Friday, November 29, 2013

Nakorn Non Rama no more. Double-feature theaters part of Thailand's past.

In 1971, director Peter Bodganovich made the film "The Last Picture Show" - a coming of age story in which the closing of a small town movie theater is used to represent broader social changes to come. The allusion in the film is that insular, small towns, where everybody knows everybody else, would soon become divorced from their simplistic ways. Outside pressures in the form of war, deindustrialization, and other uprooting forces would relegate old communitarian bonds to history. The death of the movie theater was embodiment of that theme.

Today in Thailand, something very similar has happened: The last double-feature there closed its doors for good.

Until today, the Nakorn Non Rama was the lone holdout of a business model and structural type once nationwide in scope. The two-for-one ticket price and stay-all-day policy of double-feature theaters drew steady crowds for years on end. For the change in your pocket you could duck the rigors of life with consecutive movies on the silver screen. And if the movie didn't hold your attention then an air-conditioned nap - once a luxury for Bangkok's working poor - was the next best thing.

The Nakorn Non Rama was the last operating theater owned by Mr. Surachat Pisitwuthinan - better known by the nickname "Sia Hui." Through his movie distribution company, Nakorn Luang Productions, Sia Hui once operated a chain of double-feature theaters throughout Bangkok and its suburbs. Ones already documented by the SEAMTP include the Ngamwongwan Theater and the Sri Siam Theater, though Sia Hui allegedly owned up to 10 theaters in total.

In recent years, sluggish attendance combined with rising land values has led to a string of double-feature theater closures. Now, with the Nakorn Non Rama out of the picture, this facet of Thai cultural life is officially a thing of the past.  

But lets not allow this to be a complete loss. It may very well be that the memory of the past will lead to interesting developments in the future. Perhaps some visionary will lead the way in salvaging one of the few remaining stand-alone cinemas in Bangkok, renovate it, apply a new business model to it, and create a new era for movie-going in Thailand. In this weird world we live in, stranger things have happened.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on what the world is losing with the demise of the Nakorn Non Rama.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Trisuk Theater - Khamphaeng Saen District, Nakorn Pathom Province, Thailand

Nestled in the heart of Khamphaeng Saen District's central market is a long forgotten piece of entertainment history. To be sure, the amnesia suffered this old building is not solely the result of the passage of time. Since its construction as a movie theater in 1973, the Trisuk Theater has served multiple functions - perhaps more than any theater previously featured on the SEAMTP. Keeping track of all its retrofits is enough to diminish the memory of its cardinal use. But low and behold, the design, gauge, countenance and style of this old building were all employed for the purpose of film.

Like many of Thailand's stand-alone theaters, the Trisuk was built in the middle of an open-air market. 

The former Trisuk Theater, now a parking garage and restaurant.

The architectural language of the Trisuk seems to be a play on its name. "Tri" is from the same etymological root as the "tri" in Western languages, meaning three. Add the suffix "suk," in this case meaning happiness or joy, and you get a rough translation meaning "Three Joys." Now look at the architecture of the building. There are three separate pinnacles to it; a central cornice and two wing cornices. The remaining poster case (below), moreover, has a triangulated top. A possible link between name and design?

Admittedly, this observation might be complete conjecture. But on the other hand, there could be a grain of truth to it.   

A leftover from the Trisuk's movie theater days: a frame for movie posters. 

What we do know for certain about the Trisuk was conveyed by a man who helped construct it back in 1973, later on working at the theater as the in-house poster painter. His wife now operates a small restaurant in what was once the theater's lobby.

Despite its original intent, movie exhibition was short lived at the Trisuk Theater. A mere 10 years after its opening, ticket sales had fallen off so much that the theater was gutted and turned into a swimming pool. Its owner, Mr. Somchai Tri-Amnak - whose family name was inspiration for the Trisuk's name - was apparently keen on supplying the good citizens of Khamphaeng Saen with some form of leisure activity. But the swimming pool, too, was unsuccessful.

Next, Tri-Amnak leased the former theater-turned-swimming pool to a supermarket operator. That lasted a while, but ultimately didn't work out. 

In the end the Trisuk was relegated to the lowest possible function that any building can have. Even lower than a latrine. More ignoble than a warehouse of soiled rags. The Trisuk is now a parking garage.

From movie theater, to swimming pool, to supermarket, to parking garage, with a bit of space for a restaurant.

Even in its current low-brow state, one of the more interesting dimensions of the Trisuk is that remnants of all its iterations are plainly visible at once. The mirror on the far wall, for instance, along with the red stripe circumnavigating the wall are leftovers from its supermarket days. 

The blue and white tiles on the lower half of the structure are the pool, basically as it was. 

All the exterior architecture is the Trisuk Theater in seminal form. 

Counter of the restaurant in the lobby.

Trisuk signage

It seems unlikely that anything exciting will ever become of the Trisuk. Not in the foreseeable future, anyhow. As it stands now, however, with its exterior architecture in good condition, it gives a little clue as to a more lively past in Khamphaeng Saen. If nothing else, maybe somebody will derive a little inspiration from it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thai PBS catches up with the SEA Movie Theater Project

A news crew from Thai PBS met me in the town of Ban Pong, Ratchaburi for a short story on the SEAMTP. What they produced was broadcast this evening. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Tang Sia Huad Rama - Nakorn Pathom, Thailand

"It smelled like slow death in there, malaria, nightmares" 

                                                                 - Captain Willard, Apocalypse Now

The third floor of the Tang Sia Huad Rama, once an area reserved for the storage of film reels and other notions of movie exhibition, is now home to festering piles. Anonymous piles, to be sure. Only their amorphous blackness was evident, and that they were inhabited by swarms of fleas that the strays had brought in. Whether the strays were animal or human wasn't immediately clear either.

Nearby shopkeepers in this crumbling quarter of Nakorn Pathom assured me that the cops had chased out the nefarious elements long ago. No more fiends tended to their addictions in the gangrenous warmth of the abandoned cinema. But the fleas. Yes, the fleas reign supreme. No sooner had I planted my feet in preparation for taking a shot than the fleas pounced on my exposed ankles, gorging themselves with reckless abandon.  My speckled legs glowed pink with poison as the fleas advanced higher.

On the far wall of the room, Al Pacino's head, in the role of Officer Frank Serpico, stared back at me from where it had been pasted decades ago. Testament to the theater's illustrious working days. Al - or Frank Serpico, I should say - gazed out mockingly. On second thought, maybe it was a look of pity. Outside the theater, the howls and cries of the local stray brigade could be heard. They were working themselves into a frenzy in advance of the battle they would bring to the invader of their den.             

Frank Serpico overlooks festering piles.

How to exit the cinema without incurring bloodshed quickly became my preoccupation. I doubted the hounds would enter the theater knowing I was inside. That would be too risky for them. It would be a waiting game from here on out. Once I stepped into the light of day, into the weed strewn patch of earth in front of the theater, that's when they would attack. Not in the close quarters of the cinema.

So I swatted the fleas from legs and went to work. As I scanned for decent angles and notable ephemera, I also scanned for objects which could serve as weaponry. There was very little to be found. A rusted knife, some broken chairs. Touching these soiled objects with bare hands seemed just as hazardous as the dogs they were meant to fight off. The best option, it seemed, would be to lock my tripod in its extended position. That four-foot length of titanium would at least allow me to keep them at bay as I moved toward the world of mankind.

In the mid-20th century, Thai movie theaters often employed live voice dubbers to act out the dialogue of foreign films, or Thai films shot without sound on 16mm film. This sign points the way to the Tang Sia Huad Rama's dubber's room.

The descent

Beauty in the bleak

Broken Windows theory.
The descent from the third level of the theater was made lengthy by several rounds of long-exposure photography. By the time I had reached the foyer the dogs had grown tired. Most of them had scattered. The two or three that remained by this time were dozing in the weeds. Occupational hazard number one successfully avoided.

Free from fear, the Tang Sia Huad Rama was my oyster. 

Veranda shots. 

As with most Thai theater lobbies, the Tang Sia Huad Rama's is open air, energy efficient and sustainable. Even in decay. 

Buddhist prayer paintings can be seen on the upper part of the door.

The upper sign says "It's forbidden to bring bags of ice into the theater."

According to a local merchant, the Tang Sia Huad Rama and its environs was erected in 1967. Originally, the mixed use commercial/residential development included a covered market as well. But like the theater, that too was long ago left to the dogs. 

The entire development, which covers an enormous swath of land is named for the builder - local business man Mr. Tang Sia Huad. Mr. Tang has since passed away. 

The current owner is the son of Mr. Tang Sia Huad. Generation number two has indeed inherited his father's business acumen, but apparently not the architectural vision. Among his many business ventures at present is licensed dealer for Isuzu vehicles for all of Nakorn Pathom province. By all accounts he's a wealthy man, but not so concerned about his father's built legacy.

The Tang Sia Huad Rama. It's rare to find a Thai theater in which the builder used his original Chinese name as the theater's official name.

Fading colors in a forgotten quarter.

So what accounts for the failure of this zone? Why, despite its centrality, has this been relegated to the status of bypass economy? Merchants and residents claim that it boils down to neglect. Plain and simple. The owner will not sell off the properties individually. Instead he collects rent while being lax on the upkeep.

Speculation is that he's holding out for the right offer from a major retailer, then will sell the entire property off to be redeveloped as hyper-market or shopping mall. Alas, then this community will be no more.

And so will mark the end of the Tang Sia Huad Rama - former centerpiece of entertainment in this forgotten corner of Nakorn Pathom. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Poonthawee Theater - Jom Thong District, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand

The Poonthawee Theater, on its own, is not architecturally significant. In so far as it is of a style that is no longer built, yes, it has some historical value. But beyond its antiquity, it is basically commonplace. The only truly distinguishing feature is the font used for the dimensional lettering of the sign.

There are other contexts, however, through which the Poonthawee's value increases and makes it worthy of long term care.

The loss of landmarks such as the Poonthawee Theater would have an adverse effect on the town's streetscape. 

Signage for the Poonthawee Theater

Jom Thong is a small town. The Poonthawee stands at a prominent location in the town center, directly across from Jom Thong's sacred Wat Prathat Sri Jom Thong Worawiharn. Abandoned or not, the old theater, complete in its decorative adornments like its signage and marquee, is a city landmark, almost equal in distinction to the ornate temple across the road.

By incorporating a prestige structure - even an outmoded one -  into a town's historical narrative, it brings continuity and value to place. Visually and intellectually, Jom Thong is a more dynamic place with the vacant Poonthaween Theater than without it. The task now should be to find some adequate secondary function that would utilize its space.

The loss of these buildings is a waste both of architectural heritage and material resources (it takes far more resources to demolish and build anew than to renovate or repurpose). As such, a major revision in the way that we view old buildings is sorely needed. This will require, among other things, the cooperation of various stake-holders. Not an easy task, but not an impossibility either. Up to this point there has been a severe lack of will when it comes to preservation. It's time to change that.

The Poonthawee Theater was contracted back in 1976 by a man of the same name. In addition to his theater, he was also a local film distributor. The theater closed in 1988 and has served Mr. Poonthawee's family as a warehouse ever since.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Tragedy strikes Suphanburi

The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project has the unenviable task of announcing a great loss to Thai cinema architecture. A few days prior, news reached our desk of the demolition of the theater featured on this blog's title banner - Suphanburi's Fa Siam Theater.

The Fa Siam Theater, now no more

While precise details of the theater's history were not compiled during the cursory research trip made in late 2009, the Fa Siam was an unabashed visual spectacle. Soon after documenting it, the Fa Siam's image was beamed across the internet as the gateway to an on-line world of Southeast Asian movie theater fantasy. From then on, the Fa Siam received nothing but praise. Who know's how many casual visitors to this site were drawn in, not by the literary drivel herein presented, but by the striking architecture of the Fa Siam Theater that greets the eye.  For all intents and purposes, it has been this project's logo.

As movie theater architecture in Thailand goes, the Fa Siam was about as authentic as it gets: A highly stylized piece of modernism, derivative perhaps only of Bangkok's legendary Scala Theater (right). This, in fact, has long been a point of curiosity. Noting the architectural similarities to the Scala Theater, - modern palladian windows, tapered buttresses and zig-zag cornices - I've often wondered if the Fa Siam was also a product of the master of mid-century Thai modernism, Chira Silpakanok. Further research should yield that answer.

Lobby view

Regardless of who designed it, the Fa Siam was a work of architecture that ought to have been given a second life. Sadly, there is still a dearth of preservation-mindedness in Thailand when it comes to architecture. Old movie theaters, moreover, are basically considered trash in need of removal. Even a bona fide landmark like the Scala in Bangkok is on the demolition list.

Hawking at Lert Fa market in front of the Fa Siam.

In order for Thailand to raise its international profile, a reevaluation of how to treat old architecture is much needed, lest this dynamic country arbitrarily sap itself of its inventory of cultural capital.

Dimensional signage

To the people of Suphanburi: my heart goes out to you. While your unique Banharnist political system may be making you richer with each passing day, your quaint little town is much poorer in culture now that the Fa Siam is no more.