Wednesday, July 25, 2012

There goes Cinema Row

Dismaying but predictable news has reached me that a number of theaters along Yangon's colorful "Cinema Row" are in the process of being torn down. The strip of theaters along the south side of Bogyoke Aung San Road, between Sule Pagoda and Pansodan roads in the former capital, has served as the city's entertainment center for more than 5 decades. Hence the nickname. 

Several of the theaters date back to as early as the 1920's.

The six movie theaters of Cinema Row represent the densest agglomeration of operating stand-alone movie theaters in Southeast Asia, if not the entire Far East. Aside from their entertainment function, they support an informal street economy comprised of hundreds of vendors, hawkers and crafts people of various types who earn a living from selling to movie patrons and other passersby. That buoyant street life will also be pushed aside to make way for the homogenous glass tower hotels said to be replacing Cinema Row. 

Below is collection of photo depicting the architecture and social life of Cinema Row taken in June 2010 and January 2011. They are in no particular order. If you want to read more about the Waziya, King, Thwin, Hsoo Htoo Pan, Myoma and Shwe Gon cinemas - the cinemas of Cinema Row - just click on their names.

If anybody has further details of developments going on there, please send an e-mail to

Looking west along Cinema Row from the Pansodan Bridge. 

Cinema Row with the Thwin Cinema in the foreground

The King Cinema

The Waziya Cinema

The Hsoo Htoo Pan Ciname

The Thwin Cinema

Hsoo Htoo Pan by night

In and out of the Shwe Gon

The children of street vendors

Loafing at the Hsoo Htoo Pan

Thwin's ticket window

Taking shelter under the Waziya's portico

Posters at the King Cinema

Longyi Strut

Waziya usher

Facade of the King

 Poster display beside the King Cinema

General street life on Cinema Row

Under the portico of the Hsoo Htoo Pan

Shwe Gon passersby 

The Thwin by night

In the realm of politics, change could not come fast enough for Burma. Too much too fast economic growth, however, will inevitably leave the country a gutted shell of itself. The loss of Cinema Row, long a defining characteristic of Yangon, is testament to that.

As a means of preempting an architectural apocalypse, the Association of Myanmar Architects has recently published a book advocating for the preservation of 30 significant buildings across Yangon. To my knowledge none of the listed structures are movie theaters. Regrettably, in Southeast Asia movie theaters are seldom considered worthy of preservation, despite the architectural and social value they embody. Indeed, there will be plenty of hands applauding the demolition of Cinema Row because of the perception of it being "dirty" or "out of date."

But make no mistake about it: the loss of Cinema Row will forever alter the face of Yangon. And probably not for the better.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Exhibit at Jim Thompson Art Center

I'm proud to announce that 32 images from the S.E. Asia Movie Theater Project are currently on display at Bangkok's renowned Jim Thompson Art Center. The exhibition - entitled TRACES - is comprised of work by 10 artists from across Southeast Asia, under the theme of the communal sharing of culture within ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations). By 2015, ASEAN will be ramping up efforts to make itself a more cohesive regional political entity.  A more detailed description from the curators at Jim Thompson explains:

This exhibition, TRACES,  aims to serve as a mechanism and platform for Thais and ASEAN members to learn about the history of SEA, ASEAN and neighboring countries through contemporary artworks and research in sociology. It focuses on issues related to the social memory and public sphere and also reinvestigates the history of the Vietnam–American war, as well as the national building processes of Singapore and Malaysia. It aims to help us to get to know each other and our history through contemporary art, to help us understand who we are and to see the communal sense of Southeast Asia, so we can continue our collaboration in the future. This exhibition intends to raise questions about Southeast Asia’s sensus communis. What do we have in common? What kind of communal senses have we shared since the last century or before? What kind of history and social memory do we still retain? What did we forget, remember, question? It will reinvestigate social space and public memory, history and how individuals have reacted to stagnant society as well as to social changes. Works range from photography, research-based projects, video documentary and mockumentary by 10 artists from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and the USA. 
If you're in the Bangkok area, this is not to be missed! For those who've never visited the beautiful Jim Thompson House, this is the perfect opportunity to do so.

It will be running from July 14th through October 31st.

Below are a sample of 9 images out of the 32 currently on display from the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project archive.

Aung Mingala Cinema - Dawei, Burma

Lak Meuang Cinema - Kalasin, Thailand

Seno Rama - Seno, Savanakhet Province, Laos

Shae Saung Cinema - Yangon, Burma

Amarin Rama - Suwan Khalok, Sukothai Province, Thailand

Oscar's Prostitutes

Rama Ticket Taker


The Lone Viewer

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Prince Cineplex - Kalasin, Thailand

Movie-going in Thailand is alive and well. Just take a look at the glut of costly Hollywood blockbusters that routinely edge out domestic productions for screen time. If the market were weak, it's doubtful that Hollywood would go through the effort. 

Hollywood dominance at the Thai box-office is ensured by arrangements with local chain exhibitors and their powerful distribution arms, keeping theaters stocked with American product. With the ability to stifle competition by outspending the little guy in every aspect, or supplying them with movies unsuitable for local tastes, the chain theaters have all but cornered the Thai movie-going market. 

Paramount to this movie-watching paradigm shift has been a drastic change in the form and architecture of movie theaters. Across the country, the mammoth single screen theaters built during the 20th century have gradually given way to the multiplex variety, a trend typical in most fully or newly industrialized countries. 

In town after town, locally owned stand-alone theaters have either closed, or clung to life by sheer determination. But in Thailand's northeast, at least, local movie exhibitors still hold their own.The Prince Cineplex in Kalasin is one among over a dozen Isan Theaters that has bucked the trend. 

A weekday afternoon spent exploring it gave some clues as to why.

Though looking a bit shabby from the outside, the Prince abounds with inner virtues that help it stay in the game. In the realm of comforts, it is in league with anything the highly capitalized multiplex chains are equipped with, short of the exclusive box seating popular among the pampered Bangkok elite.

When it was built in the early 1970's under the name of the Kalasin Rama, the Prince had a single, enormous screen and a seating capacity in the range of 1,000. In the late 1990's, the Khon Kaen-based Prince purchased the old Kalasin Rama and turned its giant auditorium into two smaller ones - a procedure which allowed them to diversify the film fair shown at any given time and attract a wider audience.

As the new and improved Prince Cineplex boomed, it siphoned ticket sales from other Kalasin theaters, including the older, smaller, but much prettier Lak Meuang Cinema. When questioned about why an elegant theater like the Lak Meuang had gone out of business, Prince manager Mr. Preecha responded glibly, "because of us."

Behind the current sign stands the original cut-out letters announcing the Kalasin Rama.
Management claimed that the theater was designed by the same architect who did Ban Phai's Pyramid Theater

Indeed, with no competitors in the market, the Prince Cineplex does brisk business. On a Friday afternoon, I found the Prince's open-air lobby flooded with teens and adolescents, most still in school uniform, waiting to see the latest hits.

Ticket taker's rare reprieve 

Anxious crowds clamor for tickets

Queued up

Theater No. 1

Giddy teen laughter rippled through the theater during the screening of the Thai romantic comedy "30+ Singles on Sale." Yet behind the sounds of youthful joy, the din of coming doom can be heard - ever so slightly - creeping through the paddy fields.

Ushering them into theater No. 2

A relic from a bygone era: the movie trailer truck, still in use at the Prince Cineplex

In the wake of Thailand's industry-crippling floods of 2011, rumors are circulating about a master plan to relocate Thailand's industrial belt to the Northeast. An integrated highway system and lots of open land makes the Northeast - in the minds of country planners - ideal for hosting the country's lucrative industrial complexes. And with fewer waterways than the central plains, flooding should be much less of a concern.

If these plans are enacted, Isan, as the Northeast is colloquially known, will become flooded with investments. Though good for the wallets of local strongmen and, perhaps, industrial laborers, mom and pop businesses will likely face economic hardship, as the national chains seek to capitalize on the region's new-found wealth. Isan's collection of independently owned theaters, then, will likely go the way of their ilk in all other parts of the country.

But for now the Prince Cineplex is alive and well, providing cinematic entertainment to the youth of Kalasin one screening after another.