Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Queen's Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The air was so thick that you could cut it with a knife, and it hadn't even reached 9AM. It was shaping up to be one of those miserable Bangkok days; the kind that natives of the city have adapted to by restricting anatomical motion to a bare minimum. I considered taking the day off, maybe spending it in the physical comfort of one of Bangkok's air-conditioned nightmares, a shopping mall. But stillness in the face of oppressive heat is an adaptation which eludes me when it comes to old movie theaters, often at the expense of my health and well-being. Had I given in to the logic of rest on that burning Saturday, I may very well have never come across the Queen's Theater - an accidental find with a regal past.

The land that the Queen's Theater stands on was formerly home to a royal palace known as Wang Burapha. This elegant structure was commissioned in 1875 by King Chulalongkorn for one of his brothers. It stood as a neighborhood landmark until the middle of the 20th century. During the life-span of Wang Burapha, the surrounding neighborhood became a center of commerce for an increasingly foreign-born population. Indians and Chinese, many fleeing the political tensions that had been mounting in their homelands prior to World War Two, settled in the area, giving it a motley mix of ethnic diversity which exists to this day. Pahurat Road, center of Bangkok's Little Indian, borders the grounds of the old Wang Burapha compound. Chinatown is a short walk away.

A husband and wife team of scrap collectors gather used cardboard boxes from businesses across from the Queen's Theater.

Looking down over the lobby of the Queen's Theater. A marble staircase ascends upwards, leading to what was once the balcony.

In 1951 Wang Burapha was sold to a business man named Osot Kosin. The old palace was razed to the ground, but in its place three movie theaters were built, along with a hotel and shopping plaza. In honor of the area's royal legacy, two of the theaters were regally dubbed: The King's Theater and The Queen's Theater. The third movie theater was called the Grand.

According to a description in the book "The Lengend of the Movie Theater," by Thanatip Chatraphum, the King's and Grand theaters stood beside each other on Mahachai Road. Between them ran a narrow alley which led to the front entrance of Queen's Theater. This trio of movie theaters served as the prime destination for Bangkok's teenagers during the 1950's and 60's until it was eclipsed by the next generation of cinemas to rise from the Earth.

A man with a cell phone repair business operates out of the old lobby, a customer waits while his phone is fixed.

The Grand and King's theaters bit the dust a while back. In their place stands the Merry Kings Department Store - one of the most decrepit department stores I've ever seen. The seven story building was itself once topped off by a movie theater, but it's since been ripped out. Regardless, I feel obliged to pitch Merry Kings. The place is literally a retail time capsule, and not on purpose. I think business is just really bad. In the electronics department, for example, they are selling boom boxes with audio cassette players circa 1982, rabbit ear antennae and other forms of analog technology that usually get shipped to China for recycling. Other than employees, I was the sole person milling about the aging retail center. I'll bet you can get some good deals there!

Depicted in the photo above is Mr. Chamnian, a 72 year old man who has been working in the Queen's Theater since it opened in 1954. For the theater's cinematic life, Chamnian was employed as a ticket taker. When it shut down in 1987 he parlayed his loyalty and strong work ethic into a job in the parking garage that the Queen's became. The fast-talking ticket taker-turned-garage attendant keenly recalled the Hollywood films distributed by agents working for Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures studios that graced the Queen's screen. "In the 1950's," he told me, "the joint was packed on a daily basis. Standing room only, was how we worked."

But Chamnian's memory predates the existence of the Queen's Theater, dating back to a grim episode involving the old Wang Burapha palace. His recollection of the incident, which he claims occurred during World War Two, is not mentioned in any of the literature I've read about the palace or the theater:

"It was bombed!" he exclaimed. "Yup, that's right, they dropped a bomb on the palace during the war. Lots of people died. About 80 of them. I remember them pulling the bodies out of the rubble. Later, when they built the theater, ghosts of the dead used to come out some times. I never saw one, myself, but I remember the projectionist saying ghosts would hang out in the projection room, and sometimes on the balcony. They're still here in the parking lot, but I've never seen one. That's because I appease them everyday, like I've been doing for 55 years. Nope, they don't bother me at all."

Again, I've yet to find reference to a bomb being dropped on the Wang Burapha palace during World War Two, or any other violent incidents on the palace grounds, but Chamnian swore by it. The accounts I've read claim that the palace functioned as a girls school before it was sold to Mr. Kosin and torn down. It's possible that the Japanese Army used it for some purpose during World War Two and that it was consequently hit by an Allied bomb. If that's the case then it would stand to reason that most of the ghosts who haunt the theater are Japanese. But again, that's all just speculation. Nonetheless, it's nice to think that old Mr. Chamnian remembers a piece of World War Two history that has otherwise been forgotten.

1 comment: