Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Sri Nakorn Paphayon - Hang Chat district, Lampang province, Thailand

In northern Thailand, precious little of a stand-alone cinema culture remains intact. Of all the 16 provinces classified as the north, there are a meager two stand-alone theaters still operating, both of which are owned by Thana Cineplex, a subsidiary of Pra Nakorn Films. That's a paltry number considering that over the years there have probably been around 100 movie theaters in Thailand's north.

With no business to host, demolition has been the norm among this dead facet of popular culture. As a rule of thumb, the older the theater, the less likely it is to be standing today. This formula has ensured that in all my northerly expeditions I have only encountered one theater built prior to the 1960's. They're simply hard to come by. 

This past November, a second granddaddy was added to the list. Following a tip, I motored over to Hang Chat district, Lampang in search of the Sri Nakorn Paphayon

The Sri Nakorn Paphayon

The Sri Nakorn Paphayon faces onto Hang Chat's main thoroughfare, diverging architecturally from the  avenue's other structures by little more than the free-standing signage perched at its summit. Main street's visual uniformity has a soothing aspect to it, retaining the aesthetic conservatism of mid-20th century provincial Thailand. The inventory of buildings is composed of a discernibly older stock than most small towns in the Thai north, a fact that was all but confirmed by the Sri Nakorn's welcoming owners. 

Thongsuk (right) and Rampeung Weehayanwut, owners of the abandoned Sri Nakorn Paphayon, standing in front of the theater's side entrance.

Thongsuk Weehayanwut and his wife Rampeung have looked after the Sri Nakorn Paphayon since they inherited it from Thongsuk's father. In reality, however, the "looking after" they do these days is not very involved. In the eyes of Thongsuk, his inheritance is a bit of a white elephant. 

The Weehayanwut's property in Hang Chat is expansive. Entering through a driveway beside the old theater leads to their industrial/residential compound, comprised of a furniture factory reminiscent of an air plane hanger, an equally large warehouse for lumber, a modest single-story office house and the family's idyllic sino-colonial style abode, appearing feudal among the towering stands of teak.  

Occupying the most commercially viable plot of land on the property is the abandoned theater, which the Weehayanwut's generously gave me a tour of.

In the theater's active years, this ticket window area was an open-air veranda, but the owner sealed it up once the theater closed.

Ticket windows and perforated masonry.

"It was an economic failure from the beginning," conceded Thongsuk, as we stumbled across the theater's debris-strewn auditorium. "My father envisioned this as being Hang Chat's most popular destination, but it didn't work out that way." 

Thongsuk's father opened the Sri Nakorn Paphayon as Hang Chat's first ever movie theater in 1957. Powering the theater by diesel generator in a time when residential electricity was reserved for wealthy urbanites, the senior Weehayanwut expected brisk ticket sales from a townsfolk lacking in entertainment options. He miscalculated.

For all intents and purposes, Hang Chat is a suburb of the much larger and economically dynamic provincial capital, Lampang. Travel between the two has been simple and unobstructed ever since the railroad connected them in the early 1920's. As a result, Thongsuk explained, "we were never able to attract large crowds, because by the time a film made its way up here, all the townsfolk and people from the surrounding villages had already gone to see it at one of the bigger theaters in Lampang."

Ticket window ironwork.

The auditorium of the Sri Nakorn Paphayon. The ceiling rafters are made of timber, as are all doors and windows. The walls of the structure are made of poured concrete.

Projection room given over to storage.

The Weehayanwut's closed down the perennial money pit about 40 years ago without ever attempting to repurpose it. Today, it sits on the side of the road in the heart of old Hang Chat, serving as a barrier to the rest of their property and not much else.

"Frankly, if I had an opportunity to  replace it with a 7-11 or Tesco-Lotus, I'd tear it down," admitted Thongsuk. "But I haven't been able to find a good tenant for the land."


Just a thought, but 7-11 or Tesco-Lotus might be able to ever so slightly improve their corporate image if one of them moved in, rehabbed the front portion and used it for retail. 

Better yet, being that coffee shops are all the rage across northern Thailand these days, the street side portion of the building, consisting of the veranda and the space above, would make a most salubrious place to sip a brew. 

Noting that a) it matches architecturally with most of the other old building on the street, b) its structural integrity is sound, c) its identifying details like the original free-standing signage is intact and d) (in certain regards) it's a local landmark, there's no reason to tear it town. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Movies fit for a King

Wise Kwai's Bangkok Cinema Scene is promoting a film series being organized by the Thai Film Archive, which features a selection of nine vintage movies that the King of Thailand watched in a public movie theater over the years.

For movie lovers in the Bangkok area, this is not to be missed.


Maybe I'm making things up in my head, but the theme of the event seems to have a protectionist undertone to it; sort of a soft-sell method of promoting the Scala and Lido theaters for preservation. Hopefully each screening will list the name and location of the theater that H.M.K patronized.

Burmese movie-going in 1954

Nice post on an interesting blog about Burmese cinema and movie-going in the 1950's. The author takes a very thoughtful approach that entwines the socio-political aspirations of post-colonial Southeast Asia and the film industry.

A few of the theaters mentioned in the old ads are still in operation, including the Bandula Cinema in Taunggyi.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Communist-era theater in Oudomxai, Laos demolished

"Long live the Lao People's Democratic Republic," proclaimed a banner above the stage at the Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship. Directly beneath the one slogan, another read: "Long live the glory of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party."

While both LPDR and the Party are today alive and well, the Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship is no more.

Word of the communist-era theater's demise reached the SEA Theater Project thanks to a traveler who sought out the ruinous structure while passing through Oudomxai. Only the right wing of the building was standing upon arrival, he wrote.

Socialist realism in cinema form


Auditorium of the Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship

A gift from the Vietnamese government to their comrades in the city of Oudomxai, the theater was built during the height of Laos' short-lived experiment with a centrally planned economy. By 1986, the commune system was completely abandoned on the heels of "big brother" Vietnam's switch to a market economy.

Many architecture enthusiasts, loath to the bulky plainness inherent in socialist realism architecture, will welcome the loss of the Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship. Personally, I look at such buildings as symbolic of the ideals, or lack thereof, of the times in which they were contracted. Despite its "ugliness," the building had worth, if only in its instructiveness. Its demolition is indeed a loss.

Laos never built much in the way of socialist realism to begin with. Now one of the finest examples of it in the north of the country is no more.

The Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship, 1981-2012.

Click here and here for some older posts about the theater.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Sri Siam Theater - Pra Pradaeng district, Samut Prakan, Thailand

Adventurous film lovers in the Bangkok area, looking for a new twist to their movie-watching experience, might want to take a jaunt over to Pra Pradaeng. There they will find one of metro Bangkok's last double feature theaters, shielded from view behind a wall of low-rise shop houses on Suksawat Road. 

Pass below the street-side marquee through the backdoor of civilization. Make a right at the big red arrow that says "Sri Siam." In the core of this quintessential working-class Bangkok suburb escapism is still affordable, without the physical addiction.

Follow the arrow pointing down a perpendicular soi and you have arrived at the Sri Siam Theater.

No less weathered than the neighborhood in which it stands, the Sri Siam

Double feature theaters, once a common site throughout metro Bangkok, have dwindled to a small handful. Numbering close to 100 at their peak, there are a grand total of 5 still operating in Bangkok and its suburbs. That number jumps up to about 12 if you include the ones that have devolved into dens for the sexually deviant. 

Historically, double feature theaters serve working-class enclaves. They are the better-value counterpart to the first-class theaters that once peppered central Bangkok with architectural splendor. At the latter, both domestic and foreign films would make their Thai premieres, usually unaccompanied by a second feature. Foreign films from, say, Hollywood or Europe, would be presented in their original language soundtrack - undubbed, but with Thai subtitles.  

Once through their first run at the downtown movie palaces, films would then circulate to the double feature theaters, where they would be combined in a two-for-one deal with a second feature. Foreign films would get Thai dubbing, making them digestible for local audiences.

The Sri Siam, now devoid of free-standing signage above the cornice.

A one-time sojourn might make for biased judgement, but intuition foretells the end for this lingering stand-alone. The air was musty, damp from neglected leaks. A sneaking sort of decay could be felt springing up from the seat stuffing. When the lights went on between features, a flop house was revealed. A half dozen dozing laborers slumped in their seats. 

To save on cleaning costs, entire sections of seating were cordoned off with rope; an ocean of seats conceded to emptiness.

Because of the stay-all-day policy there was a constant rotation of customers, but never more than a few at a time. An impression less of entertainment and leisure than of refuge from the heat prevailed.

The wainscoted lobby is one of the most endearing features of the Sri Siam.


Ticket taker with a friend and pet dog.


40 baht ticket price

A floral floor

The Sri Siam is part of a shrinking family-run chain of double feature theaters across the Bangkok suburbs. The Sri Krung and Nakorn Non Rama, the latter of which still does brisk business, are also owned by the same family. They once operated the Ngamwongwan Theater as well, but that closed down about 2 years ago.

All of the theaters run by this particular family have the same kitschy, wainscoted lobbies, which embody a cheap cathouse kind of elegance that will either make you feel right at home, or mildly nauseous, depending on your tenor.

For a bit of perspective, this is the scene directly across from Sri Siam. Workers disassemble batteries for salvageable parts.

In the end, the Sri Siam Theater is a memento from a different era, live and in the flesh. That it has not gone completely to the dogs is a miracle, or maybe just the result of attentive owners, who, even in the face of falling profits, ensure that it is first and foremost a cinema hall. 

My hat goes off to them. Here's to the last of the double feature theaters.