Monday, April 23, 2012

The Pu Jao Theater - Samut Prakan, Thailand

The street-side signage is a dead giveaway. "Pu Jao Market at Sam Rong," it reads, vestiges of a marquee loosely discernible below. On the other side stands a cinema mausoleum. Entombed is the fanfare of movie-watchers from years gone by, desolate though it may otherwise appear.

Street-side signage along the southern reaches of Sukhumvit Rd. There is no mention of a the theater anymore.

The Pu Jao Theater stands as a concrete shell, stripped of absolutely everything that isn't embedded in it. Vendors at the Pu Jao fresh market, which is still in operation, rue the days when the Pu Jao was the life-blood of the neighborhood; a magnet for leisurists and guarantor of profits for hawkers.

A woman grilling hot dogs beside the Pu Jao claimed that in the 1980's and 90's, it was the premier theater of Five Star Productions - one of Thailand's most prolific movie studios. Films starring the studio's prized male/female duo, Santisuk Promsiri and Jintara Sukapat, held their premiers at the Pu Jao. Regular capacity crowds spilled over into the surrounding businesses.

Then, in much the same manner as nearly all Thailand's stand-alone theaters, it died sometime in the early aughts.

Nature's reclamation 

Bare bones auditorium

Desolation in the upper lobby

Seldom do I come across a vintage picture of a theater I've documented in its death throws. They're not so easy to track down. Which makes the above photo a rare treat. It shows a tiny bit of the Pu Jao Theater days before its grand opening.

In the photo, Saman Watcharasirioj, a technician who works for the Apex chain, along with an assistant, set up the audio system for an outdoor movie screening in front of the Pu Jao. This must have been some sort of promotional event prior to the theater's opening. The Pu Jao was apparently owned by Apex.

The banner above the marquee says, "A first-class theater, Pu Jao at Sam Rong. Grand Opening March 26th, 1985."

The Pu Jao Theater is now a first-class relic.

(Vintage photo courtesy of Wax Wara, son of Saman Watcharasiriroj) 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hope for historic cinemas

The Nation
Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Admirers of Apex's iconic Scala and Lido theatres are breathing easier today, following Chulalongkorn University's announcement that controversial plans to demolish the two movie halls have been postponed.

From the outset, the plans to replace the two 40-plus year-old landmarks with a series of shopping malls raised considerable objection from a broad spectrum of Thai society. All the commotion has apparently succeeded, at least temporarily, in changing Chula's tune. But until details of the redevelopment plan are formally worked out, erring on the side of caution might benefit advocates of the Apex Two.

With that in mind, lets embark on a possible projection of the future.

The year is 2069. Thailand's economy, along with those of its neighbours, has levelled off after more than 40 years of sustained growth. It's a mature economy now, a middle-class society, with an age demographic tilted toward elderly. The once-trendy shopping malls along the northern edge of Rama I Road, all but devoid of consumers, are being dismantled, the land repurposed into a tropical city park.

On December 31, 2069, Chulalongkorn University - now the envy of Harvard - is honouring the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Scala Theatre by hosting a movie marathon there: "150 Years of Thai Cinema," is the theme. Prints of old Thai movies, carefully preserved by the Thai Film Archive, have been selected for this cultural heritage film fest. For the first month of 2070, only vintage cinema is being screened there.

Thanks to the foresight of Chula administrators, the century-old Scala has become a national showcase and symbol of prestige for the university. Images of its luscious lobby have been used as a selling point for the university to attract international students, especially architecture majors, who view it with a mix of exotic curiosity and academic awe - impressed by the school's commitment to continuity.

In 2069, not a soul in the country would even entertain the thought of destroying the Scala, or its somewhat less alluring older sibling, the Lido. Not for any reason whatsoever.

Admittedly, this rendering of the future is a bit on the utopian side. But what I hope to convey, short of a utopia, is its plausibility. Try, for a minute, to imagine your reaction to seeing the Scala for the first time, 20, 40 or 60 years down the road. Conceivably, that far into the future, much of Bangkok's less-extravagant mid-20th Thai architecture will have already been demolished to make way for the new. As a rare survivor, the Scala would be a beautiful representative of a largely forgotten past, while serving an invaluable contemporary role to the country's film community. Put bluntly, it would be a spectacle in and of itself (though many would argue that it already is).

This, of course, is the long view of the issue, and not always a convincing one given all the unknown variables. For its part, Chula is also thinking ahead - albeit not very far - which is why it seeks to maximise the profitability of its land. With Thailand's exports lagging due to weak economies in Europe and the US, producers and financiers are betting on strong domestic consumption to keep them in the black. Hence the view that shopping malls should replace the existing structures at Siam Square.

But once this boom is over, then what? Chula could be presiding over an empire of underperforming behemoths that will be expensive to maintain and have no redeeming social value in and of themselves. Remember, there are already over half a dozen shopping malls along this stretch of road. Between them, there is no shortage of purchasing options whether one is looking for a pair of socks or a high-end sports car.

As for stand-alone movie theatres that screen high-end films, there are only two in the entire country.

The Scala and Lido are authentically irreplaceable. Once they are gone, they will never come back.

Chulalongkorn University will be doing a service to itself and to Bangkok by taking the long view of these landmarks.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A sliver of Korat's cinematic past

An old photograph can reveal a lot. Take this shot of the Charoen Rat Theater in Korat, circa 1973. Two years ago, when I photographed the place, I wasn't able to locate any key informants. As a result, no data was compiled.

The below photo of Sam Lor drivers waiting beneath the marquee reveals one important thing, at least: as of 1973, the Charoen Rat was part of a circuit that supplied Shaw Brothers movies. It may, in fact, have been the theater in Korat for Chinese language pictures.

Most medium sized towns would have at least one theater that specialized in Hong Kong/Singapore imports. Shaw Bros. distributed widely throughout Southeast Asia from their Singapore office.

The movie screening at the time of this photo was the kung fu - action, "The Villain."

Next in line is a soft core flick called "Adultery Chinese Style."

Below are a couple of shots of the Charoen Rat from the SEAMTP archive circa 2010.

The Charoen Rat Theater: once the place to watch Hong Kong/Singapore film in Korat, now a motorcycle dealership.


Click here view the original post.

(The top photograph was shamefully nicked from Bob Freitag's "The Vietnam War Years of Korat Royal Thai Air Base", an on-line forum for American air force vets to share photos and information.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Chula U. relaxes stance, announces Scala and Lido not slated for demolition.

Chulalongkorn University's public relations office has posted an announcement claiming that the Scala and Lido theaters of Siam Square will not be demolished.

The announcement further states that "plans have yet to be developed regarding the future of the site" and that "all concerned parties will have a say in the matter during the planning process."

The entire press release can be seen here, but only in Thai.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The State Theater - Pra Pradaeng district, Samut Prakan, Thailand

Heading south along Sukhumvit Road, between Bangkok's southern outskirts and Samut Prakan town, lies a stretch of weather beaten buildings, tattooed greenish-black from years of auto-exhaust and tropical molds. Lots of Bangkok has this exact look: a building stock of concrete shop houses, built in the 1960's, 70's and 80's, before developers realized that profits, like customer-attracting air-conditioning, could be more efficiently controlled in enclosed shopping malls.

In exurb settings like Pra Phradaeng district, Samut Prakan, such ageing building types have become - for all intents and purposes - working slums. Shop fronts so occupied hold businesses catering to low-wage service workers commuting to and from the Bangkok grind. Cheap eats, cell phone dealers and convenience stores reign supreme. Factories and warehouses fill in the gaps. On occasion, the rarefied sight of undeveloped paddy field or festering bog - reminders of a bucolic past not far removed.

Remnants of other fading pasts can be found clinging desperately to life in this area, as well. Enter Sukhumvit Soi 78 - "Soi State," as its known to locals and in official street signage. The soi is named for the stand-alone theater that sits in its heart.

"State" @ Soi 78

The entrance gate to Soi State, looking well worn after years of neglect. Besides announcing the theater, the sign also advertises a market, the full name of which is unreadable due to missing letters. In years past, hand painted movie posters would have adorned the frame beneath the signage.

Anchoring a large commercial/residential development, the State Theater is the quintessential Thai theater of the 1970's. By comparison, it's like a Thai rendition of a strip mall, minus accommodation for cars. In fact, the latter was the death knell of such developments.

As the private car increased in popularity through the 1980's and 90's, these commercial/residential plazas lost their appeal. With no formal parking lots, drivers found them inconvenient, precipitating the rise of the shopping mall-multiplex, with the all-in-one ease of built-in parking.

Convenience is the enemy of many good things.

Now well into its decline, the State stays afloat via a lone daily screening of pornography. Much of Soi State, for that matter, has a link to the sex industry in one way or another. A slew of store fronts are occupied by brothels, or their slightly less conspicuous cousins, the massage parlor.

(For an interesting report on the transformation of Soi State into a red light district, click here)

Expanse of lobby

Seediness has not always been a State trademark. Mr. Choom - the current manager and employee for over 30 years - recalled the golden years at the State, when capacity crowds filled the theater day in and day out. Throngs of movie-goers provided the foot traffic which sustained the surrounding businesses in thriving Soi State. But those days are long gone.

A second State employee I spoke to registered as familiar. Where I had met him before I couldn't immediately pin point, but a quick memory scan drew a match. He was the manager at the now-demolished Asia Rama, in Bangkok's Prakhanong neighborhood. When I saw him last, almost three years ago, he was sitting proudly behind the ticket window of that massive double-feature theater, brusquely fielding my questions about his place of work.

His reassignment to the State, I learned, came in the wake of the Asia Rama's closure and subsequent fall. Both theaters were owned by the same man, part of a once-sizable network of theaters stretching across Bangkok and its suburbs. The Asia Rama Network, it was called, named after the flagship theater where a high-rise condominium is currently being built.

Others in the Asia Rama Network included the Washington, London, Hawaii and New York theaters, to name the few I learned of.

Meanwhile, my transferred theater operator friend, now aware of our past interaction, had a glint of sadness in his eyes. With his former place of employment now just a memory, and his current one in its final stages, he holds the unenviable distinction of being witness to an empire's collapse. The gradual degradation of a movie theater is a pathetic site. To be part of it for so many years can only be depressing. An inescapable feeling of pending obsolescence.

A tell-tale sign of the theater's current incarnation as a hook-up spot: out-dated posters hang on the walls.

Yup, it's that kind of place.

Quintessentially 1970's chandelier, movie poster in background.

Imitation marble wall paneling surrounds the ticket window.

The concessionaire and her friend have a chat in the lobby.

The concave screen of the State Theater, curtains narrowed to fit LCD projection. This once-cutting edge auditorium has seen better days.


As it stands, the State is beleaguered. The entire development is well into its decline, one stage or so before abandonment. The employees even admitted as much.

All the properties withing Soi State are owned by one man. He is apparently holding out until the Sky Train is extended to Soi State's gates, at which point he will redevelop the land. In ten years time, it's likely that the "State Tower Condos" will have supplanted the State Theater and all the seedy deals taking place in its shadow.

I'm glad to have seen it before its demise.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Architectural association helps preserve Scala, Bangkok landmark

Confirmation has been made:

Scala will be the recipient of an "Award for Outstanding Conservation of Art and Architecture 2012," by the Association of Siamese Architects Under Royal Patronage.

The same source says, "should be good news and help to delay demolition."

I'll breath easy when I hear "cancel demolition"

For Thai readers, Matichon has more details on the award, here.

Lido plans are also on hold pending a decision by Chulalongkorn University.