Saturday, June 18, 2011

The surprise in Mingala's concessions

Movie theater concessions get scarce mention here on the SEA Movie Theater Project. It's a topic which I generally don't pay much attention to, especially since I seldom snack when at the movies. For those with a yen to know, movie concessions in Thai theaters are more or less the same as in American theaters: unremarkable from a documentary stand-point. American pop-culture, spawn of American-style capitalism, has, after all, been a factor in Thailand for decades. Myanmar theaters, on the other hand, much like Myanmar society at large, lack the stamp of Americana. There are a few exceptions, however.

In all 7 of the Mingala-operated theaters in Yangon and Mandalay you can purchase - among other snackables - little plastic bags of caramel-coated popcorn at the concession stands. For all intents and purposes, these movie theater goodies approximate good old fashioned Cracker Jacks®, minus the classic rectangular box. One might be led to believe that Mingala was even trying to mimic this American junk food staple in their cinema halls.

On one a trip to the Nay Pyi Daw Cinema, I broke with my stoic ways and binged on a bag of these so-called Burmese Cracker Jacks. Munching through, sweetness caressing my taste buds, fingers tips a sticky mess, I reached bag's bottom only to come in contact with a foreign object. Maybe one of those little preservative packets that are in some snack foods, I guessed.

Gingerly pinching it between my digits, I withdrew the mystery object to reveal a little black packet stapled shut at one end. Black Tar, I wondered? China White? Nah, who would be so sinister? Then it dawned on me: this was truly a Burmese version of Cracker Jacks, complete with prize and all.

I removed the staple and withdrew my prize, eager to learn what knick-knacks are dispensed from the Burmese version of an American classic. It was a neatly folded piece of paper - crisp and new.

The little piece of paper unfolded into a brand new 100 Kyat note, an amount equivalent to roughly ten American cents. Considering that the bag of caramel-coated popcorn cost me 250 Kyat, I was curiously pleased to get 40 percent back on my purchase.

A few days later I asked some locals about my prize. Was this a usual thing or had I just gotten lucky? Apparently all denominations of Myanmar money can be won in these snacks, up to 1000 Kyat notes. Buying one is essentially like playing the lottery.

Myanmar might have lots of serious problems, but their version of Cracker Jacks is not one of them.

On a side note, movie theaters frequently earn the largest portions of their profit from concession sales.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Hla Thiri Cinema - Minbu, Magwe Division, Myanmar

There have been a few instances when the search for the stand-alone has led me to places the likes of which are wholly unfamiliar. Where little, if nothing, resonates with my known world. Not sites, not sounds, not much of anything. Notwithstanding the uniqueness of each locale, with its specific geography and myths, artifacts of human invention - at least one of which, should luck prevail, is a movie theater to document - there are times when a given port of call simply feels more removed than usual. At least from my world view. On this second round of research in Myanmar, the first such place was Minbu - where the familiar had gone on holiday.

Minbu sits on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River, several kilometers up and across from the larger city of Magwe - the eponymous division capital. What's visible of Magwe Division from the scant and poorly maintained highways that cross it gives the impression of a desert: flat and dry, blistering hot, the vast majority of its forest cover having long been given over to agriculture, a variety of which is best summed up by the term "to scratch out a living." This is the heartland of the Burman; the central lowlands, where the hierarchy of a civilization has some of its oldest roots and most abject poverty.

Sitting on the west bank of the Irrawaddy, where the mighty estuary spans three miles from bank to bank, Minbu approaches a lost frontier town. From the looks of it, an economy once built on riparian commerce has dried up, evidenced by a waterfront neighborhood that seems to have had zero commercial investment for quite some time. Almost no permanent structures stand in the river zones. Brick and mortar are the rare exception rather than the norm. Instead, houses of wood and bamboo abound, shaded beneath palm and teak trees more typical of the semi-bucolic outskirts of town rather than what is normally the economic core. A new truss bridge stretching across the river is key to the waterfront's stagnation. The road, joining bridge with town, has supplanted the waterfront as the place for investment. All along road's edge new shops and warehouses have sprung up, adapting the economy from river transport to land.

Yet deep in the heart of the old waterfront districts, a relic from more prosperous times remains. One of the few non-timber structures in the area, the abandoned Hla Thiri Cinema.

Having found the Hla Thiri, I like to believe that I now know how Henri Mouhot felt stumbling upon Angkor Wat in the pulsing jungles of Cambodia. A long forgotten temple, marker of a waned civilization, collapsed. Hemmed in by tea shacks on both sides, in an area where wood and bamboo are the predominant building materials, the Hla Thiri towers with divine emptiness.

Concrete back drop to a wooden community: the Hla Thiri Cinema.

The care taker's wife observes in the front yard of the Hla Thiri.

Within a few minutes of my lurking, a diminutive man emerged from the theater. He eyed me suspiciously, keeping his distance, sizing me up. I quickly recognized that he was the Hla Thiri's caretaker, or I as prefer to say, "theatersmith:" men who spend their lives economically, psychologically and residentially attached to the movie houses they look after. In Myanmar, such men have a number of characteristics in common, the most obvious being their small stature. Tiny men with hearts of gold. Quasimotos of the cinema hall. Almost every stand-alone theater in the country has one.

Once his suspicions were allayed, he did what any good theatersmith would do when presented with a guest: he gave me the grand tour.

Come inside!

The first sight to greet my eyes inside this cavernous old theater, with pillars of wood supporting the roof and rows of wooden benches pressed tightly together in the center, was the absence of its far wall. Of all the cataclysmic sights to behold!

With the help of a seasoned translator, the Hla Thiri's devoted theatersmith told all about his crumbling abode.

Rows of wooden benches remain despite the missing wall.

The collapsed wall, we learned, was a recent event. During 2010's rainy season, the Irrawaddy River burst its banks, flooding much of Minbu's low-lying neighborhoods. Water reached as far as the old cinema hall, though no immediately visible damage was incurred. A few months later, at 2PM on a cloudless day, while the said theatersmith was tending to some task on the theater grounds, a loud rumble was heard, followed by a crash. The back wall of the Hla Thiri was gone. In an instant, the townsfolk of Minbu were devoid of cinema hall, and a theatersmith's life stood a perforated wreck.

Looking towards rear of the auditorium. In the far left corner you can see the walls of the theatersmith's little apartment. The ceiling, you may notice, is made of woven strips of bamboo.

Despite his loss, our dear theatersmith seemed in fairly decent spirits. Along with his wife, he continued to live in a back corner of the auditorium, sheets of plywood used to cordon off a small apartment. His meager possessions and a tiny salary provided by the theater company sustain him. He was clearly elated that two people, foreigners no less, would take an interest in something he knew more about than anybody else on the planet. Without batting an eye, he went on about the Hla Thiri's origins and how he came to be its resident worker.

The builder and first owner of the Hla Thiri Cinema, he claimed, was an man of Indian origins, remembered best for his movie-star good looks. He built the Hla Thiri in 1959 as the first permanent cinema hall in Minbu. It's economic success, however, meant very little in the face of political trauma. The owner fled the country following the military coup of 1962, leaving his beloved cinema hall to become a state asset. Soon thereafter, the theatersmith took his first job at the theater as a ticket taker, and the rest is history.

Though out of business due to the collapse of its back wall, the Hla Thiri is once again in private hands, having been purchased from the Ministry of Information's Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise five or six years ago. The current owners operate another two theaters in Magwe Division; one in Taungdwingyi and one in Namauk - birthplace of independence hero Bogyoke Aung San. Whether or not the Hla Thiri will ever open again is not clear.

The Hla Thiri's loyal theatersmith, standing on the balcony of his long-time home and workplace.

Our conversation with the theatersmith ended abruptly with the arrival of two higher-ups from the theater company. These two were visibly nervous at our presence, shifty-eyed and fidgety despite the assurances of my translator friend that we were merely there to admire the building. Apparently word had reached the main office that two foreigners were seen entering the abandoned cinema and they had gone to investigate. Nothing happened, but we were silently urged to leave, a stark reminder of the general paranoia gripping parts of Myanmar. Magwe Division, for the most part lacking in tourist attractions, was particularly tense in this regard.

We slipped the theatersmith a thousand Kyat note as a token of our appreciation and made our way out, eventually finding a place to stay across the river in Magwe City.

The peak of the Hla Thiri Cinema's facade.

And now a word about my translator:

From Shan State onwards, the bulk of land I crossed came at the behest of a good friend and stellar linguist. Her skills not only gave an immeasurable boost to this project in terms of information gathering, but enabled me to go places that I would have otherwise never given a moment's thought to. One of the preeminent Burmese speakers from the West, in possession of a nuanced understanding of Myanmar; a debt of gratitude is owed to San San Pwit (that's her Burmonym), who opened my eyes to a Myanmar that foreigners seldom get to see. Had it not been for her, a visit to Minbu and the ruinous Hla Thiri Cinema would not have happened.

Hla Thiri means "Noble Beauty."