Friday, January 29, 2010

The Washington Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand's role in the American/Vietnam War is a piece of history which intrigues me deeply. It marked a turning point in the modern history of the country, an era of rapid development, political turmoil, social unrest and - my favorite aspect of all - a nationwide movie theater construction boom. While America's military might was focused on some vague objective in Vietnam (read Gordon M. Goldstein's "Lessons in Disaster" to learn the full extent of that vagueness), it was also busy showering Thailand in economic assistance with the aim of halting the domino fall. In exchange, the US got to station soldiers and military aircraft in Thai territory. More to the point of this post, though, several locations in the country became designated R&R destinations for American soldiers on leave from combat in Vietnam. In short, this was how Thailand got its reputation as a the world's capitol of pleasure.

Bangkok developed a few zones of its own which catered to American soldiers in copulatory distress. Among them was Washington Square - a retail, residential and entertainment plaza a few hundred meters south of the Asoke junction on Sukhumvit Road. The Square was anchored by the Washington Theater, but it also consisted of numerous bars, clubs, restaurants and massage parlors frequented by American soldiers. As US military involvement in Vietnam came to a close, Washington Square became one domain of the "I-can't-go-back-there" gun-slingers; those soldiers who figured that life could be better lived on a modest vet's pension in self-imposed exile, rather than rejoining the State side rat race. The Washington Theater must have provided a little window into a severed world for many such men.

Peering into the fading world of Washington Square
The Washington Theater

During my short Bangkok tenure in 2004-05, I remember the Washington Theater as a transvestite cabaret called "Mambo," though I hadn't the faintest clue as to its original function. Only when I started this project last year was I schooled in the matter. Word has it that the Washington was part of the formidable theater empire of a man called "Tansacha," owner of such geographically-named theaters as the New York, Hawaii, Asia and London. But it's movie showing days are a distant memory, now. Mambo cabaret has likewise relocated and a bar called The Sportsman occupies the lower level, below the now-vacant auditorium. I imagine it has never looked worse.

A shadow of it's former self, the Washington Theater

Looking out from the lobby

Lower lobby and a stairway to heaven abandoned

Built-in art and a portrait of the king above the auditorium entrance

A trail of film reminds us of the past

Lobby detritus

Auditorium: the cornice and curtains are likely remnants from its cabaret days, not original features of the movie theater.

I visited the Square on the 1st of November, frantically searching for a spot broadcasting game one of the World Series between my beloved Philadelphia Phillies and the evil empire N.Y. Yankees. In my mind's eye, I pictured a bar full of aging American G.I.'s, slugging down beers at 7AM in celebration of the fall classic going on half way around the world. Friendly insults would ring out across the room, as fans of the two teams gibed in affection of their abandoned past-time. After Chase Utley's second home run of the game, a surly Texan with a disdain for New Yorkers would buy me a drink and say "here's one for your Philadelphia boys, son" in a deep baritone voice. "You're lucky my Rangers don't have a shot in hell, cause I wouldn't be so obliging in that case." Kools and Marlboros, bacon and eggs, and the Series on the TV. Americana in the tropics. But it wasn't how I imagined.

Behind the theater a few businesses linger on

I did find a bar open at 7AM, though it was empty save for some over-the-hill working girls and a man of unknown European descent - the owner, it turned out. "Is it possible to put the World Series on?" I asked. The owner motioned for one of his hags to fulfill my request.

One out, bottom of the first. For the next 6 and two-third innings I sat trying to dodge mindless conversation with a sloppy prostitute and focus on the game, a masterful display of pitching by Cliff Lee. The other women sat around lazily, languishing at the choice of programming. I felt bad for invading their work place and subjecting them to this alien sport without so much as a chance for a trick, so whenever Yankee's center fielder Johnny Damon came to bat I'd point to the screen and announce excitedly, "Look, look! That guy's half Thai. Yeah, his mom is Thai and his daddy is American and now he's a superstar. Look how handsome he is!" For all I knew, Damon's mom and dad met right in that bar. At the very booth I was sitting.

After the 6th inning was over I left, confident that doing so would appease the girls' boredom and that the Phillies were on their way to a win.

Above is the cleaning lady of The Sportsman: a bubbly woman, kind enough to grant me entrance to the old theater's interior. She moved to Bangkok from her native Buriram Province just in time to watch James Cameron's Titanic at the Washington Theater. Soon thereafter its cinematic days ground to a halt. (This was not the place I watched the World Series)

As for Washington Square on the whole, it's on the wane. After nearly 40 years of whoring and boozing, most of the American G.I.'s who helped establish the place are dead or dying - their businesses sold off, or closed altogether. By the look of things, whoever owns Washington Square is waiting for the right moment to tear the entire plaza down and build a condo or office tower. Off the map goes another piece of local history. One that, in an off-hand way, helped lay the foundation for Bangkok's current affluence.

This post is dedicated to the American soldiers who helped do that laying.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Fa Siam Theater - Suphanburi, Thailand

"The Fa Siam Theater: Lert Fa Market," says the sign

While demolition crews merrily stamp-out what's left of Thailand's movie theater geography, a sparse handful eke it out. Infrequent in their placement and - as has been described here on several occasions - sometimes teaming with fiends in the dark, they are nonetheless markers of a fading era in Thai history. Here's a piece of it that's alive, seemingly well and a genuine example of architectural eye candy.

Enter the Market: Starring Fa Siam

The Fa Siam Theater serves as the economic anchor of Lert Fa Market - an open-air fresh market in the heart of downtown Suphanburi. It's one of the few remaining theaters in Thailand that still operates in such an environment. Local vendors lauded the aging picture house for its crowd-drawing capabilities. Everyday around noon, just before the Fa Siam's first daily screening, movie goers swarm the market, bringing a reliable flurry of sales to the surrounding businesses.

Pork satay on sale in front of the Fa Siam Theater.

A frequently ignored, yet highly important aspect of stand-alones - they provide respite for the tired and weary in sitting form. Shelter from the pouring rain or blazing sun can be found beneath the marquee.

These guys were waiting for a van to return them to military duty.

A handsome lobby beckons with arched windows and square columns.

Locals dated the theater to between 30 and 50 years ago. Although its original name survives, the Fa Siam is now a Thana Cineplex - subsidiary of Pranakorn Films and the movie exhibition branch of their vertically integrated triumvirate, which also includes film production and distribution. If you're a regular of the SEA Theater Project then you've already read how regional distributors squeezed the local theater owners of their profits and out of business. If not you can read the version I was told here. Given, it's just one interview and one side of the coin, but it makes for an interesting case study all the same.


There it is, in all its exotic glory: the Fa Siam Theater. Some have said it looks like a jewelry box, others have likened it to a crown. In this photo there's something about it's juxtaposition with the surrounding buildings that reminds me of a blossoming flower.

Fa Siam means Siamese Sky

Friday, January 22, 2010

Movies in the open - Chaiyaphum, Thailand

We're coming down to the home stretch here. Most of the remaining material is all back logged stuff from a few months ago. Not having done any hunting for a few weeks now, apathy is beginning to set in. All my past work seems so distant, like a series of weird dreams. I've had them, alright. A handful of bizarre night visions where I'm in some old theater or another. There's even one where I break into the Vista Gad Suan Kaew multiplex here in Chiang Mai with the pretense of talking to the owner. "Hey Tommy!" I call out blindly "You in here, buddy? I just want to talk to you about your theater, bro. I'm a big fan. I love your theater."

A crackling PA system is switched on. A voice replies in perfect English. "Who are you? What are you doing in here? Can't you see that we're closed?"

I follow myself backwards, twisting and turning as I go, frantically scanning the darkened lobby as if being haunted by the invisible. "It's me, Tommy. The Projectionist. I take pictures of old movie theaters and....."

"So it's you, then? I know who you are! Get out of my theater! You're a menace. Don't you write anything about this place! Get out before I throw you out!"

The project has become embedded, I suppose.
Back in early December, while scouring the towns and cities of central Isan for the ghosts' of cinemas past, I had the good fortune of arriving in Chaiyaphum during a town fair. The occasion had something to do with a Chinese holiday, but I can't remember which one. Apparently it only happens once ever four or five years.

Among the attractions was a nang glang praeng, or open-air movie; the first of its kind I've ever seen. This form of entertainment was once prolific throughout Thailand, especially in the rural areas where movie theaters were scarce. Nowadays it's not easy to find outside of Isan.

Yim Yim Pappayon, an open-air movies company, displays posters in front of their truck. It's a triple header of Transformers 2, Samchuk and Buppha Ratree 3.2.

Traveling cinemas operate just as you might imagine. Think of them like traveling carnivals, or the Harlem Globetrotters, moving around from place to place bringing joy and excitement to the people. Their proprietors drive around in a truck hauling a full size movie screen, a 35 mm projector, some giant speakers and reels of film. Generally speaking, they like to find a nice open field on the outskirts of a village, erect a wall of cloth or a tarp to make an enclosure, set up the gear and charge the locals a couple of baht to get in. Ask any Thai thirty or above who comes from a small town or village about it and they will remember vividly.

An employee of Yim Yim Films sets up a projector in the middle of the street.

In the past, open-air movies were often sponsored by local pharmaceutical companies. During the intermission, a sales person would pitch various medicinal remedies and smelling salts to the crowd, introducing branded products to the rural populous. These were known as nang kai ya, or medicine sales movies.

It's less common to find traveling cinema companies showing films in urban areas. There's less space, it's harder to get permits, etc, etc. But the Chaiyaphum town fair provided just such an opportunity. A full size movie screen spanned the width of the street, and with the row houses on both sides serving as walls, it was like a real movie theater, minus chairs and a roof.

Peace and a movie

If you screen it, they will come

Curbside seating

From the ground up

A piece of cardboard keeps the clothes clean.

At its peak, there were a few hundred people sprawled out under the stars, eyes fixated on the movie screen. A cooperative of local merchants put up the money for the entire fair, including the cost of movie screenings, so it was free to watch. Sitting there cross-legged on a piece of newspaper, under the black of night's sky, watching Transformers 2 - the one and only way to view such garbage - I felt like a little kid again. Entranced in a state of childhood euphoria, with blank thoughts, still as a stone. Only the muted pain of blood circulation loss in my foot roused me. A moment later and the trance was blown away completely by a gust of saliva mixed with alcohol, as the town drunk breathed in my face. 15 minutes of his life story was enough. I returned to the solitude of my hotel room to continue my trace through sleep.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Thang Long Cinema - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Renovated and illuminated shimmers the Thang Long Cinema. For the past year, a crisp metal paneling has covered the original facade, deceptively masking the theater's true age. By one account, this three-screen stand-alone dates back to the early 1960's, when Saigon was ruled by the iron-fisted, but ill-fated regime of Ngo Dinh Diem: John F. Kennedy's wrong answer to Ho Chi Minh. Diem, a repressive dictator with not much in the way of mass appeal, met an assassin's bullet less than a month before Kennedy did, while less than two years later the United States embarked on the most wanton and protracted war of the 20th century. The rest is...

Miraculously, the Thang Long Cinema survived the carnage of war and now, given its recent renovations, appears to be sticking it out through the carnage of a fast moving economy: a potentially equally devastating fate if you're an old building. Saigon Movies Media has bucked the trend, however. The small, locally-owned theater chain/movie distributor poured a ton of money into the Thang Long as a means of bringing it up to date. The investment seems to be paying off. While shooting the place, a few dozen motorcyclists pulled up on the sidewalk to check the show times from two high-def TV screens mounted above the door. Can't do that in a shopping mall! But more to the point, people were buying tickets.

Young couples left agonizing traffic to examine movie schedules

"What time does Avatar start?"

Looking down from the upper level over the lobby all shiny and new.

Ticket queue

There wasn't enough time to see a movie at the Thang Long, but that didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying my visit. It was kind of cool to see all those people jump the curb on their motorbikes to check out the show times. And even though the new facade is a bit uninspired by my tastes, at least they're trying. Hopefully the material is mounted so that it can some day be removed without harming the original structure.

That also wraps up my series of raps from HCMC. Needless to say, there's a lot that I didn't get around to. Ho Chin Minh City deserves a much longer commitment that the 6 or 7 days I spent there. The place is vast.

I'll leave you with a short piece from the Saigon Times about the future growth of movie theaters in Vietnam:

More cinemas in coming years

Vietnam now has around 86 million people but there are only about ten cinemas which meet international standards, most in Hanoi and HCMC. The film industry has decided to open more cinemas to meet the high demands and interests of customers who are mostly between 15 and 30 years old.

Hall told the Daily, “Megastar’s plan is to find new locations in Hanoi and HCMC to open in 2011, 2012 and 2013. We already have a number of sites in mind. We will also carefully watch the performance of our 3D cinemas in Megastar Hung Vuong Plaza and Megastar Vincom City Tower to determine if we should add more 3D screens to these and other Megastar locations in future.”

Anh Loan of Saigon Movies Media said her company this year would open four new film centers in District 1 and 3. Galaxy in April will inaugurate Galaxy Tan Binh in Bau Cat, Tan Binh Distrcit, Khanh Tung told the Daily.

Thang Long = Flying Dragon

(Many thanks to Dang, An Nhien and Cherry for their time, generosity and valuable insights into Saigonese ways)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Former movie theater - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Nothing too exciting here, but an anecdote worthy of record all the same. Ho Chi Minh City has lots of live theaters. To what this is attributable, I do not know. It's probably as simple as people like the performing arts. Maybe the Ministry of Culture promotes it. Whatever it is, this phenomenon has resulted in the recent conversion of this building from movie theater to live theater. A loss in kind which I'll mourn any day.

Movie ads still adorn the upper exterior this former movie theater despite its recent conversion to a play house.

Posters for live shows and a refuge

A slightly 1980's-style decor enlivens the lobby.

In spite of my personal preference for movies over plays, it was interesting all the same to see so many theaters dedicated to live performance throughout HCMC.

A local resident and movie theater sympathizer, Cherry (pictured above), very graciously guided us to this building, one of her former neighborhood raps.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Nimit Theater - Phuket, Thailand

Imagine standing beside this old theater! You're loomed over. Compared to the narrow, row house-lined street over which it looms, it's a momument. City detritus to the umteenth power, titanic in proportion. Standing in its shadow like a pebble at mountain's foot, I think to myself that size really does matter. At least Mr. Nimit must have believed so. He also must have believed in the power of cinema, because he built the entire neighborhood in conjunction with his movie theater. Maybe the other way around.

Spidey on the wall.

It would have been nice to spend some more time documenting the Nimit Theater. It was beautiful. But dogs chased me away. You know how many times I've been attacked by dogs while doing this stuff?

Rising up over the neighborhood row houses: The Nimit Theater of Phuket town

All tallied, there are four remaining stand-alone theaters in the town of Phuket. The other three, even in all their historical pomp, lacked evidence of what they once were. Only the Nimid made the cut. There it is: big and bad and falling apart. If only big, bad theaters like this could have hung around to usher in the coming new era in movie exhibition.