Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bangkok's claim to cinematic history

Below is the text of an op-ed I wrote advocating for the renewal of the Nang Loeng AKA Sala Chalerm Thani Cinema in Bangkok. Click here for the Bangkok Post version of it.

The Nang Loeng Cinema - Bangkok, Thailand
This past Wednesday, the world’s oldest cinema reopened for business after nearly two decades of dormancy. The 114 year old Eden Theatre, located in the French sea-side town of La Coite, was used by the motion picture-pioneering Lumiere Brothers to screen an early work of theirs. Over the next 90-plus years, the Eden fluctuated between being a movie and live theater before closing down in the 1995. Now, following a lengthy renovation process, the Eden is back in business as a full-time movie theater, with space set aside for a permanent exhibit dedicated to the origins of animated pictures.
With France now claimant to the oldest operating movie theatre in the world, Thailand is in position to stake claim to the oldest active movie theater in Asia. But that claim hinges upon a forgotten piece of cinema real-estate getting the same treatment as France’s Eden.

Nestled in a corner of Trok Nang Loeng, in the historic Rattanakosin area of Bangkok, stands the Sala Chalerm Thani Theater. More barn in appearance than cinema hall, the mostly wooden structure dates to 1918 when it was contracted by the Siam Cinema Co. under the name of the Nang Loeng Cinema

Signage announcing the theater's latter name, Sala Chalerm Thani, tacked to the facade.
In the late 1910’s, the Siam Cinema Co. became the country’s largest theater operator after two fierce business rivals – the Krungthep Cinematograph Company and the Pathanakorn Film Company – merged into one. The Siam Cinema Co. operated as many as 20 movie theaters in around Bangkok until the early 1930’s, when financial troubles caused them to sell all their theaters to the newly-formed Siam Niramai Cinema Co., making it the nation’s largest theater chain at the time. It was then that the name of the Nang Loeng Cinema was changed to the Sala Chalerm Thani. 
Without going into a detailed history, the Nang Loeng Cinema, or Sala Chalerm Thani – whichever you prefer – is a worthy candidate for a revival. Its unique architecture, historic location and nearly century-old age provide ample justification for that.

The architectural aspect boils down to the material it’s made from. While wooden theaters were the norm during the early days of motion-picture in Thailand, by the middle decades of the twentieth century they had become the rare exceptions. Only in the smaller towns and villages in the provinces did wood occasionally find utility as a building material for theaters. Over the years wooden theaters have all but disappeared, replaced by theaters built of brick and mortar or not replaced at all. The Nang Loeng Cinema is thus a rare example of Thai vernacular cinema architecture in the heart of the country’s primary city. 
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), Bangkok’s version of a city planning office, has been seeking ways to increase tourist revenue from historic Rattanakosin. Were the Nang Loeng Cinema to find a source of funding for a make-over it would be transformed into a fascinating and potentially lucrative destination. Try to envision daily tours to the Nang Loeng Cinema to screen a documentary film about, say, the history of Rattanakosin, or Bangkok in general. Visitors could then explore the ancient neighborhood, bringing revenue to local businesses in the process. By night, the 95 year old structure could be turned into an art-house theater, or live venue, drawing regulars from the ranks of Bangkok’s film and art sets. 
If done properly, a revival of the Nang Loeng could make it the cinema equivalent of the Jim Thompson House – a vestige of old Bangkok with both contemporary and historic functions.

As of 18 months ago, notices found tacked to the Nang Loeng’s fa├žade announced up-coming renovations sponsored by the owning Crown Property Bureau – the financial branch of Thailand’s revered Royal Family. This would seemingly be the solution to the theater’s now twenty year-long stint as a storage space - an unfortunate use for such a significant structure. But when questioned about the notices, nearby residents said that they had been pinned up more than a year prior and nothing had happened since. Few in Trok Nang Loeng had any hope the renovation plans would be enacted.

The revival of France’s Eden Theatre as the oldest operating theater in the world should inspire a vision for “the oldest operating theater in Asia.”  In the Nang Loeng Cinema, Bangkok has the right inventory! An attraction of that gauge would add further value to Thailand’s cultural capital, and from a very unique perspective at that. Movie theaters, after all, are fairly universal, but wooden ones are almost unheard of.

As an investment into the economic viability of Rattanakosin, the revival if the Nang Loeng Cinema will certainly will not answer all of the BMA’s questions. It would, however, be one piece of the puzzle. The only thing that seems to be missing is the political will to get it started. 

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