Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The San Pya Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

It was instantly apparent that the San Pya had been a victim of degeneration over the years. There was no need to venture inside to figure that out. The dank air gushing from the entrance smelled like a jungle cave minus the guano. Whatever personage or wildlife had taken refuge therein would be better left to the imagination, I figured. Seats filled with movie-watching leopards, maybe?

Surrounding vendors and passersby eyed me curiously as I shot away at the theatrical flophouse towering above. Opposite the theater, at an unusually-fashionable-for-Yangon ice cream parlor, mid-day revelers sat staring as if I were committing murder with an ice pick in front of their very eyes. Others traded coy smiles, casting side-long glances in my direction as if asking, "what's so interesting about that dump?"

Frontal view of the San Pya Cinema, looking across Phongyi Street.

"San Pya" overlaid in the tile along the theater's side. San Pya means "standard." On the facade, traces of a vertical sign protrude outwards.

Groceries for sale from a retail space along the side of the San Pya Cinema.


San Pya resident in the threshold of her gate.

And so, after forty-five minutes of casual scrutiny it became clear that the San Pya Cinema is a city unto itself. Perimeter retail space, a common feature among Myanmar's movie theaters, was accompanied by residential dwellings, a not-so-common feature. Several compartments along the ground-level perimeter were being rented out as such. Four, five, six people to a room.

The woman in the above photo greeted me while I meandered around the theater's exterior. She was visibly anxious about speaking to me, but equally intent on doing so, it seemed. A proper Burmese English accent belied a decent education from decades before, though the laws of English grammar had faded with time. Her mission, I soon learned, was to point out that she resided in the theater. For six years, she said, she'd been a San Pya Cinema lodger. Upon hearing this, I was seized by a momentary jolt of opportunism as I considered asking her permission to enter. My pressing queries, all forty-five stewing minutes worth of them, would be definitively answered once the San Pya's inner realities were made known. But her shifty eyes and nervous disposition made me think twice. In place of a tour I settled for a photo of her in the threshold of her gate, leaving the inner realities to their privacy.

Ticket window

Ice cream for sale from the San Pya.

Common sights around the San Pya

The man sitting on the far right of the photos sells cigarettes, cheroots and betel nut. The sign on the left announces the movie show times.

Later interviews confirmed my suspicions about the San Pya, however. One respondent linked its lowly status to its proximity to several major bus routes which connect the surrounding countryside to downtown Yangon. Once within the anonymous environment of the city center, said my informant, the theater makes an ideal place for waywards to "relax" in relative privacy. But it wasn't always this way, of course.

In years past the San Pya Cinema qualified as a premier downtown movie theater. A few senior Yangonians I spoke to recalled the days when sell-out crowds came regularly to enjoy the state of the art comforts it provided. Those days may be gone, but it's not difficult to picture the old theater in dazzling condition. One key artifact that would add a much needed glimmer to the San Pya if it were still in place is the old vertical sign. Remnants of it can be seen protruding from the facade, but its absence has critically dulled the international style architecture. What a difference a sign makes.

As Yangon slowly embarks along the road to change, lets hope that the San Pya gets restored to its past glory.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Nawaday Cinema Garden - Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon's northern reaches differ vastly from the southerly tip with its gilded grid city, coarse and gritty. The density thins out considerably up here. In many ways it's a typical "other side of the tracks" division, minus the rigid social dichotomy so often associated with the cliche. The changes are more physical than they are demographic, but by no means exclusively so. In fact, this is where most of the country's elite make their homes, hidden away behind imposing stone walls, crowned with rings of tightly coiled barbed wire.

In contrast to the cramped time capsule of architectural intrigue to the south - the grid city proper - Yangon north of the tracks is a sprawl of development, some parts leafy and suburban, others just as built up as the grid below. The entire stretch is bound together by a network of winding roads, peppered throughout with lush parks, shanty towns, socialist-inspired housing blocks, retail shopping centers, fortified designer homes and pockets of jungly vegetation yet to be cleared. Perched above it all, near 8 Mile on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, is the grand Nawaday Cinema Garden - a movie behemoth the likes of which I've seldom seen.

The Nawaday Cinema Garden, with brass statue and water fountain in front.

I ought to know the significance of this statue, but I never found out. It looks like a mythological being from Buddhist lore holding a socialist star.

The Nawaday was one of the rare theaters which actually intimidated me at first sight. Neither beautiful in design nor charming in detail, its grounds felt more like a government compound, with the 4th plenary session of the politburo's 5th commemorative celebration of the 12th 5 year planning failure being held inside. I crawled out of the taxi half expecting to be dragged away by armed guards. "You've seen too much, imperialist swine" they would say, while driving me blindfolded to a malarial detention center.

Overlooking the grand atrium of the lobby

The domineering aesthetic, it turns out, is no accident. This mammoth of movie theaters in Yangon's northern suburbs was built by the government; a State-conceived effort in mass appeasement circa 1990 - May 30th, to be precise. Yes, the Nawaday was the first of four such theaters I would come across that were commissioned by the State, the other three being in the city of Mandalay.

Movie theater construction is not usually a priority of government. That being said, across the eastern border in Thailand there are a few that can be traced to the Fascist government of Field Marshall Phibunsongkram, and another which was financed by King Prajodhipok back in 1932, but other than that, cinema building has been a private affair. Myanmar's case differs slightly, however. Despite state ownership of the cinema halls, they're almost all leased out to private entities who run the day to day operations. The Nawaday is no exception. This one-thousand seat megalith has been under contract by the San Shwe Co. since 1997.

Nonetheless, it's interesting to note that the State was behind the construction of at least 4 theaters between 1984 and 1998.

An expansive lobby, bathed in natural light, brings to mind train stations and other grandiose public structures.

Ticket queue beneath the stairs

Ticket windows

Up to balcony seating

The little bucket is not a waste bin, but a spittoon. Myanmar is a betel chewing country.

The Nawaday Cinema Garden and the little Chinese restaurant beside it.

The farewell committee

The next time somebody says "Myanmar's government has never done anything good for the country," remember the Nawaday.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Shwe Mann Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

When I photographed the Shwe Mann Cinema back in June, I remember thinking it was of a less stimulating variety than the other theaters I'd come across in Yangon. Aside from a courteous and curious staff, ever accommodating to my photographic requests, the physicality of the place left me unimpressed. Many prior hours spent milling about the muck-studded allure of Cinema Row, with its sextet of time-worm movie houses in the city center had me spoiled. In comparison, the Shwe Mann's more homely, less regal design left something to be desired. But looking back over this set of photos I am finding myself reassessing that narrow view.

The Shwe Mann Cinema serves its faithful on the outskirts of downtown Yangon; an unassuming neighborhood escape den just off the Dagon intersection.

Shwe Mann facade and vending action

Ticket window flanked by posters for the latest domestic thriller, "The Three Brides."

A ticket taker waits for patrons, while the assistant manager looks on with his young son in arms.

Three young guards, hired to search the bags of incoming movie goers for recording devices, wait for patrons to search. Many Myanmar cinema halls employ such staff.


It was just shy of a packed house on the Saturday afternoon of my visit. A stream of last minute movie-goers poured through the front door en route to their assigned seats and air-conditioned relief from rainy season languor. My arrival caused quite a stir among the Shwe Mann's young staff, a half-dozen of whom thronged the entrance way. Most of them were security guards, charged with searching the baggage of incoming cinephiles for camcorders and other devices of the bootlegging business.

A man with an authoritative demeanor approached me as I made my case to the guards. The manager, I assumed. So it was. I had obviously come to the wrong place, he expressed, while attempting to convey that this was a movie theater playing Burmese language films. As an act of good will and segue to consent, I purchased a ticket, then pulled out the camera to show off photos of other theaters I'd taken around town.

The Burmese word for movie theater is roughly pronounced yo' shin-yon; it's one of the few Burmese words I have etched in the brain. Combining the English "I love" and the Burmese "yo' shin-yon" immediately registered with the theater staff and the red carpet treatment was enacted in haste. An entourage of perplexed employees trailed me as I explored the inner depths of their work place.

Landing of the staircase, leading up to the auditorium. The Shwe Mann Temple, of which the theater is named for, is etched into the mirror.

Shwe Mann graffiti

The assistant manager posing for a photo in an little cranny of the Shwe Mann.
Door girl flips through a magazine

Door girl doing her duty

Door girl shyly smiling with Walt Disney wall-paper behind her.

Historical data for the Shwe Mann Cinema was hard to collect given the thick language barrier. The manager claimed that it was built some 80 years ago, but I find that hard to believe. 40 is probably more like it, maybe even younger than that.

Although its architectural starkness was immediately, in refocusing on the details I am reminded of some of its more subtle charms. A voraciously 1980's decor adds a bit of vibrancy to the place. The mirrored wall, for instance, on the first floor staircase landing features a pink etching of the Shwe Mann Temple, the theater's namesake. Above it, a pink neon sign reading Shwe Mann coats the atmosphere in an endearing hue of flamboyance. Throughout the upper lobby, charcoal black paint covers the walls, with glow-in-the-dark stencils of stars and asteroids dotted throughout. Taking the cake, though, is the Mickey Mouse wall-paper adorning the back wall of the upper lobby - marking a rare, albeit curious appearance of an American pop-culture figure in a country that's been held under a US trade embargo for many years. All these features give the place a down home feel that you scarcely find in cinemas anymore.

Coincidentally, the number three ranking figure in Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council is also named Shwe Mann.

A glimpse inside the auditorium courtesy of the general manager.

"I love yo' shin-yon"

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Cathay Cinema - Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon is an inexhaustible treasure vault of culture and history. It greets the pedestrian with a neglected sort of decadence on every block; arcane to the untrained eye, yet illustrious all the same. With each turn of every corner, the sight of intrigue pierces through your thoughts like a bolt of cerebral lighting. Other times you turn that corner and meet a creamy, red stream of betel juice projectile across your shoe, ejected from the pursed lips a street side chewer. Let it soak in like crimson dye, pick your head up and step back into the swing of things - there's endless delights to be discovered in the gilded cesspool.

On the northwest corner of the Shwe Taung Dan Street and Anawratha Road, on the edge of Chinatown, stands a lusterless jewel of cinema past, masquerading as a retail rug shop. That's the former Cathay Cinema, known locally as the Kay Thwe. It's been 20 years since the Cathay Cinema was converted, though its memory still stands out crisp in the minds of most Chinatown residents.

Formerly the Cathay Cinema, now a rug shop on the first level and a karaoke parlor on the second.

Here's where the history gets rich: Yangon's Cathay Cinema was part of the Singapore-based Cathay Organization - once one of East Asia's most prolific cinema companies. Cathay opened its first theater in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia in 1936 under the company name of Associated Theaters Ltd.. Then in '39 they opened their flagship theater in Singapore, never to look back again. Within two decades they had branched out into film production and distribution, while presiding over an empire of more than 75 theaters throughout Singapore and Malaysia. In a bid to ensure that their products got screened further afield, Cathay built a network of theaters located in Chinatowns throughout Southeast Asia and beyond, including in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Distribution even reached to such far flung regions as Europe and Latin America.

Architectural details

Triple themed balustrade: a common design on many older buildings in Myanmar.

Painted mural on the staircase landing, inside the former Cathay Cinema

Exactly when the Cathay Organization made this Yangon (then Rangoon) addition to their holdings is unclear. Chances are, however, it was in the 1960's or 70's when they were branching out across the region, peddling their cinematic wares in stiff competition with Shaw Brothers Studio for control of the Chinese-language movie market. But as one might have guessed from its architecture, the theater actually predates Cathay's tenancy by a long shot, dating way back to 1929. Like many old Chinatown movie theaters, it may very well have started out as a Chinese opera hall before making the switch to film.

As for Cathay's once widespread distribution network, it has contracted over the years, as evidenced by the sight of this rundown former fun factory. In fact, most of their overseas cinema holdings have been dissolved, save for a few in neighboring Malaysia. But don't mistake a less expansive network for overall recession. Far from it. They have since gone into just about every type of leisure related industry you can think of and more: they run malls, cable television services, bowling alleys, hotels, property development companies and, of course, movie theaters. Along with their numerous subsidiaries, Cathay Organization is now the biggest entertainment conglomerate in Singapore.

To this day Singapore remains one of Myanmar's most reliable trading partners and political supporters.

Just a reminder, there are now only 7 copies remaining of The Movie Theater of Thailand photo portfolio. Once these are gone they will never be printed again. The entire box set is on sale here and here exclusively for $300 dollars each. For comparison, my photos currently on exhibition at H Gallery in Bangkok now are listed at $550 dollars for a single print. This set consists of 20, albeit much smaller images.

Get one of these while you can,