Friday, March 8, 2019

The Young Men's Buddhist Association Cinema Hall - Nyaunglebin, Bago Region, Myanmar

The Young Men's Buddhist Association has a storied history in Myanmar. Founded in 1906 to promote Burmese Buddhist values during the height of British colonial rule, the organization was an early incubator of the anti-colonial movement. It was at the insistence of YMBA members that the "footwear controversy" - a long-running debate between the Burmese Buddhist clergy and British officialdom over the practice of removing ones shoes when entering Buddhist sites (the Brits didn't expose their funky toes) - was pushed into the political sphere. Eventually the offending British were forced to capitulate, marking an important victory - if only symbolic - for the oppressed over the oppressors.

Despite the sectarian ring to its name, the YMBA had no formal connection to the then fractious Buddhist clergy. In practice, its function was much in line with its Western counterparts the YMCA and YMHA - social clubs based on religious affiliation, sans religiosity.  


A simple metal gateway to the right of the YMBA office once marked the way to the YMBA Cinema. The sign now advertises the YMBA football pitch, but in years gone by it was festooned with movie ads. 

The Nyaunglebin branch of the YMBA - founded in 1962 - was the only one in the country to ever have a purpose-built movie theater. The reason for this unusual coupling speaks volumes to the progressive nature of the organization, if not the local founder. 

Unlike other branches of the association, which depended for their survival on outside donations, the founder of the Nyaunglebin branch was intent on it being self-sustaining. This was as much a political sentiment as it was an act of entrepreneurship. His logic was to keep at bay those who sought to gain sociopolitical influence by donating money to a quasi-religious institution - an upstanding statement given the political climate of the times. Post-colonial Burma was a budding democracy. In so being, it was a highly divided and fractious society, in which money could go a long way politically. It was this state of affairs which ultimately and decisively came to an end with General Ne Win's military coup of 1962.

The YMBA Cinema was in essence the answer - at least in Nyaunglebin - to the day's political corruption.


Molded concrete signage is a common feature among on many early to mid-century buildings in Myanmar. The gold paint here adds a little bit of pizzazz. 

The building pictured in the two photos above, however, is not actually the YMBA Cinema. It's the head house of the larger YMBA complex, which includes the former cinema. This handsome building, which fronts onto the busy Old Yangon-Mandalay Highway, contains the office and meeting hall on the 2nd floor, with retail space (another way of raising funds) on the ground level. The cinema is located in an adjacent building just behind the office.


The logo for the YMBA symbolically situated above its founders on the office wall.


The YMBA Cinema was accessed by a long corridor on the side of head house. The cinema is now closed, but has since been transformed into a football pitch. 

Some ten years ago, the Nyaunglebin YMBA closed down the movie theater. Dwindling attendance was the main culprit. Keeping true to the YMBA community spirit, the large hall was converted into a football pitch, complete with AstroTurf. That's how I found it this past January. 


Teak wood theater seats, left overs from the days of cinema, are piled up at the far end of the hall.



From film to football - or soccer, for my American readers. This view depicts holes for the projectors flanked by balcony level seating.


Looking towards where the screen used to be.



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