Saturday, December 17, 2016

A second chance for Hong Kong's State Theatre

It was just about a year ago that I first learned about the plight of the State. Word came in the form of a long, impassioned email from Haider Kikabhoy, co-founder of Walk in Hong Kong, a tour group based in that city. With detailed enthusiasm the author lamented the dire predicament of "the last grand post-war theater building still standing in Hong Kong," as a deep-pocketed property developer made moves to replace it with a generic commercial tower. A story I've come to know all too well.

Hong Kong's State Theatre. A lone low-rise vestige in a forest of concrete giants.

Haider had reached out in the name of some kindred-spirit publicity for The State Theatre. One movie theater-phile's appeal to another to sound the proverbial alarm. At stake was Hong Kong's last brick and mortar link to its legendary cinema heritage.

While I never did get around to writing that post, (until now, that is) I tried my best to impart a few strategic advocacy tactics that I thought might win his cause some support.

His cause, I should mention, is actually Hong Kong's cause. Aside from Haider's deft ability to link The State Theatre with a sustainable future for that great city-state, there's very little direct connection to the building that he and his advocacy team at Walk in Hong Kong have been trying to save. At least no more than the rest of Hong Kong's seven-plus million residents. Therein lies his logic.

While Hong Kong grows richer and more cosmopolitan by the year, its local identity and human scale often gets squeezed out. Countless historic structures and the communities that made use of them have been mowed down to keep up with the ever expanding property market. It's the ultimate Catch 22 facing successful cities in the globalization era. The more desirable a city becomes - the more sophisticated - the more difficult it becomes to maintain those qualities that made it so appealing to begin with. All the more so when the city in question is the the economic masthead of a thriving region.

The parabolic trusses suspending the State Theatre's roof. This unique feature was one of the architectural highlights used to argue the case for why the State needs to be preserved.

Armed with little more than an acute sense of Hong Kong's history and a team of committed activists, Walk in Hong Kong set out to preserve a mid-century masterpiece. Ever the pragmatists, Haider and his cohorts knew from the start that the likelihood of getting the State recognized as a historic asset by the Antiques Advisory Board, Hong Kong's governing body tasked with evaluating architectural heritage, was probably not going to happen. After all, the developer honing in on the State had more or less bought out all the surrounding properties, thus had the advantage of forward momentum. What's more, aside from the most keen of observers, very few people in Hong Kong even knew, let alone cared, about the State's humdrum existence. Out of business since 1997, it's most recent incarnation as a snooker hall didn't attract much attention.

Haider and company were undeterred. Over the coming months they would craft an advocacy campaign that struck deep. The State's signature exposed parabolic roof structure became the formal logo for the campaign, a design feature which, once seen, is hard to forget. A half dozen or so short videos were produced to highlight the cultural and architectural merit of this once-grand building, each narrated by a notable Hong Kong personality.  They lobbied the Antiques Advisory Board, arguing their case with pin-point precision, while continuing to do strategic outreach with both local and international media. It took a a Herculean effort, but over time they managed to build an undeniable case as to the value of the State Theatre, turning an essentially forgotten building slated for the wrecking ball into a bona fide monument.

On Thursday, December the 8th, the Antiques Advisory Board designated the State Theatre a Grade 1 historic structure, ensuring that any attempts to demolish the building would face steep scrutiny. This marks a major victory in favor of reason, and proof that hard work and strategic advocacy can indeed make preservation the logical choice over business as usual.

Vintage night shot of the State Theatre when it was at the peek of its operation

But the work is not done for Haider and Walk in Hong Kong:

"The Save our State campaign is working on a couple of conservation proposals that will balance the interests of any future developer of the site with the exemplary heritage of The State Theatre. At the same time, we will continue to collect and celebrate people's memories of the theatre. Besides the distinctive architectural style of the urban landmark, the stories of people who have used and enjoyed The State Theatre is what makes the building great"

Bangkok, Thailand, do take note. Your Scala is on the line.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The King Cinema - Shwebo, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

"There has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins."
 - J.B. Jackson, Historian of Vernacular Architecture.

The definition of a "ruin" referred to in the above quote may not be applicable in the case of Shwebo's King Cinema. Ruinous aspects certainly do apply, but most of those are in appearance only. While no longer an operational movie theater, the building is still very much alive. 

 "King Cinema," written in English, molded onto the back side of the theater.

The front of the King Cinema, with its colonnaded veranda.

The King's worn down look combined with architectural aesthetics that have long been relegated to antiquity do suggest a ruin. Case in point, the entrance area. As with many older cinemas in Myanmar, entrance to the auditorium is accessed through a series of wooden doors situated along the length of the theater. In the case of the King, those doors are set back behind a colonnade, giving the structure an almost regal look, reflective of its name, perhaps. 

So while not exactly a ruin in the traditional sense, The King Cinema's neglected vintage makes it a vessel for what J.B. Jackson would call "religiously and artistically essential." Fascinating, to put it simply. 

The area behind the colonnade is now used as a staging ground for sacks of dried beans. 

For the past 15 years or so, The King Cinema has been serving as a warehouse for a nut and bean distributor. Sacks of legumes awaiting export occupy space that once held rows of benches and beholden cinema goers.

Some interesting architectural details include exposed truss beams and tree trunks for wall supports. 

Old wooden chairs of the King Cinema, piled up high to make space for storage.

A man working in for the nut and bean dealer shows off some the goods. 

Workers empty sacks of raw beans into a huge pile on a tarp. Once the pile is big enough the tarp will be tied off and put into a container for shipping.

Tree trunk wall supports and other stuff.

The King Cinema was built in 1951.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Art and community meet at the cinema

The ravages of time have been gentle to Songkhla City. The centuries old seaport has largely been spared the mass reconfiguration of its built environment that have done so much to strip the charm out of countless Thai urban areas. Road widening, demolition of historic buildings and the accompanying paving over of history have only slightly altered the fabric of Songkhla. 

That's the good part. 

The less than good part - but by no means bad - is that the town has suffered the gradual effects of disinvestment. As economic opportunities moved to Songkhla's much larger sister city Had Yai and further afield, so departed much of the town's youthful vitality. Buildings that once housed thriving businesses and workshops were shuttered, while others lingered on thanks to the help of capital accumulated during more prosperous times. The city slowed down, but it didn't die. Not enough to cause it to crumble.

The Saha Cinema - built in 1930.

Of all the pieces of vintage architecture that make up the streets of old town Songkhla, there's perhaps none more interesting than the long dormant Saha Cinema - at least from a social stand-point. To the average passerby, the structure would hardly register as a movie theater. Its lack of architectural elements common to the structural type, combined with the fact that it is mostly made of wood (a material hardly common for the building type) places it under the radar of all but the most discerning observers. But to long-time residents, the Saha Cinema is a well known, if not legendary piece of the town's recent past.

That sentiment didn't elude world renown artist Navin Rawanchaikul. In recent years, the Chiang Mai native has turned his focus to using art as a way to create community dialogue, particularly those with a long past and deep heritage. Songkhla fits nicely with that criteria.   

After visiting Songkhla earlier this year at the invitation of a friend, Navin took note of the beautiful if understated townscape snugly situated along a narrow peninsula between The Gulf of Thailand and Songkhla Lake. The town's historic value was instantaneously clear to him.  

Having grown up in Chiang Mai, beside what was once that city's largest movie theater, Navin's artistic style was deeply influenced by cinema art. As a matter of necessity,  he took in the work of the theater's in-house billboard painter en route to school on a near daily basis. The larger than life movie cut-outs created to advertise films were forever etched in his mind, and would find utility in the decades to follow. 

The Saha Cinema covered in Navin's mural installation, dedicated to Songkhla and its denizens. 

Making use of those artistic machinations by employing some of Chiang Mai's former movie billboard painters, Navin sketched out a plan to reinvigorate Songkhla with art. Actually, it's a little more complex than that, but in a nutshell that's exactly what happened.

The logic behind this project was to weave the town's social history together into a billboard sized visual narrative that could be hoisted up onto the town's erstwhile central gathering point - The Saha Cinema. New color to an old building, reflecting the town's various personalities in a painting style once reserved for the movies.

In true anthropological form, Navin and his team collected oral histories and photographs from Songkhla's residents, using the two to cobble together a multi-paneled billboard depicting local people and locations. For the old cinema, the result was night and day. Instead of the usual indistinct look brought on by years of neglect, The Saha Cinema had regained some of its old flair. 

As for the town itself, the feeling of renewed pride and regeneration is afoot. With the aid of Navin's project, perhaps all the more so. 

Navin Rawanchaikul (wearing sunglasses, standing to the right of the framed picture) and members of the Songkhla community, post in front of Navin's Songkhla townscape collage on the last day of his exhibition. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Sensational Signage of Siamese Cinemas

Don't bother trying to say the alliterative headline of this post 5 times fast. Trust me, it's a waste of time. I spent a solid two minutes doing just that and I'm not any better for it. 

But do feast your eyes on this second post to focus exclusively on Thai movie theater signage. Much like the previous installment, there are many delights to be found in this single facet of Thai movie theater architecture from yesteryear. More often than not, the huge cut-out letters were placed at the edge of the roof, boldly announcing the theater's name.

Architects of movie theaters in Thailand throughout much of the 20th century had a thing for dimensional signage. Part of that proclivity came from the fact that theater builders around the country were examining each others work for cues and inspiration. Since dimensional signage was in trend, it's what took root in the builder's psyche, hence proliferating throughout the relatively closed circuit that was Thai movie theater architecture. That's how evolution works.

Any review of mid-century commercial architecture in Thailand will reveal that dimensional signage was very much in vogue in general. But nowhere was it employed with more consistency then on movie theaters. 

Have a look at the proof below.

The Mahachai Rama - Mahachai, Samut Sakhon

The Bang Khae Rama - Bangkok

The Sirichai Theater - Chayaphum

The Khem Sawat Cinema - Fang, Chiang Mai

The Athit Rama - Tha Maka, Kanchanaburi

The Maharat Theater - Krabi

The Kosit Theater - Ban Pong, Ratchaburi

The Burapha Theater - Ban Chang, Rayong

The Khampaheng Saen Rama - Khamphaeng Saen, Nakorn Pathom

The Prince Theater - Bangkok

The Tang Sia Huad Rama - Nakorn Pathom

The Trisuk Theater - Khamphaeng Saen, Nakorn Pathom

The Sermsuk Theater - Kumphawaphi, Udon Thani

The Charoen Pon Rama - Pathumthani

The Aurora Theater - Chanthaburi

The Pak Nam Rama - Pak Nam, Samut Prakarn

The Kitti Rama - Chachoengsao

The Sra Kaew Rama - Sra Kaew

The Siri Phanom Rama - Phanom Sarakam, Chachoengsao

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Chalerm Sin Theater, chopped

Never mind that it wound down its cinematic life as a double-feature theater that was, by all accounts, a deviants' paradise, demolition of the Chalerm Sin Theater marks yet another loss to Bangkok's dwindling stock of stand-alone movie theaters. While it's no surprise that this one in particular is currently getting smashed out (it wasn't much of a looker to begin with), it is a shame to see nearly the entire inventory of this structural type and the culture it embodied getting collectively tossed into the trash dump of existence.

For the past few months, a wrecking crew has been painstakingly dismantling the 60 year old cinema building. A condo is slated to rise in its place.

The Chalerm Sin Theater from 2009. Its days as a movie theater were long over, but the building was in decent shape, having just been converted into a badminton hall. 

Gap toothed signage atop the Chalerm Sin Theater, with its missing letter 

The three images below were taken this morning, October 19th, 2016.

They taketh away.

Looking from where the screen would be, with the balcony in the distance.

Demolition man surveys his work. Decades ago, this same guy was a regular at The Chalerm Sin for movies.

Again, it's neither surprising nor much of a loss to Bangkok that The Chalerm Sin is being wrecked. While it certainly holds dear memories for the many who experienced it over the years, it was not a particularly important structure - cinema or otherwise - in the grand scheme of things. Its loss should, however, serve as a reminder that there are only a few of this type of building left in the city, most of which have great architectural and/or cultural worth. 

It's time for Bangkokians to start thinking very deeply about what kind of city they want Bangkok to be.   

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Sein Aung Win Cinema - Kyaukme, Shan State, Myanmar

If one were to take inventory of the many colorful towns in Myanmar and rank them in order of their physical character, Kyaukme would sit very near the top. This large town is one of those uncommon places that is worth visiting for no other reason than the place itself. All of its varied parts intermingle like clockwork, with no one aspect any more or less outstanding than the next. 

Despite the overall lack of any specific site or destination, everything in Kyaukme compliments everything else. There is no single anomaly of siting or design that throws off the balance. Even the newer buildings seem to have been built in consideration of those that were erected a century before. Suburban sprawl, chief denigrator of all urbanism, does not exist.

A street lined with shop-houses just a few blocks from the train station.

At the center of Kyaukme is the old market, a low slung wooden structure taking up an entire square block. From this commercial core the town pushes out into a high density grid. The buildings, while diverse in age and style, have a uniformity of scale that runs through the whole town. Everything seems accessible. Everything very human. The scale of its streets in relation to the size of its buildings; its steady commercial buzz and busy street-life, sans the gridlock and pollution induced by cars. 

Kyaukme owes at least part of its past prosperity to being on the train line, the primary economic lifeline in centuries passed. But where most Southeast Asian towns that were built up along a train line have outgrown their original confines, in Kyaukme they seem to have changed very little. Add to this thriving human scale environment the flourishes of antique architecture in good condition and you have a living piece of history. A very special place, to say the least.

The U San Baw Building, one of several ornate old department stores in the center of town

A nice old building near the train station.

As in much of Myanmar, the well preserved structures of Kyaukme were not necessarily preserved out of intention. Years of economic isolation has meant that the financing needed to replace old buildings with new was often absent. 

Kyaukme, like a number of other cities in Myanmar's ethnic states, has the added obstacle of war in the surrounding rural areas to further stifle investment, freezing the townscape in an unintentional time warp.  

While war and disinvestment make for an ugly combination, the effect of the two on Kyaukme's physicality - aesthetic, functional, what have you - has been a boon, ensuring a well preserved stock of buildings and the accompanying culture that makes use of them.

Old department store

One of Kyaukme's many understated structures



View from the steps of the temple on the hill.

What would a well preserved Southeast Asian town be without a cinema to document? The silly but true answer is it wouldn't be one that you'd hear about on this blog. We like to stick to our proverbial guns here at The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. Fortunately, Kyaukme still has The Sein Aung Win Cinema, the existence of which gives me a bit of licence to boast about the town in general.

Elevated view of The Sein Aung Win Cinema in downtown Kyaukme.

With a synoptic description of the larger town in mind, it should come as no surprise that Kyaukme's lone theater is too a bit of honey for the eyes. But that's true of most of the theaters in Myanmar. The unfortunate thing is that said theater, The Sein Aung Win Cinema, is no longer a contributing to Kyaukme's steady din of vitality, having been mothballed since 2012.  

Multicolored louvre windows highlight the central tower of The Sein Aung Win. A golden star with a red outline sits at the top.

Sein Aung Win means "Victorious Diamond"

Perforated, decorative blocks comprise the central strips in the theater's cornice

Ticket windows

A poster case behind the concession stand decorated to resemble a diamond.

The Sein Aung Win Cinema was built in 1957, at the height of Myanamr's movie theater construction boom, which dated roughly from 1947 to 1962. Politically, the period corresponds to the brief window between independence from British rule and the ascension of General Ne Win's military dictatorship. That short democratic interlude saw an explosion in the arts in Myanmar, then Burma, as post-World War 2 rebuilding kick-started the economy.  

In the realm of design, The Sein Aung Win is a bit of a puzzle. Not the typical Art Deco or Art Modern that characterized a large portion of Burmese cinema architecture of the era. While I'm no architecture expert, I'm also no rookie, but this has got me scratching me head. I can only conclude that this is some sort of composite.  

Pilasters and weeds

The date of completion, 1957, is molded onto the side cornice, now obscured from view by a newer structure. The only way I was able to find it was thanks to a tenant in the neighboring building who led me up to a second floor balcony so I could take this picture.

From its heyday in the late 1950's to its closure 4 years ago, The Sein Aung Win Cinema saw a gradual loss of viewership until running it proved too much for 75 year old U Kyaw Aung, owner of the theater. The Kyaukme native picked up the reins from his father, who opened it 59 years ago. 

When asked what he thought the future of the theater would be, U Kyaw Aung was not very hopeful, expressing doubt that it could ever be made operational again.

"I'm too old, anyway," he said. "There needs to be a younger generation to do the work." 

For the time being The Sein Aung Win stands in a lull. Mothballed, presumably, until some investor makes a move on it. Hopefully that move will be in line with Kyaukme's immaculately well preserved character. A rare example of a Southeast Asian town that has managed to avoid, whether intentionally or not, the trappings of progress and the piecemeal destruction of history which it so often brings.