Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Bandula Cinema - Taunggyi, Shan State, Myanmar

As mentioned in the previous post, Bangkok's Sala Chalerm Krung Theater was commissioned by King Phrajodhipok - the 7th monarch of Thailand's reigning Chakri Dynasty. Up in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, four of the old stand-alone theaters were built by Prince Suriwong Na Chiang Mai - a member of the annexed kingdom's royal household. Crossing the border into Laos, at least one of the theaters in Vientiane - the converted Saeng Lao Cinema - was erected in the 1950's by a descendant of Lan Xang nobility, while the Pakse Theater in the capital of Champassak Province sprang from the purse of Prince Boun Oum Na Champassak. By now I'm sure you've guessed the pattern: in the Theravada states of Southeast Asia, aristocracy and movie exhibition have long gone hand-in-hand. In at least one case, the same holds true for the princely domains of Myanmar's Shan State: Taunggyi's Bandula Cinema.

The Bandula Cinema with its Greek Revival detailing

The years following World War II were years of high hopes and aspirations in Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia. Decolonization, coupled with the need to rebuild from the war, unleashed a tidal wave of productive energy throughout the country, if not a fare share of often-violent political jockeying. Economic elites of both the hereditary and business variety took advantage of this watershed in opportunity to pursue their interests, forge a new society. Construction of new buildings boomed, as dates engraved on the cornices of many attest to. The years from 1948 to 1962 are common birth marks upon Myanmar architecture.

It was at the threshold of independence - 1947-48 - that the Bandula Cinema came into existence. The driving force behind the project was a man of Shan nobility, the Sawbwa (king) of Hsisaing - Hsisaing being one of the many royal cities of the Shan territories. Under the British, Taunggyi was made the administrative capital of Shan State, as it lay conveniently outside the jurisdiction of any local Sawbwas. When independence from the British was achieved, a touch of nationalistic cynicism accompanied the Sawbwa of Hsisaing's decision to dub his new cinema the "Bandula." The name is in reference to Bandula the Great, Maha Bandula - a legendary, almost mythical general dating back to Burma's own imperialist days. Despite his military prowess, Badula was killed in battle defending the country against the British, blown to bits by a rocket as he tried to rile his demoralized soldiers. His death meant the demise of Burmese independence, the full onslaught of the British and their colonizing ways. With their departure in 1947, however, the choice to name his cinema "the Bandula" was an obvious, if not subtle, "good-riddance" directed at his oppressors by an old aristocrat. Sadly, the last Sawbwa of Hsisaing died of a stroke before his theater was completed.

A leather tanner adds color to a jacket in front of the Bandula Cinema


Details on the Bandula Cinema's exterior tiles. The Greek Revival design is the first I've ever encountered on a Southeast Asian movie theater.

Lobby view

Ticket window and lobby cards.

After the movie let out.


It's been over sixty years since the Bandula Cinema first opened its doors and it's still going strong. For all intents and purposes, the theater's profitability has kept it from being reduced to rubble. Taunggyi is a genuine boom town; as the populous scrambles to acquire riches, they seem to have forgotten to look after the town's structural heritage. Almost everything older than 1962 has been razed and replaced by cheaply made riff-raff from materials trucked down from China. It's pretty shameful! In fact, Taunggyi is the one and only Myanmar town that I felt no love for.

I do, however, have love for the Bandula - the only cinema in Southeast Asia I've ever encountered that has elements of Greek Revival architecture. Obviously it's a fairly loose interpretation of the style, but charming all the same.

(Many thanks to U Tsai, nephew of the last Sawbwa of Hsisaing, who jostled his memory for long-forgotten facts and figures)

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