Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Tung Savang VDO - Luang Namtha, Laos

Most of the inhabitants of Luang Namtha are Sino-Tibetan speaking peoples such as the Hmong, Akka, Lisu, Haw Chinese, as well as a sizable Tai Lue population. For centuries, these bucolic highlands have been perched well above much of mainland Southeast Asia; remote, relatively independent and very rural. It wasn't incorporated into Laos until the French consolidated the colonial territory of Indochina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Being so remote and insular as it was for many years, you can imagine what an impact the coming of film had on the local population. Enter the Tung Savang VDO Theater.

The Tung Savang VDO was built in the early 1980's, replacing an older wooden theater dating from some time during the French colonial period. Like all theaters in Laos, after the Communist Party came to power in 1975 the Tung Savang VDO was partially nationalized under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture.

Painted signage atop the Tung Savang VDO Theater.

The Tung Savang VDO was truly an entertainment bastion in this extremely remote part of Laos...

...so much so that the ticket window had to be remodeled to protect the ticket person from the onslaught of movie-crazed crowds hoping to get seats. A builder doing some renovation work on the Tung Savang VDO recalled that as a kid movie-goers were so ecstatic to buy tickets that the ticket window would be bombarded with people throwing money, willy-nilly, in the face of the ticket seller. To create some order, two little holes, just big enough for one hand at a time to pass through were punched in the wall.

Wooden bench seats: row S.

The Tung Savang VDO is being renovated and turned into an activities center for the town of Luang Namtha. The wooden poles running down the middle are to help reinforce the old ceiling. They were not there originally.

In the above photo, contractors are recalling the life and death of the Tung Savang VDO from its foyer. How it came to be called VDO is not clear, as it showed film movies while it was operating, not video. The original building was wood, so I imagine when it was rebuilt from brick and concrete in the early 1980's it got the name VDO to keep with the most current theme.

Tung Savang was likely the family name of the original owner, but the theater now belongs to the Lao Ministry of Culture.

The Tung Savang VDO Theater has been closed since 1996, shortly after Laos began allowing slightly freer trade and the importing of TV's.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Sri Meuang Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

I didn't get any info on this one, except that it shows porn these days. It's in an old building called the Seng Heng Li Building, right across the street from the Yaowarat Ching Hua in Chinatown. Must be an interesting place, architecturally.

Michael Jackson

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Yaowarat Ching Hua Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Chinatown in Bangkok: where many of Thailand's most prominent business families got their start. From meager origins as laborers and petty traders in the early years of the 20th century, Chinese immigrant families based in this neighborhood built empires. They also built movie theaters - about 7 of them. One of the first was the Yaowarat Ching Hua Theater.

A life long resident of Chinatown (Yaowarat in Thai) told me that the Yaowarat Ching Hua Theater opened over 70 years ago and was financed by an elder sibling of the then King Prajodhipok. It originally functioned as a Peking Opera theater (Gniw), but switched over to showing movies as the medium increased in popularlity.

An old marquee is all the remaining evidence visible from the street.

Ticket booth inside the front portion of the structure, off the street. There were two ticket booths, the other directly across from this one.

The theater has two sections. The first fronts onto busy Charoen Krung Road and contained the ticket booths within a long corridor leading to the auditorium. On both sides of the entrance to the auditorium, steps ascend upwards, giving access to the balcony and projection booth in the rear portion of the building, some office space in the front and little dwelling units around the perimeter.

The stairs going away from the picture leads to private residences, while the ones coming in lead to the balcony, projection booth and office space. This picture was taken from between the front portion of the building and the auditorium.

Several movie scenes where filmed in these narrow corridors, including a scene from the 1996 hit Sunset at Chaophraya, starring Thongchai McIntyre.

Remains of the projection room.

Looking towards what once was the auditorium. It's now a parking lot.

The auditorium. Notice the curved cross beams which once must have supported a curved ceiling.

Rear of the auditorium

This is Mr. Paitung Cherngphitak, a life long resident of Chinatown and my source of information on the Yaowarat Ching Hua Theater. He runs a noodle stand inside the front corridor. Not to contradict Paitung, but I question whether he's correct about the theater being funded by a member of the royal family. At that time the royals and Chinese community were at odds with each other. Growing Thai nationalism, spearheaded by members of the royal family and other indigenous elites, regarded the Chinese community as an alien threat to the country, and potential usurpers of the throne. It would seem incongruous for a royal family member to build a Peking Opera theater in the middle of the biggest Chinese immigrant community in the country. But then again, maybe it was gift of appeasement. Thai politics has always seemed convoluted to me.

The Yaowarat Ching Hua Theater continued showing films through most of the 1990's, before it was converted into a parking garage.

The Chiang Khong Rama Theater - Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Countless pedestrians have strolled past this building, oblivious to the fact that for a long time it was the only venue in Chiang Khong for locals to spend their leisure time. Yes, from 1962 until about 1990 the Chiang Khong Rama was this sleepy Mekong town's portal into another world.

A minutia of evidence: Coming soon!

Before the joys of cinema were given a permanent home at the Chiang Khong Rama, Chiang Khong's denizens had a Likay hall (Likay is a kind of Thai theatrical performance) which occasionally screened films. Nothing more. In 1962, the father-in-law of Dongsawang Intrapornudom, pictured below with his wife Jae, figured that Chiang Khong was ripe for a movie theater of its own - thus was born the Chiang Khong Rama.

Lets have a look inside!

View from balcony, overlooking the mezzanine and where the screen used to be. The Chiang Khong Rama Theater is now a warehouse, storing products that Dongsawang sends across the Mekong to Laos.

Wooden pillar holding up the balcony.

Jae standing on the balcony. The photo is looking towards the projection and sound windows at the rear. Notice the ceiling fans above.

Old wooden seats.

The projection/sound room. The square window next to the door was where the projector worked its magic.

Poster for Sydney Pollack's 1975 clasic 3 Days of the Condor. In Thai it translates to "3 Dangerous Days."

Side view of the Chiang Khong Rama Theater, with the Intrapornudom's house and garden beside it.

This photo was taken at the Intrapornudom's house. Jae is holding a poster of Mitr Chaibancha, the top male actor in Thai film from the late 1950's until he died on the set of a movie, Insee Thong, in 1970. He was killed when he fell from a rope ladder, dangling from a helicopter. The poster, which was hung outside of the theater for a year after Mitr passed, reads:

With deepest regret for the loss of Mitr Chaibancha

Chiang Khong Rama Theater and Mitrasilp Photo Studio
Mitr's death is considered the saddest day in the history of the Thai film indstry.
Dongsawang was in his early 20's when his father-in-law built the Chiang Khong Rama Theater. After his father-in-law passed away, Donsawang became the sole proprietor, operating the theater until TV and video became widespread in Chiang Khong and the crowds stopped coming. In the 45 minutes we spent together he was able to recount a multitude of stories from his days as movie theater boss. He recalled that Laotians from across the river would cross over on the weekends to come to the movies and that at times, he would hold illegal, after-hours pornography viewings for the good old boys in town, just to name a few. Those days, however, are quickly fading memories.

In the last decade or so, Chiang Khong has found new economic life trading with a more market-oriented Laos. For a small town it has developed a decent sized tourist industry thanks to the immigration check-point that's there, as well. But to their great disadvantage, the people of Chiang Khong no longer have the Chiang Khong Rama Theater to rely on for a bit of escapism.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Laotian Excursion Redux

The end is near! That is, the end of my travels and travails in northern Laos. All said and done, the movie theater findings have been sparse, just like the population in these here mountain towns, but no less culturally rewarding. I suppose the ubiquitous communist slogans have fulfilled their purpose.

On the 24th my plane departs from Luang Prabang. A rain-soaked Chiang Mai awaits, as does my PC and all my new pictures. It'll be nice to unwind in the comfort of my own home, post some photos, write some crap. But wait... a phone call just came in from Rangoon! What's that, they say? They need their cinemas in Keng Tung photographed!? An invitation!? Leaving on the 26th!? SHAN STATE!? I'm on it!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Laotian Excusion Update no. 4

Comrades! So the purported "mild case of Dengue Fever" that I mentioned last post turned out to be just a regular old fever which I purged myself of the medieval way - by sweating a lot. Since my triumph over disease, I've been to a few remote Laotian mountain towns and come across some great old movie theaters. In the town of Oudomxay, to name one, there's a theater that was built as a gift of friendship by one of Laos' communist brother nations - a slowly rotting testament to 1980's, Soviet-style, functionalist design in cinema form. A new personal favorite!

For the next few days I'll be in Luang Prabang, where rumor has it that two old theaters are masquerading as trendy boutique hotels.

It's still going to be at least another week before I'm back at the home base and new photos go up. So sit tight, dearest faithful, more of Southeast Asia's dead and dying movie theaters are coming your way soon!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Laotian Excursion 3

Dearest theater voyeurs, cinemaphiles, history buffs and casual readers. For the last 24 hours I've been battling a mild case of what I believe is Dengue Fever to bring you the most remote in Southeast Asian movie theaters. I'm in the tiny Laotian trading outpost of Luang Namtha. Low and behold I have found the province's one and only ever movie theater. You folks are in for a real treat once I return to the lowlands.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Laotian Excursion Update

Ladies and gentlemen, I'm in the sleepy river town of Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai province, awaiting a ferry across the Mekong to Laos. Just down the road from my guest house stands a classic old wooden and tin movie theater, dormant and decaying. I met with the owner this morning and he agreed to give me the grand tour this afternoon. The excitement grows with every passing minute!

Stay tuned!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Laotian Excursion

Expect a short delay in new posts, as I'm off to Laos. My last time there I scoured the southern towns and cities for the ghosts of cinema's past, ending up with a small collection of gems. This time I'll be in the north. With any luck I'll beat the demolition crew.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Phaholyothin Rama Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The sign in the middle of the above photo advertises the Phahol Theater. Take note of the skyscrapers that flank both sides of Phaholyothin Road in the background of this photo. Sooner or later the northward spread of redevelopment will lead to the demolition of most structures in the aging Saphan Kwai neighborhood pictured in the foreground. The Phahol Theater will likely be included.

Interesting to note, the sign in the top two photos says Phahol Theater, while the sign in the bottom two says Phaholyothin Ram. There must have been a name change at some point.

The Phaholtothin Theater is in a commercial plaza just off of Phaholyothin Road. Two streetside signs standing above the two alley ways leading to it (above 4 photos) serve as gateways to an antique cinema wonderland.

With its architectural details barely altered since its completion in the early 1950's, the Phaholyothin Rama Theater is a true Bangkok classic. It once competed with its erstwhile cross-street rival the Mongkol Rama Theater for the area's movie-goers. The Phaholyothin Rama specialized in films from the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio.

Lobby circa the 1950's.

Old clock behind the ticket booth.

Ornate poster cases

My girlfriend and I visited the Phaholyothin Rama Theater on a crystal clear Saturday afternoon. I dropped 100 baht on two tickets from a snickering ticket lady and walked towards the front entrance. As we approached, two middle aged women stopped us in our tracks.

"You guys might want to go across the street to the Mongkol Rama," suggested one of them. "The tickets are the same price as here. We'll give you a full refund if you do."

My girlfriend, ever sweet and inquisitive, raised her eyebrows and asked "what's wrong with watching a movie here?" Pornography, I figured. After all, the were no movies advertised, only a sign reading 4 shows daily.

"Well," said the woman, "I don't think a girl like you is going to enjoy it in here too much." She smiled and nodded towards me. "Your boyfriend might like it, though. But please, don't take my advice! Do as you like!"

With this hint of things to come in mind we moved towards the entrance, the ticket taker solemnly avoiding eye contact as he did his job. Whatever was going on inside was worth checking out, we decided, if only for a few minutes.

The smoke-filled foyer had a dozen people loafing around, eying us as we passed. My girlfriend whispered, "how come there's only men in here?" We cautiously walked down a narrow, darkened corridor which opened into the auditorium - pitch black except for the film on the screen. It wasn't porn, that was for sure. It wasn't really much of anything. A weird 1980's made-for-video British film, dubbed in Thai, and judging from the shoddy picture, coming from an LCD projector. The scene showing featured a crippled boy having lunch with an older man in a suit. No, not porn. Just a source of lighting. We blindly found two empty seats in the lower level and gently sunk down.

The all male audience crept between the aisles, scanning the crowd as they went, a slow moving stream of human shapes. Others stood along the side walls, pairing up after brief exchanges with passers by. Those who were seated did so in pairs, never staying put for more than a few moments before shuffling off towards auditorium's rear. Two dimly lit bathrooms in the upper level of the stadium seating were the prime destinations,.

"How come nobody is watching the movie?" my girlfriend asked.

"Lets go and I'll tell you outside."

Monday, June 8, 2009

The nasty past of Bangkok movie theaters

While flipping through a book called Woman, Man, Bangkok: Love, Sex and Popular Culture in Thailand I came across some references to the old wooden movie theaters in 1920's Bangkok. More to the point, reference is made to the Nang Loerg Cinema (AKA Sala Chalerm Thani) which I visited and wrote about on my most recent trip to Bangkok. The author, Scot Barme, writes:

The most detailed and comprehensive information about Bangkok's cinemas during the 1920's comes from Sayam palimen (Siamese Parliament), a column that appeared in the weekly film magazine Phaphayon Sayam...

Broadly speaking, the image of the Bangkok movie houses that emerges from these accounts is one of rampant squalor and anarchic, disorderly behavior. Sanitary conditions and the comfort of patrons were apparently not of prime consideration of the cinema owners. Numerous letters appeared in the columns complaining about the vermin that infested most theaters. The Nang Lerng Cinema, owned and operated by Siaw's Siam Cinema Company, was particularly notorious in this respect. As one writer complained after a visit, "you could see people refusing to sit down on their seats because of the filth, while some of those who did sit down soon began scratching themselves." In the Banglamphu Cinema, another one of the company's theaters, urine flowed freely across the floor and the pungent odor of excrement wafted through the air.
There it is folks; the nasty, nasty Nang Loerng Cinema (AKA Sala Chalerm Thani)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Jan Theater and Snooker Hall - Bangkok, Thailand

The Jan is one of the rare stand-alone movie theaters in Thailand that was built with dual functions - theater and snooker hall. It stands in a small soi, just behind a Caltex gas station off of Jan Road - another vestigial theater in the Sathon area of town. I didn't get any info aside from that, so I'll hold off on the conjectures.

This Caltex station also has a car wash in it. It employs a good dozen people.

Old marquee, rusting away.

Another old sign for the Jan Theater and Snooker, this one hanging over Jan Road.

This little boy's mother, a car wash employee, urged me to take his photo. A crowd gathered around, cajoling him to crack a smile for the the camera. Moments later he burst into tears.

Veranda of the Jan Theater.

Ticket booth. The sign above says "Happy New Year 2547," five years ago and probably the final year of the theater.

"Next Program" and "Now Showing"

Movie poster for the disturbing, yet enjoyable Ebola Syndrome, starring Anthony Wong.

"The 18 Miniatures"

Something starring Tony Leung Ka Fai

"The Isan Fighter"

A spirit house stands in front of the old Jan Theater in this alley perspective.

The snooker hall of the old Jan Theater and Snooker continues to function, but the theater itself has been exiled to history.