Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Aurora Theater - Chanthaburi, Thailand

When a movie theater goes out of business but the building is spared the wrecking claw, there are innumerable potential ways to repurpose the space.  Generally speaking, however, only a few types ever come into being. 

Because movie theaters are big spaces, they are often used to store big things. Cars, for example - although the least flattering use for such cultural institutions - are commonly stored in old movie theaters, making them into parking lots.  

Space-eating furniture likewise finds its way into old movie theaters on the regular. Furniture warehouses. 

Department stores, or supermarkets are another common repurposing practice for former movie theaters. 

None of these secondary uses, of course, can match up to the sacred function that the theater was originally built for, but it's worth noting the post-cinema variety of conversions all the same. Not least of all because the Aurora Theater of downtown Chanthaburi has been given a most distinct post-cinema life. 

The street side marquee of the Aurora Theater, now faded, once added a bit of neon glitz to downtown Chanthaburi.

The facade of the Aurora. Elongated ornamental arches add a bit design flare.

When Mr. Prakorb Boonchauyserm bought the Aurora Theater from its original owners back in 2003, its days of screening movies were well behind it. But cinema was never on the agenda of the Bangkok-born gemologist. He had other plans in store for the mammoth former theater from the get go. With Chanthaburi's gem industry having slowed dramatically, Boonchauyserm sought to diversify his cash flow vis-a-vis new migrants to the region. Swifts, the birds famous for producing nests used in the Chinese delicacy Bird's Nest Soup, had recently taken up residence in parts of coastal eastern Thailand. "They flew up from Java and other parts of Indonesia to escape the bad forest fires they had down there in the late 1990's," explained Boonchauyserm.

Noting the cave-like proportions of the defunct Aurora Theater, Boonchauyserm surmised that making some minor modifications to the old building would attract the avian refugees to take up residence. Once a colony had been established, their nests could be harvested and sold to brokers who would supply the ever-growing market in China. 

Boonchauyserm's plan worked, and within a few years he was harvesting the salivary nests for tidy sums. Following his lead, other property owners in Chanthaburi began setting up "bird houses" on the higher portions of their own buildings. 

"Actually, I prefer to call them bird hotels, not bird houses," joked Boonchuayserm. "Because the birds leave a payment for the time they stay."  

Chanthaburi now has one of the highest concentrations of Swift hotels in all of Thailand.

Rooftop perspectives.

Seeking to expand on his success in bird's nest production, Boonchauyserm has most recently invested in processing equipment to turn the delicacy into a tonic. Once his recipe is worked out and government certification granted, he intends to market the bird's nest drink commercially.  

The boxy structure with the square holes in it on the roof of the theater is how the Swifts enter the building.

Prakorb Boonchauyserm with a bag full of cleaned and sanitized swift nests, harvested from the former Aurora Theater.

Aside from a well-established gemological industry and a growing bird's nest industry, Chanthaburi is also going through a bit of a cultural revival. Historic areas along both banks of the river front are quickly being renovated to accommodate new shops, hotels, bars and restaurants. 

Boonchauyserm has been a leader in this sector, as well. Just across from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Thailand's largest Catholic church, he is renovating an old wooden shop house to serve as a cafe, museum, as well as a production facility for his nascent bird's nest drink operation. 

"We're buildings mock caves to help tell the history of bird's nest," Boonchauyserm added. Other diorama-like attractions will also be included. 


With the Boonchauyserm's bird's nest drink pending certification, I inquired as to whether or not he'd sketched up a logo for the product. "Not yet," he admitted. This is the tricky part; creating a brand image that is distinct, but also relevant and tells a story.

Of course, what else would enter my mind but a way to connect the drink with the former movie theater that is its source?

"If I were you," I posited, "I would hire an artist to create a logo that incorporates the arches of the Aurora. It tells a story that is unique to Chanthaburi, to the theater and to your business, all in one. And to top it off, the arches are cool looking ."

Boonchauyserm paused for a moment to ponder my suggestion. Then, with the calm resolve of veteran entrepreneur he annouced "that's a great idea!"

So if you see a new bird's nest drink on the market, with some interpretation of these Brutalism-inspired concrete arches in the logo, you'll know it has a cinematic origin.

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