This article appeared in the Bangkok Post on May 13th of this year.
"A Singapore-based development firm is making that city the first in Southeast Asia to undertake the full restoration of a historic downtown movie theatre. Meanwhile in Myanmar, one of the region's oldest operating stand-alone cinemas will undergo restoration.
The Capitol Theatre - Singapore
Renovations to Singapore’s iconic Capitol Theatre (closed since 1998) are due to be complete in early 2015, paving the way for it to reclaim its erstwhile title as the city-state’s premiere destination for cinema entertainment.
The renovations are part of an estimated 1.1 billion dollar (29 billion baht) mega-project that will also include a hotel, shopping center and residential units. The single screen Capitol will serve as the anchor of the development, a concept which marks a stark departure from the norm when it comes to seemingly outmoded stand-alone movie theatres in Southeast Asia.
Rather than following the standard pattern of demolishing an exquisite movie palace in order to make way for a new development, Capitol Investment Holdings, the project’s developer, has smartly opted to allocate S30 million of the total budget to breathe new life into the historic theatre.
If Singaporean developers are willing to invest tens of millions of dollars to revive an 85-year-old single-screen movie theatre, perhaps it’s time for planners and developers in Thailand to begin rethinking the fate of the country’s own historic movie theatres. Nationwide, there are a number of viable candidates.
Bangkok alone counts three historic movie theatres that, if properly preserved, would serve the city as valuable sources of cultural capital for years to come. Regrettably, all three are either under threat from demolition by neglect, or from redevelopment plans.
Two of the three – the Scala and the Lido theatres, both nestled in Siam Square – are currently in operation. The pair are run and maintained to world-class standards by their original owner-operator, Apex Theatres, which is now owned by Ms. Nanta Tansacha, daughter of company founder Pisit Tansacha.
The Scala Theatre - Bangkok
The Lido Theatre - Bangkok
Despite being two of the most beloved cinematic institutions in the country and able to count as their patrons most of Thailand’s artistic elite, both the Scala and Lido are at risk of being lost to demolition. Pending loss of the theatres comes at the behest of Chulalongkorn University, landlord of all of Siam Square, which is seeking to increase its revenue by replacing all existing structures in the district with a series of shopping malls.
The Scala is arguably the most luxurious movie theatre in all of Southeast Asia, a fact not lost on Thailand’s architectural preservation community. In 2012, the Association of Siamese Architects certified the Scala an architecturally significant structure. Its sumptuous modern lobby, featuring a 5-tiered frosted glass chandelier, tapered columns, golden star ceiling medallions and a 10m horizontal wall relief are some of the highlights of this a one-of-a-kind architectural spectacle.
The Lido, unfortunately, bears much fewer distinctions, having lost many of its original architectural features to a fire in the early 1990’s. It is nonetheless a valuable cultural asset in the heart of the city, especially when coupled with the Scala.
The third Bangkok movie theatre that is under threat is the Sala Chalerm Thani, sometimes known as the Nang Loeng Theatre.
The Sala Chalerm Thani Theatre - Bangkok
Dating to 1918, the Sala Chalerm Thani is one of only several theaters left in Thailand dating from the earliest years of movie-going. Its wooden walls and timber frame, combined with its age, endow it with unrivaled historical worth.
Tentative plans to restore the Sala Chalerm Thani by its landlord, the Crown Property Bureau, have been posted on the cinema’s façade for several years now, but a definitive time frame has yet to be given. Should restoration occur, however, and the theatre is once again made a venue for film, it could be rightfully billed as the oldest active, stand-alone movie theatre in all of Asia.
Outside of Bangkok, a handful of other elegant but unused stand-alone movie theatres have great restorative potential.
In Chiang Mai, the once-grand Sang Tawan Theatre – featuring an intricate terra cotta mosaic depicting traditional northern Thai village life on its facade – looms over one of the city’s most important intersections. Though it has been closed for more than 10 years, a restored and active Sang Tawan could do wonders for a section of the city that’s full of important socio-cultural resources, yet sorely in need of an anchor institution.
The Sang Tawan Theatre - Chiang Mai
Similarly, in the city of Udon Thani – one of northeast Thailand’s economic hubs – the long-abandoned Vista Theatre stands at a prominent corner directly across from that city’s largest public park.
The Vista Theatre - Udon Thani
In sum, each of these sidelined theatres represents a golden opportunity to transform the cities or neighborhoods in which they stand.
Admittedly, reincorporating an old movie theatre into a contemporary city economy is no simple task. Yet for a city to have the means to reach back into its past and make a forlorn artifact not only relevant again, but a contributing part of contemporary society, shows vision and know-how on the part of local leaders.
Singapore is achieving this via restoration of the Capitol Theatre.
Singapore might seem like an obvious place for the restoration of an old cinema to occur. After all, it is a high-income city-state that can comfortably afford to undertake such a project. But that rationale falls short if one considers the restoration of the 80-plus year-old Waziya Cinema soon to commence in Yangon, Myanmar. The latter is unquestionably not a high-income country, yet planners in Yangon have smartly identified the invaluable cultural capital bound-up in historic movie theatres. The Waziya is one of the oldest active stand-alone cinemas in Southeast Asia. It's a crowning gem of Yangon's Cinema Row, a movie theater district that in recent years has been modernized and replaced by buildings.
There is much to be gained through preserving select parts of the past, and cinemas are no exception. The revival and preservation of stand-alone movie theatres have indeed proven beneficial to the cultural and economic life of surrounding neighbourhoods. Numerous examples from cities around the world attest to that.
Now Singapore is taking the lead regionally.
Restoration of the Capitol Theatre should serve as a precedent for cinema preservation in Thailand and all of ASEAN."