Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Shwe Hintha Cinema - Bago, Myanmar

Eleven days of negotiating Yagon's cracked and crowded sidewalks had taken its toll. I was in dire need of some elbow room and a change of pace. With the lion's share of the city's cinemas already consigned to immortality, including all the most important ones, it was time to push on. The monsoons, you see, saturate coastal Myanmar before anywhere else, coming in from the south and west, then gradually moving northwards through the river valleys separating the mountains. Sticking to the delta cities as originally planned would guarantee lousy weather and fewer chances to do what I came for. To the north, I plotted, away from the never ending rain, en route to fairer skies. First stop, the city of Bago, which, it should be noted, at just sixty kilometers up-river from Yangon, still wasn't far enough north to avoid a drenching.

Rain, however punishing, played no part in dampening my spirits after finding Bago's oldest standing movie theater, the Shwe Hintha. A time-worn relic in the heart of a town that time forgot. Once off the country's main north-south highway, which cuts through Bago like asphalt lightening, thundering trucks unlimited, the town is a complete time capsule; a window into the past. You feel like you're in British Burmah, with an "h" at the end.

The Shwe Hintha is one of the best examples of Art Deco architecture applied to a movie theater I've found to date, albeit with a distinctly Southeast Asian flare. Built in 1928, it came into being at the height of the Art Deco movement. Located at one of Bago's busiest commercial intersections, just a block from the British built-train station, the Shwe Hintha must have been a gleaming symbol of the Roaring 20's wealth and prosperity when it opened. Today the street that it stands on is lined with open-air tea houses, where I spent at least an hour per day people watching and jotting down notes. Most of the tea shops were broadcasting the World Cup on TV, adding an extra dose of life to an already bustling part of town.

Various streetscapes of the Shwe Hintha Cinema.

Left exterior of the Shwe Hintha Cinema, with several exit doors leading from the auditorium. The right exterior, in contrast, contains 3 or 4 retail spaces.

Plaster bas relief of a golden Brahminy Duck above the main entrance. Above the duck it says "Shwe Hintha," below it says "Ashin' myin yo-shin yon," or "Quality Cinema."

Shwe Hintha translates to "Golden Brahminy Duck," a name chosen in homage to the legendary origins of Bago (which I'll come to in a minute). The town actually has a long and regal history, serving as capital of an independent Mon kingdom known as Hanthawaddy ("Hantha" as in "Hintha" as in "Shwe Hintha") until the Burmans captured it in the 16th century, briefly making it the capital of their own empire. Apparently the Bago River used to be a tidal one, meaning that water levels would rise high enough that large vessels were able to navigate it from the Gulf of Martaban, hence making Bago a viable port for the long distance sea trade. The river has since changed course, forever changing the fortunes of this once important city.

As for the name, legend has it that a Mon prince was traveling through the region when he witnessed a male Brahminy Duck sitting on a tiny mound of land in what was then the sea. In an act of unprecedented chivalry, the male duck supported a female duck on his back as the tidal water rose. Taking this as an auspicious sign, the Mon prince predicted that a city would some day rise from where the two ducks were seen mucking around. Twelve hundred years later, I'm photographing the Golden Duck Cinema.

Waiting on the steps

The yellow building across from the theater was built for a British merchant or colonial official.

The manager sitting in the lobby before showtime.

Lobby and ticket window

A lucky toddler gets to watch a movie

Big sister and little brother inspect movie posters.

Buying tickets

The ticket seller stamps the date on each ticket

Folding wooden doors at the entrance to the auditorium

Movies in Shwe Hintha Cinema are projected from an LCD projector set up in the middle aisle. A second projector is suspended from a pole attached to the balcony. The vast majority of Myanmar's cinema halls use LCD projectors instead of film. Most domestic movies are shot on digital video to cut down production costs.

The combination of stimulating location and old school charms made the Shwe Hintha Cinema one of my all time favorite movie theaters. I spent many hours getting to know it and the surrounding neighborhood. A major point of interest for me was to see how much of a community venue it really is, as evidenced by the fact that almost everybody who came arrived on foot or bicycle.

After 82 years the Shwe Hintha is still bringing joy to Bagoans.

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