Friday, July 1, 2011

The San Pya Cinema - Magwe City, Magwe Division, Myanmar

Following our brief visit to Minbu, made short by a lack of hotels licensed to accept foreign guests, we crossed back over to the Irrawaddy's east bank and the eponymous capital of Magwe Division. Here too the pickings were slim for accommodation. The few hoteliers licensed to host foreigners drove a hard bargain, knowing that it was either their disproportionately high rent or the street, where we would become food for mosquitoes.

Therein lies the chief dilemma of venturing off the beaten track in Myanmar: hotel accommodation is not universal for non-nationals. In more than a few towns, particularly those not on the tourist circuit, finding a hotel with a certificate to accept foreign guests is no guarantee. In such cases, a local authority figure - usually police, sometimes immigration officers - will urge the visitor to leave town as soon as possible - "Get on a boat, bus or train, but be out of our town before the sun sets!" - thus alleviating themselves of the responsibility of having potential saboteurs under their jurisdiction. The political peons of Magwean municipalities were especially nit-picky in this regard.

In the division capital itself there is shelter to be found, thankfully. After a short rest in our dingy room we returned to the streets in exploratory mode. Venturing down what seemed like a main thoroughfare, away from the older wards along the waterfront, we were soon standing in the shadow of Magwe's last operating cinema from the Independence era - the San Pya.

While I perused the grounds of the San Pya, San San Pwit, interpreter extraordinaire, commenced conversation with a local restaurateur, gathering bits and pieces of information about the colorful old theater and the town that it's in. The following abridged history was the outcome:

The theater was built by an ethnic Indian doctor who'd grown wealthy by developing real-estate throughout the city, we were told. Adored by the people of Magwe because of his kindness and generosity, seeing patients even if they were unable to pay for his services, he left the city a poor man after nationalization in 1962. To this day the doctor-developer-movie exhibitor is held in high esteem among those old enough to remember. As one shop keeper near the San Pya put it, "they could take his wealth and holdings, but never his good name."

The role that ethnic Indians played in the modern history of Burma/Myanmar should not be disregarded. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the British colonial administration encouraged migration from India - likewise a British colony - in order to create a non-agricultural labor force. Indian migrants with higher educations, moreover, often took relatively prestigious jobs in the colonial bureaucracy. In the eyes of many Burman, this "Indianization" of the civil service, combined with the powerful economic role played by Indian businessmen throughout the country, was a cause for outrage. Burmese nationalism manifested a strong anti-Indian undercurrent. When the Burman-dominated military seized power in 1962, the nationalization of various industries was seen in the eyes of the perpetrators as a retrieval of Burman power and prestige, even though it was done under a socialist banner. Movie theaters, previously owned largely by ethnic Indians and Chinese, were now owned by the Burmese state.

Magwe's San Pya Cinema.

Close up at a slight angle.

Architecturally, the San Pya boasts a design which I have identified as definitively Burmese, though not to the exclusion of other styles. The facade, boxy and rectangular, features a pattern of brightly colored squares repeated throughout. With at least 5 other theaters across the country that share this aesthetic, and having never seen it in Thailand or elsewhere, in my mind, at least, it is indicative of 1950's Burmese theater architecture.

"Motorcycle parking"

Wooden seats in the San Pya's auditorium.


Today the San Pya Cinema is an ailing relic. On our first night in town, the film was canceled due to a shortage of customers.

"The best way to revive the place would be to install 3D projection, " mused one shop owner. "People don't want to go to the cinema to see movies they could just as easily watch at home."

That sentiment was quickly disregarded after locating the other, brand new cinema in Magwe.

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