Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Laem Thong Theater and the Scraps of Empire - Bangkok, Thailand

Empires are a fact of life in the civilized world. That a given region’s resources are so often consolidated under one supreme ruler is no case of fiction. Empires rise and fall with the flux of economy and trends in technology over the course of time. But I’m not here to harangue you with dictionary definitions of what an ‘empire’ is. We’re all here for the joys of decay and the annals of movie theater history, set against the backdrop of a part of the world with tumultuous and multifaceted recent past. So lets not waste time with banalities. Instead, lets take a look at an existing empire; one which currently controls over 70 percent of Thailand’s film exhibition market. Under their corporate guise they go by the name ‘Major Cineplex’ and ‘EGV.’ But behind the brand synonymous with Thailand’s most prolific theater chain is a family that has been in the theater business for more than half a century. Without neglecting the present generation of theater emperors, lets take a sneak peak into the illustrious story behind Major-EGV empire. Here’s the short of it:

It all started with Jaroen Poonworaluk back in the early 1950’s. After running a small coffee shop in the Thonburi section of Bangkok for a few years, young Jaroen (then going by his Chinese given name of Peng Piang) was invited to become partners in a movie theater that was being built on the Wong Wian Yai traffic circle – the Chalerm Kiad. Novice Jaroen had little knowledge of film exhibition or running a theater. His entrepreneurial lean, however, was a hard one to contain. The idea of playing a lead role in the entertainment of the masses was intimately appealing to a young man who himself spent many leisurely hours beneath the flicker of the rolling reel. After carefully weighing the pros and cons, he decided to go in on it, trading the coffee cup for the silver screen in a move that would eventually result in empire. Eventually, that is.

Jaroen and his new partners had taken a major risk by building the largest theater in all of Thonburi for the time. The area around Wong Wian Yai in particular was a section of the city just beginning to break from its bucolic legacy of pineapple and durian plantations. It had yet to congeal into the established Bangkok neighborhood that it is today.

Business was sluggish the first year at the Chalerm Kiad Theater. With dividends below what was anticipated, disagreements over the direction that the theater was going in broke out between Jaroen and his partners. The burgeoning theater boss felt constrained by the protocols of sharing. His ideas and energies were unable to find full expression as a last ditch invitee to a struggling business.

The Chalerm Kiad, his initial movie theater venture, ended up being a bust for Jaroen Poonworaluk, who soon sold his portion of the theater to the remaining partners. Divested of this stuffy partnership and bubbling with a newly acquired set of skills and knowledge about the movie theater industry, Jaroen bought a plot of land in Talad Plu (Plu Market), near where his old coffee shop once stood. On that land he built his own movie theater – the Sri Talad Plu Theater. Success was almost instantaneous and the quick profits were enough to persuade three of his brothers – Jamroen, Jaran and Kasem – to come into the business with him. Together the Poonworaluk boys founded Co Brothers Theaters. Over the years they would grow to become a bona fide theater empire in the greater Bangkok area, vying for the loyalty of the city's movie-going public along with their rivals, the Pyramid Co. (the predecessor to Apex). The Co Brothers empire included nearly sixty stand-alone movie theaters across the Thai capital, with the Laem Thong Theater and Klong Toey Rama among them.

Street side marquee for the Klong Toey Rama, once the sister theater of the Laem Thong, is the sole remaining relic of the now-destroyed theater. Both were part of the Co Brothers Bangkok movie theater empire.

Street side marquee for the Laem Thong Theater, advertising 4 movies in a row. Pornography is the only film fare showing these days.

Like many of the stand-alone theaters in Thailand, the Laem Thong was built within a commercial/residential development, surrounded by multi-lane streets. This particular development, located off of Rama IV Road near the Klong Toey MRT station, seemed to be in good shape economically when I visited it. The theater itself is also still working, though under x-rated circumstances.

Rong Pappayon Laem Thong

Beside the theater there is a food vendor and tables. This man fiddled with his phone while waiting for a plate of rice. Above him, an old poster case contains movie posters from the 1980's and 90's.

The lobby, adorned with colorful 1960's decor and outdated movie posters. The latter is usually a sign that they're playing dirty movies.

Patrons loafed around the lobby an hour before show-time, awaiting their skin flick fix. My own presence was unwelcome. It was one of the few times where I felt like I might get into trouble if I wasn't careful. I tried to start a conversation with one of the men hanging around the lobby. All I got in return was an angry scowl. His unblinking, blood-shot eyes told me to leave, to get out while I still could. No need to say it twice. But I'd managed to linger around long enough to get a feel for the place. Scotch-taped to the wall was a small poster, printed out from a computer printer, advertising some kind of herbal scabies remedy. Another for a super-potent energy tonic. Fitting advertisements for what is likely a filthy porn theater. As I was walking away, a ladyboy pulled up on a motorbike. Seat by seat service is apparently available in this den of desperation.

Its current condition aside, I don't know where the Laem Thong ranks in the movie theater hierarchy of the erstwhile Co Brothers empire. I'm not even sure exactly when it was built, or any other stats like that. Probably in the 1960's sometime. That's when Co Brothers was at its most prolific regarding theater building, as was the case in general with Thailand's movie theater industry.

Co Borthers is now defunct, but the offspring of Jaroen, Jamroen and Kasem have continued the Poonworaluk family tradition of owning movie theaters. Two of Jaroen's boys, Vichai and Visuth, founded Entertain Theater Network, the predacessor to Entertain Golden Village (EGV). One son of Jamroen, Vicha, was the founder of Major Cineplex. EGV and Major were embroiled in a bit of a family rivalry for a while until they burried the hatchet and formed Major-EGV, the largest theater empire in the history of Thailand and a publicly listed company. A few of Kasem's kids are in the business too, owning Century the Movie Plaza near Victory Monument.

It's safe to say that the current generation of Poonworaluk theater emperors no longer own the Laem Thong Theater. It's unlikely that they would dare risk scandal by operating a porn theater when they've got most of the country paying a premium to watch new releases in their shiney, mall-bound multiplexes. Which brings me to another point.

I'm prone to rant and rave about the multiplexes because, if for no other reason, I find them to be as soulless as the shopping malls they're attached to. I could go on and on, boo-hooing about how modern cities are lacking a social dynamic which was exemplified in the neighborhood stand-alone theaters of lore. Blah to the third power. Sometimes I even halfway believe my own bullshit. The fact is that the multiplexes, in all their homogeneity, came about because of larger changes in the physical and social structures of our cities. They just exploited an opportunity. Even though I think of Major-EGV as the Wal-Mart of film exhibitors in Thailand - opening up impersonal and over-formulaic behemoths in towns across the country, while crippling the home-grown industry - I must give credit where credit is due. They're good business men. They give we the people the dross that we the people ask for and we pay through the nose for it. The only way forward is to show them that we liked what their daddy's built better. The question is, do we really?


  1. i think u might be wrong about them not owning these theaters anymore. a good way to tell is when the sites are redeveloped. each branch of the poolvoraluck family also owns a property development company and they often raze these old theaters and turn them into condos when the property prices are right. good example is the theater up at phrakanong. once the khlong toei redevelopment scheme proceeds i'm sure these theaters will be razed and redeveloped by the family.

  2. That makes sense. Thanks for that addition.

    Yes, Major Cineplex Group also owns a 25% share of Siam Future Development Corp., which seems to specialize in building high-end commercial buildings. Good way to ensure they get their multiplexes in the latest, most fashionable shopping centers. Their hands are in a lot of other business ventures, as well.