Thursday, March 31, 2011

First of the first-class

No historical survey of Thailand's movie theaters would be complete without referencing this one: the Sala Chalerm Krung was the original first-class movie theater in the Kingdom, commissioned in 1932 by the King himself, in honor of Bangkok's 150th anniversary. The following newspaper clippings on the theater come courtesy of the good people over at 2Bangkok - the best the web has to offer on Thai media analysis, politics, history and the country's infrastructure.

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The Sala Chalerm Krung as of 2009.

One of these days I'll take the camera around to the old Sala Chalerm Krung and give it its proper dues. For many years, after all, this was the creme de la creme of Bangkok movie theaters. Regrettably, it doesn't screen films that often any more. It's devoted instead to high-brow forms of live entertainment, for an audience of refined taste and polish. For that I give it a resoundingly low-brow boooooooooo!

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Mingala Thiri Cinema - Dawei, Thanintharyi Division, Myanmar

Under the crisp, cool season sun, Dawei calls to mind a set from a Spaghetti Western. Broad, dusty streets, as straight as can be, stretching out as far as the eye can see, are corralled by low-rise, low-density buildings of various tones. It's a sleepy town. By mid-day it grows listless, silent, smothered under a heat-inspired languor. A gentle breeze accompanies you wherever you go, creating a constant hum as it flutes past your ears. All that's needed to complete the Spaghetti Western illusion is dueling gun-slingers backed up by a Morricone score.

Had you been a visitor Dawei in the late 1960's, you might have caught a Spaghetti Western at one of its two movie theaters.

The Mingala Thiri Cinema

The Mingala Thiri Cinema defies architectural categorization (at least by my amateur standards). Five squared columns rising to a central peak comprise the most noteworthy element of its facade. Like its fraternal twin, the Aung Mingala Cinema, situated just a few blocks to the north, the Mingala Thiri is set back from the building-line and partially obscured behind tea shops. Both theaters were built in 1952, likely the product of the same proprietor. But maybe, just maybe, they were each owned separately, by dueling exhibitors, who added a little Spaghetti Western-style competition to this sleepy southern town. Cinema showdown, you could call it.

Ticket window

Concessions being sold outside, in front of the theater.

Long-employed usher.

In Dawei, the cinema business has eroded to the point of near nothingness. At least so it seems from a guest's perspective. Much like its counterpart a few blocks to the north, the Mingala Thiri Cinema has an aura of slow decline surrounding it. You can feel it in the air, see in the eyes of its aging staff.

Asleep on the job.

The Mingala Thiri Entertainment Group

There's some great text painted above the two theater entrances. This one says: "May you prosper with auspicious and noble companions."

This one says: "May our friend's be happy in body and mind."

Dawei was memorable for its colorful tag-alongs, like this guy, who prided himself in resembling Mr. Bean.

Light beam pierces through a window.

Balcony view

Proscenium marked with the year 1952.

Satisfied customers

Five peaks and signage. Mingala Thiri translates to "Auspicious Glory"

Dawei's molasses-slow pace and Wild West aesthetic might soon become a thing of the past. Change is in the air, to the tune of a 10-billion dollar investment. As of November, 2010, an MoU has been signed between Myanmar's military junta and Thailand's largest construction firm, Italian-Thai Development, to build a seaport and industrial complex at Dawei. Most of the facilities will be located along the Andaman Sea coast, thus not abutting the town proper. But a project of this scale, with the potential to rearrange the geo-politics of the entire region, will inevitably have some affects on Dawei itself. For example, boat traffic destined for China from the Indian ocean and points west will no longer have to pass through the Straits of Malacca - long the most important shipping lanes in Southeast Asia - to reach their destination. Instead ships will be able to bypass thousands of miles of sea travel by making Dawei the new port of call. The same logic will accompany exports from southern and western China, as overland transport routes through the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS), reaching as far as the Andaman Sea, continue to be developed. Dawei, then, is likely to see change unlike anything its experienced since the colonial times. With potential investments pouring into the city, will the Aung Mingala and Mingala Thiri cinemas find new life, or quick death? One way or another, Dawei is a place to watch in the coming years.

Read more about the "Dawei Development Project", as it's known, by clicking here.

(Special thanks to San San Pway for her auspicious and noble translation work)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Aung Mingalar Cinema - Dawei, Thanintharyi Division, Myanmar - PART 2

As promised, your glimpse inside the Aung Mingala Cinema. Unfortunately, imagery of the auditorium itself is missing from this series. I forgot the tripod in my hotel room, plain and simple. Nonetheless, here's the best of what I could get of this iconic structure in a city on the cusp of change.

Ticket booth calculations

Aside from a lone woman working the ticket window, the Aung Mingala is staffed by four or five withered, old men. They have all been employed at the theater for decades, seeing to its general up-keep and day to day operations. When observing these men at work, one gets the impression that they are very literally a part of the theater. They constitute its heart, lungs, brain and eyes. In an off hand way they resemble the theater. One of them dwells behind it. All of these old theater-smiths are quite small, likely the result of being young children during the post-World War II years, when famine, hence malnutrition, hence stunted growth were commonplace in Burma. This smallness of stature lends further credence to their biological relationship to the theater. To be small is to circulate more easily through its vessels and chambers. When giving me a tour of the theater, it's as if they were revealing to me their life stories: stories which few people seem to care about anymore. One feels all too certain that the theater will cease living once they do.

The lifeblood of the Aung Mingala: its staff

Ticket taker/manager

The projectionist with his machine: a Zeiss Ikon carbon-arc projector c. 1958

Bannister woodwork.

The interior of the Aung Mingala is built mostly of wood, as can be seen in this stairwell leading to the balcony.

Seating from behind

A solitary viewer.

It breaks my heart to admit as much, but the Aung Mingala Cinema, it seems, is deep in the throws of decline. To say otherwise would be wishful thinking. It was the weekend in Dawei, the part of the week when cinema halls are supposed to make up for sluggish weekday attendance. At neither of the screenings I attended were there more than 10 customers. Besides myself, one showed up for a Saturday evening show, seating himself all the way in the last row of the balcony. In a theater with a seating capacity of close to 600, the emptiness was pervasive.

"A structure is most legible at the points of birth and death; its interconnections are more discernible as they are added to and then subtracted from. In this way a building is more public in disuse, more open to interrogation in deconstruction, more candidly explanatory of its parts in dismemberment."

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Aung Mingalar Cinema - Dawei, Thanintharyi Division, Myanmar - PART I

Travel by boat to Thanintharyi Division may be off limits to foreigners, but boat travel between the division's ports is not. Aside from flying, it's the only legal way to get from city to city.

A four hour ferry ride north of Myeik deposits us at the Dawei passenger port. Here the coastline is pristine, unspoiled by industry of any kind. From the looks of it there is scarcely any human activity whatsoever along the banks. Only mangrove swamp and other riparian vegetation.

The vessel docks at the mouth of the Dawei River, but it's yet another hour by bus to the city proper. As bus rides in developing countries go, this was easily the most horrifying I've ever experienced. Indeed, the trans-mountain roads of northern Laos or western Shan State, with their amateur engineering around hair-pin curves, sheer cliffs below, made for joy rides compared to a drive through the low-lying paddies of northern Thanintharyi.

A mound of dirt, barely one car lane wide, raised up several meters from the flanking paddy, comprises the road. No shoulder or retaining wall to speak of. The bus, an act of benevolence from Japan circa the early 1990's, used and worn down, has a suspension system akin to a trampoline. That is, every divot along this long neglected highway causes the bus to spring skywards, seemingly out of control. There is no way the tires can possibly grip the brittle asphalt when this occurs. Our driver, moreover, has a penchant for speeding. If we are not flung from the road into the dry paddy fields below, then certainly we will maim an innocent farmer walking along our same path. Maybe a child on a bicycle. An ox crossing between fields. Near town we come inches from rolling over a motorbike carrying three dare-devil teens who are smoking cigarettes and carrying on without a clue. Aside from that close call, no calamities.

Within an hour of dismounting the bus, shaken but unharmed, the first of Dawei's two movie theaters stood before me.

The Aung Mingala Cinema: a Dawei staple since 1952

A very typical Burmese version of Art Deco.

Past tea shops on both sides stands the Aung Mingala Cinema.

Tea shops flank both sides of the Aung Mingala's foreground - recessed, as it is, from the street-side building-line. The shops might obscure a clear view of the cinema from street-level, but they also attract a steady flow of traffic to the theater grounds. In years past, the tea shops and the theater shared a symbiotic relationship with each other, as patrons made a day out of the two leisure activities. Apparently that relationship is much less so today. Movie-going in Dawei seems to be dying out. Tea drinking, at least, has not waned as a shared pleasure among the locals.

A swell idea gone awry: electrical wires interfere with an elevated shot of the Aung Mingala Cinema and its environs.

Up close with the facade. The number 2000 on the cornice represents the year the Aung Mingala was rehabbed, not the year it was built.

The Art Deco facade of brick and cement - along with a small, concrete lobby area, mask an auditorium built almost completely of wood. The floor of the balcony - wood through and through - generates creaks and groans when walked upon. The wooden proscenium around the screen, which - for lack of tripod - I carelessly neglected to photograph, has the year 1952 painted on it. Next year the Aung Mingala will be 60 years old.

Ticket booth

Front entrance

Check back in a few days for a glimpse inside Dawei's Aung Mingala Cinema, courtesy of its devoted - to say the least - staff.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Kindred spirits

Click here to view the work of two Frenchmen who've scoured the streets of American cities for tattered movie palaces. Their photography is magnifique!

(Photo by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre Photography)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Gon Cinema - Myeik, Thanintharyi Division, Myanmar

Overland travel to Thanintharyi Division - Myanmar's southern-most territory - is not an option for foreigners. The route passes through sizable chunks of eastern Mon State and northern Thanintharyi Division: land held by the Mon National Liberation Front - one of the country's numerous ethnic armies fighting for autonomy. Boat travel, the most alluring prospect off all, is likewise off limits. The thought of roving journalists, or foreign agitators - meddlers or interlopers of one kind or another, meandering about the labyrinthine waterways of the Mergui Archipelago, is unnerving to the generals up in Nay Pyi Daw.

With air travel the only available option for non-nationals - also the most expensive and least spontaneous - very few foreign tourists make it down to Thanintharyi. Thus the division's Andaman beaches and its three largish towns remain under the radar, way down at the bottom of mainland Southeast Asia's least visited country. Whether this is a curse or a blessing is yet to be seen, but for anybody with a strong interest in the region, the Thanintharyi city of Myeik (AKA Beik, or its colonial name of Mergui) should not be missed. It is arguably the most attractive city in all of mainland Southeast Asia(!).

Myeik: one of the nicest cities in Southeast Asia

There are two elements that make Myeik so special: first is its geography. Half of the town sits on the slopes of a steep hill, descending a few hundred feet to the flat lowlands below. Myeik's main commercial avenue winds down this hill. In certain neighborhoods along its crest stand the elegant, turn-of-the-20th-century mansions of the town's business and political elite. Higher ground for the high and mighty.

The other half of the town extends for roughly a kilometer from the base of the hill to the blue waters of yonder bay. Out into the bay about two or three kilometers sits a long barrier island, with two peaks at either end separated by a narrow isthmus. The island shields Myeik from rough seas and inclement weather, helping to ensure its viability as a port town. It also serves as a verdant frame for the body of water it partially surrounds.

The second element comprising Myeik's greatness is its layout and architecture. Before the British annexed this part of Burma in the early 19th century, the bay extended up to the foot of the hill, where the lower half of the city now lies. Over the century-plus of Union Jack suzerainty, the bay was filled in, block by city block, to its present day limits. Market spaces and warehouses rose on land once inundated by the sea, as Myeik (then known as Mergui) took its place among the important maritime cities in the British empire. To this day, much of the colonial era housing stock survives, intact, if not a little on the shabby side.

Myeik's lone surviving cinema structure, unfortunately, does not due justice to the town's unique appeal, but that doesn't mean it has no charms of its own.

This is the shell of the Gon Cinema. It's all the remains of a trio of theaters which once brought joy and entertainment to the people Myeik. Its owner bought it from the government about 10 years ago and kept it open until 2008. Ailing attendance, he claims, forced him to shut it down. Ever since, he's been using it as a warehouse to store the non-perishables that stock his supermarket on the town's main drag.

Located in the lowland area of town, on a side street leading towards Myeik's central market, the Gon was likely the town's working-class cinema hall when it opened in the late 1950's, serving the stevedores and sailors coming up from the port.

It also happens to be one of the more simply designed movie theaters I've come across to date in Myanmar. The facade of the building runs length-wise, with the auditorium parallel to the street, an uncommon feature among Myanmar theaters of this era. 1958, the peak of the country's movie theater construction boom, is its birth year, however, it lacks much of the architectural detailing common to the times and structural type.

Under the portico

Repurposing the Gon Cinema has not meant erasing its visible past. On the exterior, most of the tell tale signs are still in place. The poster case bolted to the wall still has a poster from theater's final movie three years ago. Two plastic hanging signs, with both English and Burmese writing, make false claims to the theater's existence, while a neon sign still clings to the upper wall.

The interior, however, is another story.

Neon signage

A sliver of shade provided by a column.

Killer robot or just the old ticket window?

Rebar and bags of cement are stored in the defunct Gon Cinema.

As a means of maximizing storage space at the old Gon Cinema-turned-warehouse, the former balcony was extended outwards, creating a whole new level and cutting the place in half horizontally. From the inside the Gon is completely unrecognizable as a cinema.

A worker smiles for the camera while loading cases of cola into the old Gon.

It's all too upsetting that the Gon Cinema is no longer a cinema, but that didn't stop me from having fun; thanks to the work crew that pulled up mid-shoot. These nine guys are employed by the owner of the Gon - a big business man around town. Here they are unloading a truck full of soda into the old theater.

Who needs hand-trucks when you've got hands?

Shoulder carriers

The gang's all here.

Over on Myeik's Main Street, there is a major construction project being undertaken: a seven-story hotel with a supermarket on the ground level is being hammered out. Until 6 months ago, the Shae Saung Cinema stood on that land; by all accounts Myeik's premiere picture house. The proprietor of the hotel project was also the proprietor of the razed cinema. He is the same man that owns the Gon Cinema. Hopefully he won't come up with a second big development idea, otherwise the Gon will