Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Aung Tha Pyae Cinema - Kamawet Township, Mon State, Myanmar

In the great anachronism that is Myanmar (and I mean that as a compliment), the stand-alone movie theater abides. But barely. As the country gives embrace to the digital age, with its Pandora's box of new movie-watching platforms, the great public culture embodied in the stand-alone movie theater is finding itself cocooned a metamorphic stage. What it will look like in five to ten years is anyone's guess. 

Mon State, it turns out, is one of a few provinces that is a cinema dead zone. All but one of the State's inventory of oldies is in working condition, and that lone operator exists in the most unlikely of places: The glorified village of Kamawet.

For all practical purposes, Kamawet is a village. Even though it's administrative title is Township (the 3rd highest administrative level in the country) it looks and feels diminutive, villagesque, with an arboreal lushness that adds to the atmosphere. Not the kind of place one might expect to find a working movie theater.   


Street level with the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema, one of the most endearing bare bones movie houses you're ever likely to see. 


The Aung Tha Pyae Cinema is the definition of vernacular architecture. If the down home simplicity of its exterior isn't enough to convince you, then just take a peak inside. From the brick patterned flooring, to the threadbare curtains framing a simple cloth screen, right down to the hand-cut wooden seats, every inch of this theater echoes local craftsmanship. Skilled, yes; professionally trained, absolutely not. No chic accents or, or trendy flourishes mark this design. For the patrons of the Aung Tha Pyae, an appetite for the creature comforts required by movie-goers in most industrialized societies has yet to materialize. Could you, with your digital-age savvy, imagine sitting through a feature length film on a wooden plank? I don't think so.


Elevated view shows the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema looking not all that different from most other structures in Kamawet. 


Corridor from the lobby to the main auditorium



Perhaps the oddest form of seating ever found in a movie theater: three planks on one bench foundation, only one row of seating equipped with a backrest. 


The more luxurious balcony seating consists of rows of plastic chairs fastened together with a long wooden board.



The ever rare Myanmar production that's still made on film can play at the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema thanks to its vintage ShinKyo 35 mm projectors.


Before you get any cockamamie ideas of traveling all the way to Kamawet to watch a movie in what is clearly one of worlds most guileless movie theaters, you should know that these days The Aung Tha Pyae only screens a movie once, at most twice, per month. According to the owner, pictured in the photo above, Kamawet is such a small market that most distributors don't even bother bringing reels through.  

That said, it would be a real treat to see this theater up and running on one of those precious movie nights; in this time capsule of a glorified village in deepest Mon State. 


Ticket for the Aung Tha Pyae Cinema



Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema - Ye, Mon State, Myanmar

One of the surest ways to stoke the flames of interest about a place is to make it off-limits. Give it some time and the unknown - hence unverifiable - will invariably give way to rumor, myth or otherwise fantastical ideas about said place. The harder it is to access, the greater the fantasy will arise. 

Take Ye, for instance (pronounced Yay). In 2011, when I was first in the vicinity, overland travel between Dawei and Mon State, where Ye lies, was prohibited. The official reason was that a long running stand-off between the Mon National Liberation Army and the central Myanmar military, commonly known as the Tatmadaw, made travel unsafe. Foreign visitors were barred from entry, leaving the ancient Mon principality to take on mythical status in the minds of the excluded. That allure was further heightened, in my case, by a lone golden affirmation straight from the mouth of a Ye migrant cabbie that I had questioned in Yangon the week before: "Yes," he proclaimed, "there is a cinema in Ye." 

 

The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema. A staple of the Ye townscape since 1974.

The city of Ye and surrounding hinterland opened to tourism in 2013, allowing for all the speculation to be put to rest. There is indeed an old movie theater in town. Two, in fact; amid what is yet another leafy, human scale Myanmar city that anybody with penchant for charming urban forms should make a pilgrimage to. 


A man takes a short cut through the Yan Aung Thiri Cinema, abandoned or about 10 years.

A good number of the movie theaters I came across during my recent Mon State tour are, for lack of a better description, rudimentary structures. That's not to say that they're not well constructed, or made of fine materials. They are. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a theater builder anywhere in the world in this day and age build a theater that has hand crafted teak wood stairs leading to a teak balcony. Or a teak proscenium painted in pastel colors. How about exposed wooden support columns running up the side of the walls? Good luck trying to find anything close to that in a theater built today. But in the realm of decor and what you might call creature comforts, these theaters were simple creations. 

At the most extreme end of simplicity is the packed dirt floor of the Yan Aung Thiri. Structurally, while definitely a feat of craftsmanship, it is devoid of even the most basic ornamentation, or sveltness of design that most people associate with old movie theaters. Its brick nogging exterior surface and exposed wooden structure endow it with an anti-industrialism that echoes the Arts and Crafts movement in the West. That, however, is an unlikely connection for a small town Myanmar movie theater from the early 1970's.


There's some holes in the wall, where tickets were sold to all.


Rays of morning sunlight stream through broken windows at the rear of the auditorium


Cinema ephemera litters the floor beside hand-crafted teak stairs leading to balcony seating.


The most notable ornamentation at The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema is the multicolored proscenium that framed the screen, since removed.

By 1974, when The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema was built, Myanmar, then Burma, was well down "The Burmese Road to Socialism," the political philosophy developed by General Ne Win's military government. The basic principles of this ruling mandate were based on xenophobia and superstition, with the state as the guiding hand of everything. 

The Yan Aung Thiri was a product of that state. So, although it's a fine building in many ways, its simplicity probably has roots in the socialist values purported by the government, if not the fact the country had simply grown too isolated and poor to build anything much more luxurious.


Most of the rows of teak wood seats have been removed.


Discarded movie posters cover the floor of the balcony. 


Street scene in front of The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema. A woman came up to me while I was taking photographs and said she hoped that somebody would come and fix up their movie theater.

The Yan Aung Thiri Cinema is a bona fide landmark, albeit an under the radar one, in a town that for years had been completely off the radar. Like Myanmar in general, the self-sequestering of Ye led to severe stagnation. It also had the effect of freezing the town in time. To see the city now is to step into a past that elsewhere in Southeast Asia people are, more or less, beginning to lament the loss of. Such is the price of progress.

If Myanmar is wise it will take note of such sentiments and put resources towards preserving whatever it can of its prized past, movie theater or otherwise. Economic stagnation may indeed have inadvertently preserved countless cultural treasures. But preservation by neglect only goes so far. And now the far more tenacious adversary of demolition by progress is entering the ring.

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A moment of your time.....

Are you a fan of The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project? Want to see it continue and expand into new towns, cities and countries? If so, you might want to consider making a donation. As the sole proprietor of this project, I'm more often than not funding it on my own. And while I do so with pride and joy, it's difficult to sustain. Your modest contribution will help me reach these old theaters and continue raising awareness of them. Maybe even a few will be preserved along the way. 

Sincerely,
Phil








Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Aung Mingala Cinema Revisted - Dawei, Thanintharyi Region, Myanmar

Another Survey Completed


Round 4 of Myanmar movie theater surveying went off without a hitch and two bouts of food poisoning. The gut problems cut me down ten pounds lighter than when I started, but there's no burnt ankles or any other malady this year to speak of.

My range of research on this trip was relatively narrow, but also dense with findings. Movie theaters old and ancient came into focus, and I acquired a sack full of movie theater memorabilia along the way. Most of it is trash, for sure, but you all know what they about one man's trash.


The little red strip on the above map is Mon State, where I conducted most of my research.


Mon State was my primary research site, supplemented by a few short, precision guided excursions into adjacent States and Regions, including Ayerawaddy, Kayin and Thanintharyi. All were fruitful, even if the pickings get slimmer each year. But for now, lets get things started on the good foot, because that how the journey began.

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The Aung Mingala Cinema


If you've been following this blog long enough to remember my first visit to Dawei back in 2011 then you might recall pictures of a duo of pink movie theaters in a dust strewn backwater. Well the Dawei of 2017 is a bit different from the Dawei of 2011. Dust strewn it still is, though the backwater designation is starting to give way. The most notable change during my six year hiatus is the handful of mid-rise hotels that have been built. At least one other mid-rise tower is currently under construction. 

While the new giants are shockingly out of proportion for the low rise city of around 150,000 inhabitants, they are spaced out enough that the impact is not so dramatic.  

More dramatic is the noticeable increase in foreign tourists. In 2011, Dawei was still well off the beaten track for most of the trickle of foreign tourists that ventured into Myanmar. Six years ago, I remember running into a group of medical doctors on assignment for Doctors Without Borders who were flabbergasted at the sight of another foreigner. Today, the sight of the likes of me wouldn't amount to the bat of an eyelash. 

Most foreign visitors, however, seem to be more interested in intrepid travel to "unspoiled" hinterlands than the town itself. That's fine by me. All the more elbow room for when I'm seeking out the local cinema treasure.

The Aung Mingala in 2011 (left) and 2017 (right). While the new look white paint-job and tacky use of projected lights onto the facade has cheapened the aesthetic, it's the loss of the two palm trees behind the theater which most upsets me. 

Over the past few years a number of willing informants have brought me up to date on the Dawei cinema scene. "The Aung Mingala is now sporting digital projectors and showing 3D films, man" they'd announce. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, "that weird looking one - what is it called, The Mingala Thiri? - that one's gone under." (Kites Tales Myanmar put together a nice photo essay on The Mingala Thiri Cinema in November of last year.) 

Both bits of intelligence are legitimate. The Aung Mingala has indeed gone through an entire overhaul, including the installation of air-conditioning, digital projection and a brand new screen and sound system. Maybe even cushy new seats to replace the classic but uncomfortable wooden ones. I wouldn't know for sure, as they were much more protective of the place now that it's been upgraded. Interior photography was strictly prohibited.  

In the exterior looks department it has lost a a bit of its mid-century Tropical Art Deco provenance, but mostly in the details. By and large it's as I remember it. What changes were made are not irreversible and a few low road improvements are completely acceptable if it means the building will be around for the foreseeable future. 

Moreover, now that digital projectors are in place, the viewing fare can diversify beyond the super-low-production-value Myanmar movies that had been the exclusive viewing fare for decades. A poster for the most recent installment in the Resident Evil dynasty was tacked up in the lobby. Such Hollywood schlockbusters would not have been possible had the circa 1960's carbon arc projectors not been replaced.  


The same manager from 2011 running the show.


Ticket booth 

 All said, it was good to start out this survey with an active theater. Ever more so considering that much of the new investment in Dawei is being spurred on by the pending development of a nearby deep sea port. Once complete, the Dawei Deep Sea Port and accompanying Special Economic Zone is anticipated to be a game changer in regional trade. Roads cutting through western Thailand to Bangkok and all points east and north will theoretically make shipping from the Indian Ocean quicker, bypassing the long established Straights of Malacca route, where Singapore is the main hub. 
   
Aside from a new and improved road from Bangkok to the Thai-Myanmar border, little work on the mega project has occurred thus far. It seems like all parties involved are waiting to see what happens via the broader geopolitical reordering that is seeming more and more inevitable these days. 

For the time being, that's a good thing for old movie theaters like The Aung Mingala. As property values rise, old movie theaters and the large footprints they sit on become prime targets for redevelopment, particularly when speculation is coming from outside investors who have little interest in anything other than reaping maximum profits. 

The fact that The Aung Mingala was recently upgraded further signals that the ownership has confidence in its longevity. 


Long live The Aung Mingala Cinema!


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Donations warmly welcomed....


The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project is a one person show. Although I've had some generous grants over the years, by and large I'm self-funded. That does not mean that I'm independently wealthy, or living off of a cozy trust fund. When I'm not documenting, writing about or giving lectures about movie theaters in Southeast Asia, I'm a laborer in Philadelphia, PA. Part of the savings I generate from my labor goes towards this project, the aim of which is to promote historic movie theaters as preservation worthy sites. After 8 years of doing this work, old movie theaters have started to enter the collective consciousness in some circles within Southeast Asia. That's not completely my doing, of course, but I'm not too proud to accept a bit of credit. 

If you enjoy the photos and essays you find here and want to see it continue, please consider kicking in a couple dollars to help sponsor future surveys. Better yet, buy a photo off of me. Send me an email at sea.theater@hotmail.com and I'll send you a selection of images for sale. 

Thanks for reading,
Phil Jablon


  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Win Cinema - Shwebo, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

One can be excused for not noticing the Win Cinema, as it looks more like a house than a movie theater. The humble neighborhood cinema hall - the last one operating in Shwebo - blends in to its residential block like a lizard on a leaf. None of the telltale features of movie theater architecture, whether the Burmese variety or otherwise, announce its presence. Aside from its name, unassumingly molded onto the peak of the facade, only the large vinyl movie billboard festooned to its front betrays the silver screen that lies beyond. 

Beyond that it basically looks like a home. 


The ever humble and slightly Tudor-esque Win Cinema.


Simple signage on The Win Cinema


A stroll down the side alley to the left of the building, however, reveals its movie theater organs. Here is where the show begins, where the ticket window, concession stands, poster cases and the like usher the movie goer into a world of escape. This demure little chasm has been, since 1963, Shwebo's entrance to the other.   



Smiling faces behind the ticket window



View of the side of The Win


Concessions


Ticket taker at the Win Cinema casually awaits customers while enjoying a cigarette and surfing the web.

Living time capsules like the Win Cinema are fast disappearing from Myanmar's towns and cities. This is no big surprise. In the past few years, Myanmar society has arguably changed faster than it has in any other similar time frame in its history.

In general, the technological and social changes which sweep relics like The Win into the dust bin of history are silent, rendering the loss little noticed. To the average person going about their daily lives focused on work, family, education, etc - the loss doesn't register until well after the fact. Suddenly, somehow, something causes us to think about it, we do the mental math and calculate how and why the thing disappeared. We come to conclusions - "it was nice while it lasted, but things are better the way they are now," or " life would be better if we still had that thing around." Either way the thing becomes an object of history, a morsel of legend to be bequeathed to next of kin and future generations, if it is remembered at all. 


Woven bamboo ceilings, exposed wooden truss beams and teak wood seats are some of the memorable details of The Win Cinema's very homey auditorium. If ever there was a theater that had the coziness of a house, it's The Win.  


Stickers on the backs of chairs.

Whether or not anybody will ever lament the loss of a little neighborhood movie theater that looks more like a house, with a woven bamboo ceiling pierced by exposed wooded trusses, is yet to be seen. In March of 2016 it was still up and running, but how much longer it can remain so is the question. If it were to close down, it's doubtful that many folks in little Shwebo would think too hard about it. Most people might not even notice. In fact, a place like The Win would close simply because the people who were once regulars stopped coming, choosing to watch movies in more immediate formats.

Only in hindsight will the loss be noticed. 


Projectionists manning the carbon-arc two-reel projectors, technology in place since the 1960's.



But for now The Win Cinema carries on, a living relic of a recent past. Maybe as the world changes, the equation will rework itself favorably to The Win, and instead of a destiny of darkness, if will get a second wind and live on.

It's nice to have these places around.


The Win Cinema at night








Sunday, January 1, 2017

New year, new findings, new goodies

Seasons greetings, theaterphiles. I hope you all rang in the new year exactly as you wanted to. Maybe there was one or two of you out there who celebrated the new year with a trip to a stand-alone movie theater. Or maybe not.

2017 is shaping up to be a productive year for The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. I feel I can say that with an ounce of confidence. For one, Thailand is about to get its first full revival of a vintage stand-alone movie theater. If you ask me what that means I would say that the tide is changing for these classic structures after many years of steady attrition. Once this first one is on the record, we should start to see more money invested in old theaters as a means of bringing new life to old town cores. Mark my words! It will take some time, but if I know anything about Thailand, it's that once something is done to success it is quickly adopted elsewhere. Anyhow, more to come on that theater revival in due time.

Second, after many years spent pounding the pavements of Thai cities in search of that elusive movie theater form, I've finally got a book coming out. In fact, text and photos are due to be submitted to my publisher this month, so I had better get cracking. Once I have an exact release date and all the finer details I'll let you know. I can tell you, however, that this book is going to be exclusively on the movie theaters of Thailand. Myanmar, Laos and elsewhere in the region will get their own books later.

Third, later in the year I'm going to be working with a Thai filmmaker on a documentary about this project. The past two weeks were spent gathering preliminary footage, which will be edited into a teaser in the coming weeks. The rest of the filming will take place later in the years. Do stay tuned for that!

But before all else, I'm going to be making another survey of Myanmar's historic movie theaters this upcoming February. Last year's trip yielded some exciting new finds and was capped off by an exhibition at Yangon's pioneering Myanmar Deitta photography gallery.  Above all, however, the trip opened my eyes to the full extent of Myanmar's vintage movie theaters, and that there are still many in seldom seen towns that need to be documented. A few of them are still in operation.

If you want to pitch in and help draw attention to Myanmar's enigmatic cinema halls, here's your chance. To help offset the cost of this trip, I'm selling a couple of photos and a t-shirt.

The two photographs below were both taken during last year's survey. I'm printing a limited run of 25 each at 14x20 inches. Each photo, signed and numbered, is $70 including shipping. Have a look at them below:


The auditorium of Yangon's Thamada Cinema. Without a doubt, Myanmar's grandest and most luxurious active movie there. At 1,024 seats it's also probably the largest. This photo captures the Thamada's essence in an almost science fiction manner.


The Aung Theit Hti Cinema in the city of Myaungmya, Irrawaddy Region. Although closed for the past 20 years, and allegedly inhabited by an enormous cobra, this humble mid-century movie theater makes for an interesting backdrop to a street side tea shop. Every evening people gather in its shadow to chat over cups of hot tea.

To purchase a photo, please send me an email at: sea.theater(at)hotmail.com


The T-shirt is the result of a recent trip to Bangkok's dilapidated Prince Theater. While rummaging through a pile of debris in a corner of the theater, I came across this flyer advertising a Kung Fu movie from 1969. On the flyer was the theater's classic 1960's logo, which I have had printed onto a bunch of T-shirts. Each shirt is $15 or 3 shirts for $38. Free shipping within Thailand. For shipping outside of Thailand there's an additional $10 fee.


Old flyer for the Prince Theatre, complete with vintage logo used on the t-shirts below.



To purchase a t-shirt, please send me an email at: sea.theater(at)hotmail.com

Either way, stay tuned for new posts about old theaters in Thailand and Myanmar. You can also follow my Instagram account at Phil Jablon or The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project Facebook page.