Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Nakon Sawan Rama - Nakon Sawan, Thailand

Streetscape perspective of the Nakon Sawan Rama Theater, the building to the left of the photo with the three arches.

The city of Nakon Sawan made its bones when the waterways reigned supreme in Thailand. Before the Bangkok-Chiang Mai train line was running and well before the national highway system spread its asphalt tentacles throughout the land, Nakon Sawan was the most important city in the interior of the country for domestic commerce. For centuries its riparian dominance stood unchallenged due to its prime location at the junction point of the Nan, Yom, Wang and Ping rivers, where they form the Chao Phraya River - Thailand's main artery. Any product shipped from the upper north that was destined for Bangkok or beyond had to pass Nakon Sawan en route. Likewise, anything going northwards up the Chao Phraya to Chiang Mai, Lampang or Phisanulok landed at Nakon Sawan before hand. As a result the city grew rich.

A section of the marquee remains on the far right of the building. It used to stretch across the entire facade.

A man selling ears of corn pushes his cart past the old Nakhon Sawan Rama Theater

The wealth that accrued over the years in Nakon Sawan eventually begot a number of movie theaters. Among them was the relatively late-arriving Nakorn Sawan Rama. This grand addition to the town's cinemascape was built in the mid to early 1970's, serving as its largest theater until it closed down in the early 1990's.

Pigeons perched pestilently on the sleek, cut-out letters of the Nakon Sawan Rama

The theater is accessible through an enormous arched entrance way, giving movie-goers the sensation that they were being swallowed alive.

Steps leading to the ticket booth and lobby. The signs on either side advertise Rama Snooker Hall, which has opened beneath the theater. Movie posters used to hang there.

Retail space on the street side of the building is leased to some restaurants and shops. In this photo a restaurant employee catches a break.

"It was really a treat to watch movies at the Nakon Sawan Rama," said life-long city resident Ae, pictured above. Ae's family now leases retail space in the front portion of the old theater. He recalled the excitement he felt as a little boy when he walked through the theater's giant archway, past an explosion of colors from hand-painted movie posters and the glow of neon lights emanating from the sign above. A sentimental fervor came over him as he described the theater's plush interior and the extra large screen that he laid his eyes upon so many times as a kid. As its name laid claim to, this was the theater of Nakon Sawan.

But beneath Ae's sentimentality an acute sense of logic prevailed. He was the first person I've met since I started this project who accurately identified the fact that the death of this once great theater had more to do with a newly motorized population than anything else. "When I was a kid in the 70's and 80's everybody walked to the theater," he explained. "If not, then we rode bicycles, or at most motorbikes. Sometimes we went by tuk-tuk or sam lor. But now when a family goes to the movies they drive their car there and park in the garage."

He went on. "There was no parking lot at the [Nakon Sawan] Rama, so when Fairy Land Department Store opened around the corner in the late 80's with its built-in garage and Fairy Theater, Rama's ticket sales plummeted. You know how the story goes from there."

In homage to its days as a movie theater, the snooker hall operating in the old Nakon Sawan Rama is called 'Rama Snooker.' Although it stands to reason that having a snooker hall of any name is better than letting the place crumble, or such cultural crucifixion as knocking it down, it's still a far cry from its days as a luxurious movie theater. But to put things in a slightly broader perspective, the Fairy Theater mentioned above, which used to be at Fairy Land Department Store is closed now, as well. The only operating movie theater in town is Major Cineplex, Thailand's leading chain movie theater-conglomerate, with over 300 screens nationwide, operating in the Big C Superstore off the highway on the edge of town. Try walking to that one!

It goes without saying that the river trade which for many years made Nakon Sawan such an important city in Thailand, is all but gone these days. Trucking is the primary form of domestic trade and distribution transportation now, as it is in much of the world.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The sky above, the cement below.

Tomorrow I embark on a trip into the unknown. My destinations: Nakhon Sawan, Chainat and Uthai Thani provinces, in Thailand's central plains. Aside from a rudimentary knowledge of the former, I know almost nothing about these places. Should good fortune be with me, however, I'll return in a few days time with some decent photos and stories.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Khemsawat Cinema - Fang, Chiang Mai, Thailand

It wasn't so long ago that the Fang district of Chiang Mai province was one of Thailand's key centers for the cultivation of Paperver Somniferum - the poppy flower; source of such habit forming drugs as opium and heroin. Pressure from the international community, however, has led the Thai state on a crop-substitution and poppy-eradication crusade, resulting in wide-spread suppression of the practice, which used to comprise a massive portion of northern Thailand's economy. Nonetheless, rumors abound that the dope trade lives on in Fang, a fact which sadly cannot be applied to the town's movie theater industry.

Street perspective of the Khemsawat Cinema, that last of Fang's movie theaters

Once upon a time, however, starting back in 1973, Fang was blessed with the Khemsawat Cinema, the first solid brick and mortar theater of its kind in the little drug depot. Right, smack in the center of town, it was a handsome theater, stoically providing the Fang townsfolk with their regular fix of film. Whether high-grade entertainment or just plain junk, the Khemsawat Cinema served its customers faithfully 7 days a week, until it was pushed out of business by a dwindling population and an overdose of home theaters in the early 2000's. It's been dormant ever since.

A man saunters past the dormat Khemsawat Cinema, in a scene that looks as if it could be from 1986.

Incidentally, while roaming the town in search of this lusterless jewel, I met the brother-in-law of the owner of Fang's original wooden movie theater. Despite the fact that it's been demolished for over 40 years, this man was able to recount a number of valuable details about the old theater and how it operated. For instance, the old theater in Fang shared film reels with the theaters in Chiang Dao, Mae Rim and other districts in Chiang Mai province. After the film had been screened at one theater, the distributor would strap it to a motorcycle and have it sent to another. Sometimes, he remembered, the patrons at the Fang theater would have to wait until after the scheduled show-time because delivery of the reel from Chiang Dao was delayed. When at last the coveted reel arrived, the audience would erupt in cheer.

Through the shuttered gates.

At some point the name was changed to Suksawat Cineplex

Even abandoned, the Khemsawat Cinema is an unusually attractive movie theater for such a small town. Without casting any stones, it would not surprise me if its beauty reflects Fang's integral role in the heroin trade of years passed. After all, drug money has to be laundered somehow. What better way than investing in a movie theater?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Columbia Theater - Khamphaengphet, Thailand

The city of Khamphaengphet is an anomaly among Thai towns. It feels well-planned. This fact is evidenced by its broad, unobstructed sidewalks, among other points of civic consciousness. Forming the city's western boundary, the Ping River bank has been outfitted with a spacious, tree-covered park for people to hang out in - a hallmark of municipal pride. But conspicuously absent from Khamphaengphet's civic infrastructure is - yeah, you guessed it - a stand-alone movie theater. They've all been closed down and only one still stands - the Columbia Theater.

Through the opening between the buildings stands the former Columbia Theater, now a supermarket.

After falling on hard times, the Columbia Theater was abandoned by its owner before being seized by Khamphaengphet municipality in the mid-1990's. Instead of razing the decrepit building and selling off the cleared land, the good city found a buyer who promptly converted it into a supermarket called "Nicksland Trading."

A plastic roof, an addition since it became a supermarket, blocks a view of the entire facade.

Set back from the main street behind a wall of retail buildings, the former Columbia Theater has almost no obvious signs of its past incarnation. But if you know what you're looking for and take a walk around to the sides of the building, it becomes clear that what is now Nicksland Trading was once a snazzy movie theater.

The Columbia Theater opened sometime in the early 1970's.
On a separate note, it might be worth mentioning that in the 1950's and 60's a number of the American film studios financed the construction of movie theaters in Thailand as a way to ensure distribution of their films in this then-newly emerging Asian market. In Bangkok, for instance, the Paramount Theater was built by Paramount Pictures. There were others as well. I can't say with any accuracy, as nobody was able to confirm one way or the other, but it's possible that the Columbia Theater, all the way up there in little Khamphangphet, was financed by Columbia Pictures. I'm guessing not, however.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Sri Charoen Rama - Sam Ngam, Pichit, Thailand

"My boy got out of the cinema business and then started playing politics," said Jian Ploykittakul, sitting in the cool of her farm equipment supply shop. A steady flow of customers entered the cavernous store while we talked, handing Jian cash in exchange for various farming devises and inputs.

A woman awaits transport in front of the Sri Charoen Rama

“The cinema business was a good business for a while," she continued, "before everybody started buying TVs. There used to be people running in and out of that place all day long. Thai movies, American movies, Hong Kong movies; you name it, my boy knew how to get people to come watch it. We had four showings per days, plus a mid-night porn screening. Yeah, times were different then; before the highway was built.”

A mesh tarp is strung up over the ground in front of the decaying Sri Charoen Rama Theater.


Jian has been living in Sam Ngam all her life. Her son Tawatchay, now a local politician, was the driving force behind the Sri Charoen Rama, which he opened in 1981. Less than 30 years later and the theater is a road-side relic, plunged into obsolescence by technological advances and the decline of small town life. The Route 115 highway which cuts through the town and the string of ugly, concrete buildings stretching along side it weren’t there when the theater was built. All that land was paddy field for as far as the eye could see. In the 1980’s, Sam Ngam was a typical farming community in Thailand's lower north and the Sri Charoen Rama was the symbolic town center - the most frequented place around aside from the market.

The Sri Charoen Rama's auditorium is of a "bowling lane" design - long and narrow. It's ceiling is also caving in and there's pigeon droppings everywhere.

After 80-plus years in Sam Ngam, Jian Ploykittakul has witnessed many changes in the character of the town. She has seen it morph from an idyllic village to a car-suburb of Pichit city. Her own family has likewise changed course, with her son leaving the business world for a life in the civil services. Though harboring a mother’s pride for her son’s political successes, she expressed a discernible nostalgia for the days when he was the bringer of joy to the Sam Ngam townsfolk; a short-lived reign as the cinema king in this small corner of Pichit province.
To the memory of the Sri Charoen Rama

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Pichit Pathana Theater - Pichit, Thailand

The train pulled into Pichit station a little before 11, with the late morning sun already high in the sky. Approximately half an hour after being in the crowded little city on the Nan River, I'd located its lone dormant giant: the Pichit Pathana Theater.

Very little background data on this place was gleaned, aside from a vague date of birth sometime in the late 60's or early 70's. A woman working in a nearby restaurant recalled that it closed up four years ago, shortly after the Thana Company opened a four-screen cineplex in the local shopping mall.

At some point the Pichit Pathana was renamed the S.P.T. Cineplex, but all the locals I talked to referred to it as the former.

Showing today

"Boom-Boom," the night club, accessible only from the rear of the building, has taken over a portion of the Pichit Pathana's auditorium. Judging by the pair of boxer shorts hanging out to dry and the two dozen or so neatly arranged empty beer bottles, I'd say that a down and out member of the Pichit community has taken over the lobby. Under normal circumstances, I would think that it's pretty cool to be able to call an old movie theater home, but not when it's on the verge of collapse. The ceiling of the lobby is falling down!

Crumbling lobby

Some soothing pastels around the ticket window

Boxers, beer and candy

As for the town of Pichit itself, it was very crowded. Very crowded and very poor! There's some nice old buildings along the river which seem like they were once involved in a little riparian commerce, but they're looking pretty shabby these days. In the middle of the city stands a branch of one of the big hypermarket chains, the same building that houses the Thana theaters. It was grimly enlightening to see that this place was completely mobbed, sucking in all the towns consumers like a black hole. The smaller shop-houses were noticeably less active.

If a lifeless Pichit Pathana Theater, a high vacancy rate among small shops and a general aura of decrepitude indicate anything, I'd say it's that Pichit is in a depressed state.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Amarin Rama - Sawan Khalok, Sukhothai, Thailand

Three days worth of travel brought me to a few of Thailand's lower northern provinces. My first stop was the city of Sawan Khalok, in Sukhothai province, termination point for an east-west spur of the state railway. Whatever reason the train line was extended out here has seemingly out-lived its time. Sawan Khalok is a pretty quiet place. Nonetheless, the locals were kind enough to point me towards the Amarin Rama - a shell of a 1970's-era stand-alone theater, which despite 17 years of dormancy and neglect is still in relatively good shape. It was built in 1976.

The space in front of the Amarin Rama is used as a dumping ground.

Spirit shrine in front of the theater.

The Amarin Rama is located in a now-economically depressed commercial plaza. This shot is from the side of the theater, looking towards its front. The shop houses that surround the Amarin Rama (in the background of the photo) are almost all vacant.

Front side of the plaza, containing private residences. It's unclear if the residents of these buildings used to operate businesses inside the court.

As the march of progress lays stand-alone theaters like this one to waste, the story of technics and civilization begins to unfold (to cite the name of a Lewis Mumford book which I've never read). The Amarin Rama stands in a commercial plaza. The commercial plaza was once anchored by the theater. It's shops and restaurants catered to the hundreds of daily patrons who spent their free time watching movies there. If you had a business in the plaza, you made a nice living. But once the Amarin Rama was put out of business by home theaters and other technological innovations, the entire plaza died along with it - the creation of an urban waste land.

Ticket booth

Above the ticket window reads, Poonsap Productions

Two old projectors lie rusting away behind the ticket booth.

Lobby waste

Like most of the other stand-alone movie theaters in Thailand, the Amarin Rama was once the most popular place in town. A resident of the Amarin Rama plaza, Mr. Att, recalled that it was packed every day in the 1970's and 80's. And on public holidays, the theater would hold extra showings to accommodate the larger crowds. "Now there's no place in town to see a movie," lamented Mr. Att. "Sawan Khalok used to have a second theater, too, but it's been torn down."

Severe dereliction

Mr. Att went on to explain how the builder of the Amarin Rama and the plaza it's in has since moved to Phitsanulok city, in search of more fertile ground for residential/commercial property development. Apparently he is responsible for a similar plaza there. If it's the one I think it is, where the Rama Phitsanulok stands, then it's safe to say that this developer has - quite unintentionally - created two urban dead-zones. Both plazas and the theaters look strikingly similar.

The Amarin Rama Theater has since been seized by Siam Commercial Bank and is seeking a buyer.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bangkok Post movie listings c. 1974 & 1980

The below microfilm enlargements come courtesy of the Chiang Mai University Library.

Notice the listings beneath where it says Sa Chalerm Thai Circuit Proudly Presents. Presumably, Sa Chalerm Thai was the predecessor to Pyramid (now Apex), which is listed in the 1980 paper. At this point I'm not sure whether Sa Chalerm Thai (Apex) was just the film distribution company or whether it also owned the theaters listed under it.

I especially like the ad for "Nixon's Trip To China," playing at the Century, Srirajwong, Metro and Krungkasem theaters.

In the 1980 listing, some of the theaters that were clearly under different ownership are listed under Pyramid Entertainment Corp.. Perhaps Pyramid (Apex) bought them up, consolidating their ownership over Bangkok's first-class stand-alones. I know that the Hawaii, the New York and the Asia were not originally Pyramid theaters. Then again, being listed under a certain company may also indicate distribution, not ownership.

If anybody has any deeper insights into these matters please feel free to write in.