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