would be more efficient. The voice of opposition has to be
maintained, yes, but at the same time, I believe it's worth taking time to
examine the complex relationship between the past and present, between the
promise of change and the impermanence of today.

History has given us this lesson: 50 years ago when Chulalongkorn decided to
develop the area that is now Siam Square, the neighbourhood was a tangle of
slums. There was a fire - there's always a fire - and the inhabitants had to
move out. It is recorded that at that time, Chula students formed a resistance
and patrolled the area to prevent the slum-dwellers' return, so that the
development plan could commence (Rangsan Torsuwan, a controversial architect and
Chula graduate, said this in an interview years ago with Positioning

So the teeming youth hub of today, including the Lido and the Scala, came
into existence at the expense of a group of people whom we have already
forgotten. In the name of urban makeover, the slum residents had to sacrifice.
Now Chula is asking us - Lido-lovers - to do the same. It must've hurt then as
it does now. If not more."

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The case for preserving the Lido and Scala theatres

Special for the Nation
Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

For Thai movie lovers and fans of luxurious old cinema halls alike, dire news has once again soured the collective mood.

Nearly two years after the fiery demise of the beloved Siam Theatre, its Siam Square brethren – the Lido and Scala Theatres – have been listed for demolition. Should the plans go through, Bangkok’s once-illustrious collection of stand-alone movie theaters will be officially non-existent by 2016.

The Lido and Scala, as well as the remainder of Siam Square, sit upon some of the most valuable real estate in Thailand. Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s perennially top-ranked university and owner of the land, is apparently unsatisfied with the current amount of income it generates from its Siam Square tenants – a medley of boutique clothing stores, trendy cafes, and long-established restaurants. To remedy this, university directors have announced plans to raze the entire neighborhood of three and four story shop houses to make way for a series of high-end shopping malls. Raised rents would accompany the completed project.

The economic imperatives of a private institution like Chulalongkorn University are often hard to argue against. In this case, however, since only short-term monetary considerations figure in to a decision which will reflect negatively on both Chulalongkorn and Thailand as a whole, this argument has ample justification.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that from a preservationist standpoint the Siam Square neighborhood is by no means architecturally unique. Throughout Bangkok there are neighborhoods of similar dimension and architectural gauge, erected with growth-minded profusion during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Having said this, razing it would not be a serious loss to the city’s cultural or architectural heritage, although it would have an adverse effect on a well-established business community. Nevertheless, Chula has every prerogative to do what it wants with its property.

Siam Square’s two theaters, on the other hand, the Scala and the Lido, are extremely rare and well worth preserving.

Both theaters were built at the height of Thailand’s movie theater construction boom, beginning in the mid 1960’s and tapering off in the late 1970’s (the Lido dates to 1968, the Scala to 1969). They were contracted by Pisit Tansacha, founder of the once-prolific Apex chain of theaters, and have been operated by the Tansacha family ever since.

Over the past two decades, the onslaught of redevelopment that has transformed this neighborhood has laid waste to many palatial stand-alone cinemas. Just around the corner from Siam Square, in the vicinities of Rachatewi and Phayathai, there once stood numerous movie palaces built during the 1960’s and 70’s boom. Among them, the Hollywood, McKenna, President and Stella theatres, all of which have since been demolished to accommodate office towers or condominiums.

Apex, too, might have followed this trend and razed its Siam Square theaters were it not for a simple logic belying their up-keep: Apex has a small-but-loyal customer base to whom they are devoted. This cinephilic patron-client relationship, cultivated over four-plus decades of movie screenings, has resulted in the gradual transformation of the Lido and Scala into some of the country’s only theatres showing alternative films, and ensuring their survival while the rest of Bangkok’s stand-alone theatres faded into oblivion.

If we appraise these theatres based on the law of scarcity – which holds that the decrease in quantity of a particular kind of artifact or institution leads to a corresponding increase in its worth – then the Lido and Scala are priceless, being the last two of their kind in the country.

But it is the intangible historical value they contain which is most difficult to measure. What meaning do they hold to the countless spectators who have sat in their chambers? Which great Thai minds have gained inspiration beneath their illuminated screens? The Scala, it ought not be forgotten, has hosted the most revered of all spectators. In past years, His Majesty the King of Thailand has held charity movie screenings there, with his royal throne temporarily installed to provide him seating.

Indeed, the Scala is of especially high cultural and architectural import, as well. It was designed by famed architect Chira Silpakanok – also known for the Indra Hotel – and embodies a uniquely Thai aesthetic that blends elements of tropical art deco with 1960’s Thai modern. A vaulted ceiling, accentuated with gold colored medallions and supported by a series of tapered columns, make the Scala’s lobby a spectacle in itself.

With the Lido divided into three smaller theaters after a 1993 fire, the Scala is also the only operating movie palace in all of Thailand with a single screen.

By way of comparison with other world cities, there are very few that have allowed all of their historic movie theatres to be demolished. Most have designated resources for the preservation and maintenance of at least one. For an important city like Bangkok to allow the landmark Scala Theatre to be demolished would be an unnecessary loss to the city’s cultural capital.

Tearing it down to build a shopping mall, moreover, in a neighborhood already saturated with them, would show shortsightedness and extremely poor taste on the part of prestigious Chulalongkorn University, which normally takes the lead in ensuring the country’s treasures are duly enshrined.

On a personal note, in my travels across Burma, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand to document what remains of the region’s stand-alone movie theaters, I have yet to encounter a theatre more elegant than the Scala. The closest runner up is the Thamada Cinema in Yangon, Burma at a distant second.

The demise of the Lido will be a definitive loss to Thailand’s movie-going culture. If the Lido and the Scala are both demolished, Thailand will have abandoned the top position in yet another category to a regional neighbor.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Preservation posturing

With news of the Lido Theater's pending demolition still ringing in peoples' ears like a barrage from a firing squad, it seems appropriate to administer the following mild sedative to help ease the pain. Very mild, actually. Truth be told, possibly a placebo.

The Sala Chalerm Thani Theater

In a recent revisit to the lone wooden cinema still standing in Bangkok - the Sala Chalerm Thani - a grand discovery was made. Tacked to bulletin boards flanking the ticket window are notices to the affect that the 92 years old structure will be undergoing complete renovations.

Photos depicting a team of architects and engineers surveying the barn-like movie theater accompanied the information. An appearance of intent on the part of the Crown Property Bureau - the financial arm of the monarchy - to preserve one of Bangkok's most historic entertainment venues.

Ticket window

"The Sala Chalerm Thani restoration project"

"The Crown Property Bureau, together with Home Renovation Center, a subsidiary of the Siam Cement Group, inspects the interior and exterior condition of the theater to determine an appropriate budget."

But after questioning locals about the notices, a less optimistic picture soon emerged.

"Those notices were put up over 2 years ago," said a nearby resident. "Nobody has even been back since they did the survey. I doubt they will ever do anything at all."

A local shopkeeper, slightly more hopeful, had this to say: "The Crown Property Bureau is investing in it. We don't know what plans they have, but it will definitely benefit the community if they can fix it up."

Replica old movie posters pinned to the wall of the Sala Chalerm Thani. In anticipation of its restoration?

While collecting data a few years back, I was told that the Sala Chalerm Thani Theater is owned by an absentee landlord who spends most of his time in the southern Thailand. A literature review later revealed that the theater was built by one of Bangkok's early theater chains, the Pathankorn Film Co., which in 1919 merged with rival Krungthep Cinematograph to form the largest theater chain in the country - the Siam Cinema Co.

Originally named the Nang Loerng Cinema after the trok neighborhood it stands in, the theater was reputedly a of low standing from the start. By the late 1920's the Siam Cinema Co. had fallen on hard times. Backed by royal financing, the newly-formed Siam Niramai Co. purchased Siam Cinema Co.'s entire stock of theaters to become the largest chain in the country. In so doing, each theater was renamed beginning with the honorific "Sala Chalerm," roughly translated "The celebrated pavilion." The Nang Loerng Theater, for instance, became the Sala Chalerm Thani; the Singapore became the Sala Chalerm Buri, and so on.

Anyhow, given that the Siam Niramai Co. was financed by the Crown, it's interesting that the CPB is now taking efforts to restore the historic old Sala Chalerm Thani. Or so their PR department would like us to believe.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Greedy people to raze Lido Theater

A stupid move like this deserves a stupid summary:

only corrupt minds would destroy a cultural institution like the Lido Theater. The mental midgets behind it should be deeply ashamed.

If I can muster the energy to write something more about this, I will. But for the time being, I am quietly mourning a decision made by cancerous individuals.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Oscar Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

To the undiscerning eye, the complex of claustrophobic alleys at Petchburi Road Soi 39 are nothing more than optimal spaces for anonymous dealings. Turkish baths, karaoke halls, massage parlors, an empire of flesh carved from the soot stained streets of slum Bangkok.

But take a moment to peer beyond those red light specials. Obscured in this maze of copulation stands one of Bangkok's most resplendent erstwhile entertainment venues - the Oscar Theater.

"No Bra"

The only theater ever in the Makkasan neighborhood of town, when the Oscar opened in 1976 it was intended to be a first-class alternative to the movie palaces of Pathumwan and other well-established sections of Bangkok. Owned independently of the three big theater chains competing for Bangkok's movie-goers in the 1970's and 80's (Apex, Hollywood and Co Bros.), the Oscar was a cinematic institution until it closed in the early 2000's.

The Oscar Theater's facade is set back from the building-line along Petchburi Road. In its heyday, a sign and marquee would have announced the Oscar's presence from the concrete I-beams suspended in front.

The terrace in front of the theater is used by food vendors. Pass through the tunnel into a cinematic ruin.

Walking through the Oscar's cavernous lobby is like entering a Pharaoh's tomb. The photos on display here do it little justice. With its centrally located escalator once whisking patrons to the second level, the Oscar must have been on par with any of the city's premiere theaters contracted during the golden age of theater building. Even in decay its decadence is obvious.

Prostitutes, employed at one of the fish-bowl massage parlors renting out space in the complex, break for lunch in the Oscar's vast lobby.

Currently the Oscar Theater itself is vacant, save for the unused chairs and screen in the auditorium. Retail space along the perimeter, however, is occupied by massage parlors, night clubs and Turkish baths, whose neon hues bring a cheap pomp to this cinema necropolis.

And before sex moved in, God held the lease. For five holy years after its closure, the Church of Hope of Bangkok held sermons in this once mighty temple.

The grand entrance to the Oscar's auditorium.

Working girls lunch in the Oscar's lobby, shielded from public view by a few black dividers.

Of all the conversions to have befallen yesteryear's movie palaces, this one is bound for infamy. The once the beloved Oscar Theater, now part of Bangkok's effusive sex industry.