Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Yuzana Cinema - Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay Division, Myanmar

For the first half of the 20th century, Pyin Oo Lwin was know by its colonial moniker of Maymyo. "Myo" in Burmese translates to "town" and May was the surname of a British colonel who was stationed at this former hill-top military outpost in the 1880's. Assimilating Colonel May's name into the title of a British-colonial town was a sign of things to come. By the early 20th century, as wars of imperial pacification were relegated to the past, Maymyo's function had changed from military outpost to leisurely hill station, where British officials serving in the colony could go on seasonal retreats, escaping the nagging heat and humidity of the lowlands.

In the wake of decolonization, Maymyo, renamed Pyin Oo Lwin under the Japanese occupation of World War II, continued to draw tourists from the ranks of Burma's own military and officialdom. Besides cooler temperatures, a botanical garden and an 18 hole golf course have long served respite seekers as leisure attractions.

By the late 1950's, there were three movie theaters in the mix, providing further entertainment for vacationers and locals alike. Of the three, only one remains in operation. Although epitomizing Myanmar's Art Deco cinema architecture of the times, the Yuzana Cinema, unfortunately, is not the one. But do feast your eyes all the same.

The Yuzana Cinema stands in the background of the Purcell Tower, a legacy of colonial-era cosmopolitan symbolism.

Purcell Tower with Yuzana Cinema on the back right.

Staggered and echoing, two prominent patterns in Art Deco design.

Dormancy has beset the Yuzana for the past few years now. In its absence, a little bit of the town has died, too. A facade that would catch eyes in almost any setting is the lone effect remaining of this Art Deco former-picture box. With its cinematic function having reached an end, the only hope is that local decision makers realize the building's architectural value and press for its preservation until it can be properly restored or repurposed. But as economic capital from China barrels down from the north, such aspirations will be put to the test. Can the long term socio-cultural imperatives of preservation withstand immediate economic gains? Ultimately that will come down to local leadership and their particular outlook.

The Yuzana Cinema under some ominous clouds. In the background the minaret of Pyin Oo Lwin's central mosque can be seen.

The Yuzana Cinema was built in 1956, or '57 - one of numerous movie theaters to go up during the democratic interlude. It's been closed since the turn of the 21st century.

Happy new year to one and all!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Vieng Samay Revisited

On a recent trip to the Laotian capital, I made a stopover at the old Vieng Samay Theater, now the last theater structure in the city with visible evidence of its former life. It takes little more than a glance at the building's facade to understand its place in Vientiane's history. From the rusting marquee, to the faded, trilingual letters of the roof-top sign, there should be little doubt as to the building's past life. On the other hand, just next door stands the Sang Lao Hotel, which opened in 1953 as the Sang Lao Theater. The completeness of its functional conversion, however, has left it without a trace of its cinematic days. One would never know unless they knew.

All tallied, there have been eight different stand-alone theaters in Vientiane over the years. That's three more than I'd ever known about, but this figure was concluded by a lifelong city resident now in his late 50's, who'd taken a day to think it over. I take the man's word.

A group of young monks stroll past the remains of the Vieng Samay Theater, Vientiane's last theater structure with visible evidence of it cinematic days. It closed shortly after the Communist ascendancy in 1975.

A noodle vendor, beneath the green umbrella, rents the part of the open-air foyer.

Eating noodles in a lobby-no-more.

Forgotten ticket windows obscured by time and the accoutrements of a noodle soup business.

The owner/builder of the Vieng Samay Theater is apparently still alive, residing in a shop house just next to the theater. My requests to meet with him were turned down, however, on account of his fragile health after 90-plus years of life. Too bad, as that would have made for an insightful interview.

Like many privately owned enterprises in Vientiane and elsewhere in the country, soon after the royalist-to-communist regime change in 1975, the Vieng Samay Theater closed its doors, never to open again.

A salon table and sink in front of an old poster case, evidence that a beauty parlor has occupied a portion of Vieng Samay's lobby in recent years.

Art in an old poster case.

The Vieng Samay Theater dates to the late 1950's, a legacy of the first years of American economic and technical "assistance" to Laos during the Cold War era. As a palimpsest on Vientiane's urban landscape, it is a critical piece of the city's social past; one that certainly adds architectural and historical capital to an already varied urban tapestry. Unfortunately, such sentiments are likely not universally shared:
"Today, the Lao Communist Party (The Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP))... is seeking new sources of legitimacy as the old sources - the struggle against foreign intervention, the construction of socialism - are rendered redundant. The LPRP has turned to the Lao past, presenting itself as the defender of ancient national and cultural traditions, in order to bolster its claims to power"*
Somehow I don't think the preservation of an American-era movie theater fits in with the LPRP's definition of "ancient national and cultural traditions" worthy of protection, even if the definition does comprise architectural-geographic heritage sites. In other words, I wouldn't count on the Vieng Samay being around much longer.

*(Askew, Long and Logan. (2010). Vientiane: Transformation of a Lao landscape (p. 5-6). New York: Routledge Press.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Myoma Cinema - Pyin U Lwin, Mandalay Division, Myanmar

Like many a British administrator of imperial past, when my work was finished in Mandalay I headed for the hills. Destination, Pyin U Lwin. Cooler climes, cleaner air, respite from the dust and bustle of big-city life has attracted vacationers to Pyin U Lwin since the 1890's, when the British designated it a hill station: vacation towns for colonial officials, situated in cooler upland areas. Pyin U Lwin is only 67 kilometers east of Mandalay, but a steep climb up the Shan Plateau's western edge to an altitude of over 1,000 meters makes a world of difference. Temperatures take a welcomed dive.

With its leisured history as a colonial-era getaway, finding some forgotten cinemas scattered around town seemed a plausibility. And so there were; three in all. The Myoma Cinema was the first I would encounter.

The elegant Myoma Cinema, no longer showing films, but for hire as a banquet hall.

From this initial survey of Myanmar's movie theaters, Art Deco tops the list as the architectural style of choice, followed closely by International Style, Beaux-Arts and what might loosely be interpreted as Burmese Socialist. The use of the former spans the years from the late 1940's to 1962, amid the country's brief flirtation with democracy. Modernization was one of the guiding principals of development in the post-WWII, post-colonial, but pre-dictatorship years. Art Deco architecture, with its roots in the modernist movements of Europe, was conceptually akin to such aspirations.

The style seems to have grown in popularity in the late 1950's, during which time the Myoma Cinema, dating to 1957, came into being.

Art Deco styling

An elderly local man of Anglo-Burmese descent told me the Myoma's life as a movie theater fizzled out about five years ago. "More and more people have TV's nowadays," the man mused. "The cinema just isn't as popular anymore."

Art Deco staggering in neoclassical symmetry.

The lower facade of the Myoma Cinema, including the portico, seems to have undergone a makeover sometime in the last few years. It's exterior is now a shell of tile similar to many of the newly constructed buildings in Mandalay. Perhaps an influence that has crept down from China.

Tiled pillars in front of filled-in, block glass windows.

As a cinema name, Myoma has to this point in my research presented itself three times in Myanmar. Once in Yangon, once in Mandalay and now again in Pyin U Lwin. The closest English translation of the name I can approximate is "Uptown," which was a relatively common moniker for American theaters of bygone eras.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Ma Soe Yein Cinema - Mandalay, Myanmar

If you merely take a quick scan of 81st Street north of 28th, the building in the photo below appears barely distinguishable from much of Mandalay's more recently built structures.

Glazed ceramic tiles grouted to the facade are an architectural hallmark of this late-20th, early-21st century construction boom; a boom spurred in part by a massive wave of Chinese immigration to the city over the last twenty years. Some accounts tally the new Chinese community at 40 percent of the city's population, while comprising the majority of residents living downtown. Huge tracts of land left vacant by the Mandalay fires in 1981 and '84 have since been bought up and redeveloped largely by Chinese immigrants.

As for the proclivity towards tiled building facades, I can only assume that trade connections established between Mandalay's newcomer Chinese middle-class and tile manufacturers in Yunnan Province, China account for its widespread use as a building material. Myanmar is an easy destination for Chinese-made goods.

In some cases the use of tile creates a unique look, like a city built of Legos. Other times it comes off as wholly uninspired. What's for sure is that the tile profusion on building exteriors gives some Mandalay neighborhoods an uncanny resemblance to a present-day Chinese boom town.

But lets forget for a moment the contemporary, industrial Chinese aesthetic slapped over Myanmar's historically most Burmese city. Look a bit closer at the building on display and you'll notice a movie poster hanging above the archway. Festooned to the wall above the poster is a plastic sign announcing the Ma Soe Yein Cinema. Pass through the archway below and step back from the tiled present into a Burmese neoclassical past - yet another living example of the post-WWII movie theater boom.

Passing through the arch into a world of cinema.

Architecturally, the Ma Soe Yein Cinema shares features common to numerous older structures found throughout Mandalay Division. One-storied and symmetrical, utilizing a series of contiguous archways to provide natural light. Short of definitive knowledge on the subject, however, the closest I can come to describing this unique theater architecturally is neoclassical. But make no mistake, this is a distinctly Burmese form of neoclassicism, even if it lacks any indigenous inspired ornamentation.

1950's Burmese neoclassicism

Hidden away in a small court behind mostly newer construction, the Ma So Yein Cinema entertains in seclusion.

Doors to auditorium

Passing through one of the eight arches opens into a narrow veranda; a space of quiet leisure, where patrons spend idle minutes waiting for the next show to begin.

Veranda views

The manager of the Ma Soe Yein shines a light on the LCD projector set up at the front of the auditorium.

"Ah! Mr. Projectionist. We've been expecting you," said the manager in my imagination. "Please, pull up a seat. Would you care for tea? Perhaps a morsel of fried dough?

"Where to begin, then? The Ma Soe Yein was built way back in 1955, commissioned by the husband and wife team of U Win Aung and Daw Nain Hmwe Kyaing - the original owners. As I'm sure you're well away by now, it, along with all the other cinema halls in the country, was nationalized by the State in 1962 and has been owned by the Ministry of Information ever since. In fact, their Mandalay offices are housed in that ugly, Chinese-inspired building you just passed through to get here. The one covered in white and blue tiles.

"You might be wondering about our seating capacity, no? Well I'll tell you that we can hold a total of 664 film fans in our comfortable, amply-cushioned seats. And as you have noticed we are one of the few theaters in Myanmar that does not have a balcony. Instead, the seating is all arranged on one level on gently rising gradient, stadium style; a feature which is ahead of its time given the age of the theater.

"As for me, I have been overseeing a staff of 19 full-time employees for the past number of years now. We try our best to run a tight ship, as you can surely see. Business is not exactly booming, but we have our regulars. The prices we charge are much lower than at, say, the Myoma or Win Lite. But they are operated by a rich company. Nonetheless, I think you'll find our services up to snuff, though unfortunately we rely on an LCD projector instead of the classic carbon-arc or xenon bulb kind. Such is life under sanctions! It's not easy to get state-of-the-art technology."

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Myo Gon Yaung Cinema - Mandalay, Myanmar

This may sound like a strange thing to write about a movie theater, but the Myo Gon Yaung Cinema has genuinely tragic origins. The tragedy dates back to 1981, when large sections of Mandalay were besieged by fire and thousands of buildings across the city went up in smoke. In 1984 fire struck again, taking thousands more structures to a fiery grave. In both cases, tens of thousands of Mandalayans were left homeless.

Among the fire casualties of 1981 was an old movie theater that occupied the land where the Myo Gon Yaung now stands. Details of this erstwhile cinema hall were hard to come by, but that's beside the point. What's important to note is that the Myo Gon Yaung, in its current manifestation, was built by the State's Ministry of Construction as a replacement for the one lost in the blaze of '81.

The Myo Gon Yaung Cinema: a Mandalay fixture since 1984.

Entrance steps

Poster for the Myanmar film "The Three Brides" hangs from the side wall.

The Myo Gon Yaung was the prototype for two later additions to Mandalay's government-built trio of movie theaters. Each of them share nearly identical designs, differing only in the most minute details. All three are the brain children of one architect.

An usher stands beside the window in the upper lobby of the Myo Gon Yaung Cinema.

Two destructive, city-wide blazes within a few years of each other speak volumes to the severity of neglect suffered by Myanmar's urban centers. With that in mind, I can only muster a tepid 'hats off' to the powers that be who commissioned the replacement Myo Gon Yaung. Not to detract from this wonder of socialist-inspired cinema architecture. It is, after all, a palace of joy to the entertainment-starved denizens of this, my favorite dust-strewn city in the galaxy.

Ticket taker at her post, puppy in arms.


Lastly, Myo Gon Yaung translates to "City Lights;" an attractive and original name for a movie theater, if I ever heard one, but which is blatantly misleading given the irregular supply of electricity in Mandalay. Just take a walk through the streets after dark and you'll see what I mean.
Just for the sake of visual comparisons, here's all three of Mandalay's State-built theaters back-to-back-to-back. Juxtapose away.

The Myo Goun Yaun Cinema, c. 1984

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema, c. 1990

The Myoma Cinema c. 1998

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema - Mandalay, Myanmar

It was mid-day by the time my drifting through Mandalay's sun-beaten streets led me to the front steps of the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema. The relentless heat of Myanmar's second largest city had me sweating like a pig, teetering on brink of collapse. Why hadn't I just payed one the city's thousands of pedicab drivers to chauffeur me there like any normal human would have done?

Looking as if I'd just emerged from a swamp, and probably smelling the part no less, I asked permission of the Nay Pyi Daw's manager to document this theatrical giant. Permission was granted.

The Nay Pyi Daw Cinema: I should have hitched a ride with that pedicab driver!

If the Win Lite and Myoma represent Mandalay's movie theater elite, with lofty ticket prices to match, then the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema is the city's blue collar paradise. Located on a small, unpaved alley off of 26th Street in the midst of a largely residential neighborhood, the turquoise-colored cinema hall provides Mandalayans with quality entertainment at a reasonable price.

A women unloads bags of pork rinds for sale at the Nay Pyi Daw concession stand.

Built in 1990, the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema was the second of three government-financed theaters to get built in Mandalay during the 1980's and 90's. All of them share nearly identical, rectangular designs, with massive entrance arches at either end. They were all conceived by the same architect; a woman whose name I was not able to track down.

The newest of Mandalay's state-built theaters, the Myoma Cinema, featured a few posts back, has the aesthetic distinction of having blue and red tiles covering the exterior walls. Meanwhile, the Nay Pyi Daw and its elder sibling feature their original plaster and poured concrete facades. Only the paint jobs differ.

The boxy, functional designs found among the three theaters, combined with a caricature-like take on indigenous ornamentation among the older two, seem to have found inspiration from the "Burmese Road to Socialism;" the treatise on economic development that guided national policy from the mid-1960's to the late 80's. If we didn't know better it would be safe to assume that our beloved Nay Pyi Daw Cinema architect stole the chapter "The Burmese Guide to Socialist Theater Building" for herself. Maybe she even wrote it.

Plaster relief work along the Nay Pyi Daw's arch

The rear entrance to the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema is occupied by seamstress's shop called Mi Mi's. The proprietor, Mi Mi - a native of Sittwe - was sewing a dress as I perused the theater grounds. Her husband is the theater's projectionist.

Mi Mi at work on a dress.

Kids in theater lobbies these days!

Drinking water for patrons at the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema comes in two forms: the usual bottled form, such as you would find for sale at the concessions stand, and the melted-block-of-ice form, as depicted in the above photo. The latter is dispensed by placing a block of ice in a mesh filter suspended over two plastic cups. The icy run-off percolates through the filter, into the plastic cups below and is then poured into the metal cups seen off to the side. From there they are sold by the cup-full to thirsty customers; the least expensive beverage available. After each customer has quenched their thirst the cups are returned, wiped down and the process begins anew.

Myanmar is the only place I've ever seen this method of providing drinking water and the Nay Pyi Daw is the only cinema I've ever seen it used in.

Authentic ice-water, the old fashioned way.

The two kids on the right of the above photo enjoy an icy drink courtesy of a block of ice.

Tickets, please!

Nay Pyi Daw staff at repose in the lobby while the movie shows in the auditorium.

Diagonal lobby view

It was thanks to the hospitality of this man, Mr. Zaw Myint, that I came to learn anything of the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema. Mr. Zaw Myint has been leasing the Nay Pyi Daw from the Ministry of Information since it was built in 1990, doing his best to keep it turning a profit despite what he calls "a cold climate" for most movie theaters in Myanmar. "Most Myanmar are simply too poor to go to the movies regularly," he claimed. As a result, movie producers cut budgets to a bare minimum, detracting from the quality of the films they make. Zaw Myint knows this story all too well. In the past he tried his hand at movie production, funding close to a dozen features under the company name of Yi Myint Productions.

When asked about the success of the Mingalar-run theaters in Yangon and Mandalay, he attributed it to their ability to obtain Hollywood and other international films, which wealthier Myanmar will pay higher prices to see. In other words, Mingalar has a monopoly on the good stuff.

Zaw Myint's clientele at the Nay Pyi Daw, he emphasized, is comprised of poorer members of Mandalay society. The average turn-out is between 50 and 100 patrons per show.

In addition to running the theater, Zaw Myint distributes films throughout central Myanmar.

Nay Pyi Daw means "capital."