Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Min Thiha Cinema - Katha, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

In the book Burmese Days, George Orwell's account of colonial life in backwater Burma is set in a little town called Kyauktada, which is a fictionalized Katha. The latter is where Orwell spent a year serving the British empire as a cop, and where he compiled most of the rotten little details that he ultimately knit together into his literary classic. 

Katha is remote as far as Burmese towns go; well off the beaten path at the far eastern edge of Sagaing region. To the north from Mandalay it's either a two day boat trip, an 11 hour train ride or a nauseating drive over an ill-paved road. All to get to a little town which, while not for want of charms, is also a dime a dozen in provincial Burma. But the Orwell connection has pull. It serves as a conduit for the trickle of foreign tourists - mostly literary minded types - who make the arduous journey. They come to soak up the atmosphere that Orwell populated with his jingoists and "natives;" to glimpse the sites he described in such intimately cynical detail. The dusty streets lined with teak wood cottages; the shabby little European Club, where all the bitching and moaning of home-sick colonials was centered; the little Anglican church set up by missionaries; the police station and of course the actual home that Orwell resided in while there. I shared a brutal slog of a ride over a washed out road in the back of pick-up truck from the train station in Naba over the mountains to Katha on the night I arrived with two middle aged English travelers who were inspired to make the trip after reading Emma Larkin's  Finding Orwell in a Burmese Teashop. Theirs was a case of literary tourism to the second power and proof that old George still holds currency all these decades later. 

What the tourists don't come to Katha for - and probably never even take note of while sauntering around the sweet little city - is the old movie theater right in the heart of it. That seems to be the preserve of your humble narrator alone. 

The Min Thiha Cinema - a low-slung arcade fronted building. 

The Min Thiha in streetscape perspective

Katha is a typical upcountry town that it is compact. Easy to navigate on foot at a leisurely pace. After many years of exploring such towns I can practically find the theater with my eyes closed. Setting out on foot, I make my way to the central market. If the theater still exists chances are it can be found within a few blocks of here. Next is to spot an oblong structure with few if any windows. Maybe a cobweb covered ticket window consisting of a pair of holes just large enough for a hand to be put through. Once you've found this building chances are you've found the old theater.  

Typically I make a beeline for the theater the first chance I get. But at Katha I made a detour to the riverfront hoping to get a feel for the town's geography from water's edge on out. At dawn, from a few select angles, the Katha waterfront has an alien - almost Dalian quality to it. The dry season drought exposes much of the Irrawaddy riverbed, leaving the current to shape the sandy bottom into all manner of terraqueous designs. 

View of the Irrawaddy from the Katha banks

After an hour of taking in the riverscape, I set out on an exploratory walk through town, confident that I would bump into the old theater without asking a single person for directions. And so it was. First contact with the Min Thiha Cinema was made - after a few cups of hot tea - at about 9am. 

The Min Thiha is an arcade fronted movie hall. A fairly common architectural style among mid-century Burmese movie theaters. The fa├žade of the building consists of a large portico with a series of arch ways. This elongated type of frontage corresponds to the length of the auditorium, rather than its rear - the more common design among stand-alone movie theaters. It allows for crowds to exit faster and more efficiently thanks to a series of doors at the end of the rows. It does away with any annoying bottlenecks when patrons are leaving the theater.  

Tables set up for noodles and other goodies across from the Min Thiha Cinema

Directly across the street from the Min Thiha Cinema is a little noodle stand with a few wooden tables to sit and eat at. I took a seat at one, ordered myself a bowl of khauk swe thoke, scarfed it down and then merrily pressed the vendors in my piss poor Burmese about adjacent picture house. Apparently my pronunciation in Burmese of a few certain phrases is impeccable. "Does this town have an old cinema? Is that an old movie theater? I love old movie theaters," etc. Beyond that I can say next to nothing. But the exactitude with which I speak these few lines leads people to believe, at first, that I'm fluent in Burmese. The reply I get is typically incomprehensible to me. This time was no exception. 

After a bit of hand signaling and light pleading on my part, a key was produced and the theater doors flung open for me to explore the interior. 

Nothing was left within the Min Thiha. The auditorium floor had been cleared of all seating, much of it having been piled up on the stage in front of the screen. The only noteworthy architectural element was the concrete balustrade at the balcony level. 

All the seating at the Min Thiha has been tossed into a pile on the stage.

I wish I had dug up some juicy morsels about the Min Thiha that would connect it directly to George Orwell. How nice it would have been to learn of some Orwellian folklore regarding the place: 'George Orwell watches a Charlie Chaplin at the Min Thiha.' 'George Orwell breaks up a fight at the Min Thiha.' 'George Orwell apprehends a thief at the Min Thiha.' 'George Orwell defuses a bomb at the Min Thiha.' But no such legends exist. Chiefly because the Min Thiha didn't exist while Orwell, then still known by his birth name Eric Blair, was in town. Orwell, or Blair, lived in Katha from 1926 to 1927. Locals dated the Min Thiha to 1956 or so. 

Whether or not there was a theater in Katha in Orwell's days is open for conjecture. If there was, it's reasonable to assume that he frequented it. It would have made for an ideal distraction from the heat and malaise of everyday life. In the book Burmese Days there is a single mention of "cinemas," but it doesn't confirm whether or not there was one in Kyauktada. Possibly Orwell omitted it from the story as a means of making the place seem less "civilized."

On the same street as the Min Thiha, about fifty meters away, the shell of a much older theater stands, now serving as a motorcycle garage. I wasn't able to get any information at all about that place, but the few shots of it that I have will be the subject of a future post.

The Orwellian connection to Katha didn't amount to many fluent English speakers either. Nobody who could deliver any interesting facts about the Min Thiha. On my last day in town I ran into an inn keeper who was fluent, but by that time I was itching to get on the road. Other theaters in other towns were waiting. 

One of the receptionists at the hotel I stayed at, a native of Katha, did mention that the Min Thiha was soon going to be renovated and returned to a life of movie screenings. Given the trend throughout Burma to renovate old movie halls, this isn't all that surprising. My only hope is that the renovation job honors the original design as much as possible.  

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.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Nay Pyi Daw Revisited - Mandalay, Myanmar

From Mogok in the mountains I journeyed back down to the lowlands and the dusty streets of Mandalay. A solid six hour drive by car, repressing vomit all the way.

If I haven't professed my disappointment at what has become of Mandalay, the storied former capitol of the Kingdom of Burma, let me do so - in brief - now.

Mandalay has been the victim of two waves of destruction in recent times. In the 1980's large portions of the city were devastated by fire, sending countless pieces of vintage architecture up in smoke. Many residents were displaced on account of it. The new structures that have replaced the old are hideous, with almost zero exceptions.

More recently Mandalay has turned into a major transit center for goods coming and going from all directions. While beneficial for the economy, Mandalay authorities seem to be unable (if not uninterested) to check the type of development which the boom has brought. That said, the going development theme across the city is to pull down architectural antiquities in favor of cheap new construction. This shortsightedness on the part of municipal authorities is pretty widespread around the world, but never have I seen it more wholesale than in Mandalay. At least not in the Southeast Asian context. As a result, Mandalay might be the least interesting city in the region from an architecture and design perspective.

If it weren't for the happy fact that Mingalar Cinemas, Myanmar's biggest movie theater operator, painstakingly cares for a few grand old picture palaces, I might completely write the place off.

First on my Mandalay cinema odyssey is the Win Lite. 

Elevated view of the Win Lite Cinema

The Win Lite is the only remaining mid-20th century movie hall in Mandalay. It has managed to avoid both fire and rampant, shoddy development. When I last conducted research in the city in 2010 there was another 1950's era theater - the Ma Soe Yein Cinema - but that was recently demolished, leaving the Win Lite, which dates to 1958, as the oldest surviving movie theater in town.  

From my narrow Yankee perspective the Win Lite Cinema could easily pass for a New Deal-commissioned government building in just about any American city. Its heavy, streamlined modernism exudes authority, much like the similarly fashioned courthouses and post-offices of 1930's America. Strength, reliability, deliberateness. "We will give you your dose of entertainment along with food and gas rations."

A simple but elegant waiting area

The lobby area in this post-independence era movie hall is narrow compared to the spacious auditorium. It's as if - in keeping with its regimented aesthetic - loitering around the lobby area was intentionally discouraged. An in and out affair. Get you entertainment rations and be gone. 

Lower level seating

Mingalar Cinema staff was kind enough to allow me photograph the interior while a film was screening. The Win Lite contains 641 seats in total

Exiting crowds

My afternoon at the Win Lite left me feeling slightly optimistic. A Valentine's Day crowd of mostly young couples packed the house to watch what looked like a well produced Myanmar romance. Capacity crowds like this are the exception rather than the norm, but theater management assured me that a steady stream of regulars keeps the Win Lite well in the black. Encouraging news in this era of movie streaming and "instatainment."

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Kithi Cinema - Mogok, Mandalay Region, Myanmar

There's a bit of magic being performed upon Myanmar's movie theaters these days. A celestial twist of collective fate that has been working its way from town to charm-stuffed town across the country. The magic is that for the past couple of years a good number of theaters have been ushered out of purgatory, and the eventual rubble heap, through the shimmering gates of salvation. That's right, old movie theaters throughout Myanmar are being renovated at a fairly high rate. The lone down side is that for this new generation of theater renovators, the shimmering part is literal. Crimes against architecture are being perpetrated one cheap, shiny piece of vinyl at a time.

Take, for instance, the Kithi Cinema; a classic Tropical Art Deco theater right in the heart of Mogok. The Kithi was contracted at the height of Myanmar's movie theater construction boom, which followed independence from Great Britain in 1947. In the years to follow, Tropical Art Deco came into vogue among the country's builders and architects. As the style proliferated, many of its finest examples found expression in the form of movie theaters, matching these iconic cultural venues with the most lavish architectural trend of the era.

In a shining sign of these current times, however, some of Myanmar's nascent theater renovators seem to have little regard for yesterday's design sensibilities. Case in point, the Tropical Art Deco facade of the Kithi has been completely covered up with uninspired, vinyl paneling. It's a bittersweet outcome for an otherwise positive development. Getting a reactivated original movie hall - with all it's crowd-drawing potential and landmark status right in the center of a historic town - is a good thing. Getting mutilated architecture in the process is bad. The most unfortunate part is that it's completely unnecessary.

The original Tropical Art Deco crest of the facade of the Kithi Cinema peaks out from behind the hideous vinyl paneling 

Beast kills beauty.

From this angle, a corner of an adjacent building is visible in the foreground. Though in dire need of some sprucing up, this is the type of simple, but elegant architecture that much of Mogok - and Myanmar cities in general - is comprised of. The the same type of architecture that has been needlessly obscured in the Kithi Cinema.

When modernizing old movie theaters it's not uncommon for the theater's functional components to be completely replaced. Take seating, for example. Before renovations, the Kithi was making use of its original teakwood seats. While beautiful in their own right, hard wood seats do not sit well (no pun intended) with 21st century audiences. The newly installed cushioned seats, on the other hand, mark a technological upgrade that will make watching movies more comfortable. As will the new and improved sound system and digital projection. With such improvements, a bit of provenance is sacrificed for an enhanced user experience.  But unlike the functional aspects of movie theaters - seats, the screen, audio and projection - the facade is strictly ornamental and should be restored to its original look.

The Kithi's grand auditorium has been completely gutted and modernized. A section of it has been cut away to make room for a second, mini-auditorium, so that the theater can screen two films at the same time. Overhauling a square box auditorium to improve the movie-watching experience is acceptable so long as no rare architectural elements are removed. Obliterating an original facade is unacceptable.

A smaller, secondary auditorium has been cut from the original.

Galaxy Cinemas, the company behind the revival of the Kithi, is attempting to brand itself with a distinct visual identity. All of their theaters feature the same boxy facade of red and silver, whether built from the ground up or from existing movie theaters that they renovate. Ostensibly, their design concept is riding the wave of the current building boom that is making its mark on many parts of the country. As such, the upstart company is attempting to make themselves appear sleek and new.

As important as brand identity is, it's a poor excuse for covering up good architecture. Galaxy could have achieved the same visual branding simply by tidying up the original tropical Art Deco facade. The company logo, moreover, placed in a suitable spot on the old facade, would have served as a fine branding marker, without dishonoring the architecture and the theater's long history. This is a conceptual error that I see being corrected, at great expense, years later all over the west.

Oddly enough, the lobby area, including a pair of beautifully crafted teak stairs, wooden poster cases and wood paneled ticket booths, have been painstaking restored to their original mid-century look. If the same attention had been paid to the facade, this would count as a stellar renovation job.

Restored poster display case and stairs in the lobby if the Kithi Cinema.

Had I arrived in Mogok just a month or so earlier I would have been able to document the Kithi in its original Tropical Art Deco guise. Thanks to the power of the internet, I was able to track down an image of it pre-mutilation courtesy of photographer Jamie Johnstone. Click here to view the photo.

Below is a sample of other Tropical Art Deco movie theaters I've had the good fortune to document throughout Myanmar.

The Yuzana Cinema - Pyin Oo Lwin

The Myoma Cinema - Pyin Oo Lwin

The Aung Tha Pyae Cinema - Yemathin

The Aung Mingala Cinema - Dawei

The Win Cinema - Toungoo

The Aung Theit Thi Cinema - Myaungmya

The Hla Thiri Cinema - Minbu

The Kemarat Cinema - Keng Tung

The Thwin Cinema - Yangon

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Baho Cinema - Mogok, Mandalay Region, Myanmar

The 6 hour car ride from Mandalay to Mogok began at dawn. Soon after passing the city limits we became entangled in a sea of oncoming motorbikes, crawling in from the outskirts to city center. This daily commute of rural labor into the booming markets of Mandalay was further exacerbated by an over turned truck blocking one half of the road a few miles out. Once past the twisted metal, with its cargo of bricks spilled across the cratered bi way (see video below), the pace of things quickened and we cut through dusty, roadside villages en route to the mountains. 


Mogok is a storied place. A mountain top "Ruby Land." The historic source of much of the world's supply of high quality rubies. 

The origins of this spectacular town on the Shan plateau begin centuries ago when what is now Mogok was nothing more than a high altitude hinterland of the Shan princedom Mong Mit. Legend has it that a band of Shan hunters casing the forest for a good kill chanced upon some lovely red stones in the foot hills. The hunting band gathered up said stones and brought them to the Sawbwa of Mong Mit, who later organized mining expeditions to the hills above.

Some time later, the mines of Mogok were bequeathed to the Burmese king at Mandalay, who continued excavations in the name of the crown. To this day, Mogok township is located in Mandalay Region, even though its geographic kinship is with the Shan plateau, not the alluvial plains of the former.

In the age of European imperialism, it was the French who initially had interests in the gem mines of Mogok. But it was only after the British conquered upper Burma in 1886 that its ruby mining industry took on an industrial character. An excavation firm called the British Ruby Mines Ltd. took charge of the mines, as the colonial administration turned what had been a collection of makeshift mining camps into a permanent town.     

Stunningly framed by a string of verdant hills, the Baho Cinema of West Mogok. 

Mogok consists of two unequal (in terms of size and population) halves. East and West Mogok, for lack of better designations. Both halves developed in the vicinity of nearby ruby mines, and both halves were eventually graced with their own movie theaters. 

The theater highlighted in this post, the Baho Cinema of West Mogok, is a real jaw dropper. I would go out on a limb to say that it is very possibly the most strikingly situated movie house on this warming planet. Its monumental scale juxtaposed against a low slung residential neighborhood and tied together by a backdrop of verdant peaks calls to mind an alpine village, cinema substituting for church.    

The neighborhood across from the Baho is built into the side of a steep hill, offering excellent views of the cinema and surrounding landscape. 

The Baho Cinema was built in 1961. It was the first permanent movie theater ever built in West Mogok and the second in the city overall.

It's not clear whether or not the Baho was ever nationalized. During the Ne Win government (1962 - 1988) the vast majority of Myanmar's theaters were brought under state control. But due to its relative inaccessibility (there's no airport and the road is slow and treacherous) and the fact that ethnic armies opposed to the central regime were stationed nearby, Mogok retained a larger degree of autonomy than many other places. 

Whatever the case, the Baho remained in operation until about 2013. It's been dormant ever since. But not for much longer.

Late last year, a permit was obtained from the Ministry of Construction to start renovations. A local entrepreneur has apparently purchased the Baho and plans on restoring it to a fully functioning movie theater. Had I arrived just a few weeks earlier I've have been able to photograph the auditorium with its original wooden seats in place. It was completely gutted during this photo session in mid-January.

Old posters still cover the walls in the main office of the Baho Cinema

The former projectionist of the Baho Cinema demonstrating how films were rewound by hand. 

While the exterior of the Baho Cinema boasts of a svelte modernist design, interior details like the stairs to the balcony seating are elegant works vernacular architecture, utilizing tropical hardwoods.  

Staircase details

Facade close up

Getting the best views of a theatre - or any urban building, for that matter - often involves accessing nearby buildings. In the above photo, the daughter of the shop-house owners posed for a portrait on her rooftop, which offered the best view of the Baho around.    

Some elevated footage of west Mogok and the Baho Cinema.

Mogok is one of those spirited kinds of cities that are few and far between these days. Upland Southeast Asia at its most charming. It deserves a lot more attention than I'm willing and able to give it in this little post. For one, getting there alone requires advanced permission from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, a private tour guide and a private driver, all of which can become quite costly. 

The second theater that I documented in Mogok isn't nearly as visually dramatic. For my next post -if I can dislodge my head from my mundane reality at the moment - I'll spend less time on the theater and go into more detail about Mogok itself.