Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The San Thit U Cinema - Myanaung, Irrawaddy Region, Myanmad

It's hard to believe that just three short months ago I was lugging my camera around Myanmar looking for old theaters to shoot. If you'd have told me then that in a few weeks time the world would be in the midst of a pandemic induced lockdown, I'd have politely dismissed you as another peddler in conspiracy theories.  But lo and behold, here we are.

Three months ago I was happily ensconced in the time machine that is small town Myanmar. The town of Myanaung to be exact, in the northwestern corner of Irrawaddy region. As the crow flies, Myanaung looks like it's a short trip by road from Yangon. But due to its position on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River, with scarcely a spanning bridge for hundreds of miles, getting to Myanaung takes forever.

This relative remoteness is a bit of a blessing. While trade with Myanaung is facilitated by both road and river, it's far enough from any major highway routes to be commercially protected from the scourge of slowly growing highway retail. A dense and lively urban core thrives as a result. Only the richest families own private cars, so there's little need for car oriented infrastructure on a mass scale. Everyone else makes due with bicycles and motorbikes.  


Myanaung still does most of its trade by river boat. Goods are carried up the riverbank by laborers. The central market lies just beyond. 


Myanaung's central market (above) 
and the ornate shops and godowns that surround it (below)




The pace of life in Myanaung is busy, but not overwhelmingly so. Foot traffic reaches its peak where commerce is most brisk; at the old central market. This bilevel wooden structure would be the architectural showpiece in almost any other town of this scale, but in Myanaung it's out done and out classed by the stunning array of shops and godowns that surround it. For whatever mysterious reason the facades of these buildings are being meticulously restored. 

Myanaung's commercial core abuts the Irrawaddy waterfront, conduit for much of the town's trade. Cargo is carried from mostly small vessels up the steep riverbank by longshoremen, where it's then parceled out to various warehouses and market stalls. The labor at Myanaung's port is done by teams of men and women as opposed to cranes and container systems. Technology is on the march across Myanmar, but old ways still persist in most places. Myanaung is no exception.    

Two quick blocks from the central market stands yet another architectural charm. The local movie theater, of course. 


Morning gatherers at the San Thi U Cinema

Over the years, three different movie theaters have stood in Myanaung. The two older of the three, both constructed of wood, were pulled down long ago. Remaining is the 60-plus year old San Thi U Cinema. Myanaung's first and only brick and concrete movie hall. 

The San Thi U is a rock of a building. It's head house walls are a solid foot thick. The front portico lightens the load, visually, with its slim-ish collumns and proportionately thin roof, but everything behind that looks like it was carved out of a granite cliff.  I didn't get to meet the owner, but it's pretty obvious that whoever built it intended for it to project an aura of strength. Either that or bricks were still dirt cheap in those days. Maybe both.  


A noodle vendor set up along the side of the theater structure feeds hungry laborers on their way to work.


San Thi U Cinema signage


Posters abandoned in poster cases and on bulletin boards in the lobby. The San Thi U stopped showing films about 10 years ago.


The teak wood seats of the San Thi U piled up in a field on the grounds of a local temple. Probably to be used as firewood. 

Word among the locals was that the San Thi U stopped screening films about 10 or 12 years back. Today it's used to store construction material like rebar, but it seems like it may have been sitting dormant for a while prior. 

All the wooden bench seats were recently removed, donated to a nearby temple where they sit in a tangled pile in a patch of open ground. 


Given the vibrancy of Myanaung as the commercial epicenter of west-upper Irrawaddy region - not to mention the already a strong movement to restore and beautify old buildings in town - the San Thi U Cinema seems prime for a revival. Years ago, just about every town on the west bank of the Irrawaddy in this part of the country could lay claim to its own cinema. Now the nearest one is in Hinthada, which is a few hours away by road. I'd imagine that the denizens of all the little smallvilles between there and Kyangin would flock to Myanaung for a movie and a rip-roaring good time in the "big city" if the San Thi U were to reopen. 

Guess we'll see how things pan out after the pandemic.

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