Friday, September 20, 2013

Images of Burmese movie theaters on display in S. Philadelphia

The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project is proud to announce its first ever exhibition in North America. The more precise location is south Philadelphia - my residence when not documenting old movie theaters in Southeast Asia - at the Southeast by Southeast Community Center - 1927 S. 7th Street. It opens tomorrow, Saturday September 21st.

Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program has graciously sponsored this display of images in conjunction with photographs taken by members of the city's recently arrived Burmese and Nepali refugee community. The latter details the experience of this nascent community from refugee camps in Asia to row-house South Philadelphia.   

If you're in the Philadelphia area, please come join us for a night of fun and conversation.

Popular Bangkok movie palace, no more

The Rama Sam Yan Theater, more commonly known under the truncated name of Rama Theater, is reportedly undergoing demolition.Word of the architectural loss came by way of a comment recently posted on the SEAMTP's Facebook page. This report was later reconfirmed, along with a photo of the theater's half-fallen auditorium. A high rise condominium will be constructed in its place.

The Rama's demise marks the end of one of Bangkok's most popular movie palaces of the 1970's and 80's. It was also one of the first movie theaters in the country to combine multiple functions under one roof, with office space and bowling alleys accompanying the theater.

Aside from its multiple functions, the Rama Sam Yan Theater is noted for its unique architectural modernism. Elements of Japanese temple architecture can be seen in the design of its stand-alone ticket booth located in a five-story atrium lobby. On the theater's upper facade, entrants were greeted with a relief of a bowler knocking down pins above the marquee.

The Rama Sam Yan dates the late 1960's. The movie section from Bangkok newspapers circa 1976 have it listed under the Apex Circuit, then known as Pyramid. It may very well have been either contracted or purchased by the once prolific Apex chain, which was spearheaded by former movie theater mogul Pisit Tansacha.

Located on Rama IV Road in the Sam Yan neighborhood of Bangkok, the Rama's demolition follows the recent demolition of the majority of old Sam Yan, a low-rise, traditionally a middle and working class Chinese neighborhood.

The Rama Sam Yan Theater complex c. 2009

Artistry in relief form, the Bowler

Ticket booth in Japanese moderism

Atrium lobby and ticket booth

Farewell to the Rama Theater

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Classic Yangon cinema to get preservation treatment

The preservation of old structures is like a balancing act. While it would be nice to salvage every quality old building and restore or repurpose them to new found grandeur, the odds of doing so are slim. Battles for preservation are more successful when the are selectively fought. As a rule of thumb, old and under-performing structures must make way for the new and profitable, sometimes at the expense of good architecture. In the world of urban real-estate, where land is typically scarce, this rule is all the more immutable, especially when it comes to buildings that are expensive to maintain.

Fortunately there are exceptions to this rule. Savy municipalities take strides to preserve their structural antiquities when possible, conscious of the fact that with the passage of time older structures can gain an irreplaceable allure.

In Yangon, Burma, architectural preservation has become a popular topic. With international capital rushing in to the frontier market, a country saturated with natural resources and inexpensive labor, Yangon's vast inventory of aging architecture has come under duress, and both locals and visitors have noticed.

Downtown Yangon has very little vacant land to accommodate the fledgling free-market economy. Property owners hoping to cash out from the current economic boom are eager to sell for the right price. On Bogyoke Aung San Rd., a stretch of city informally known as Cinema Row due to the more than half dozen movie halls that have crowded the area for decades, redevelopment is everywhere. In the last year at least 3 of the 6 remaining theaters on Cinema Row have been leveled, giving way to high-rise hotels and office towers.

But in keeping with the balancing act analogy, it sounds as if at least one theater will survive the demolition unscathed, if not enhanced. And it couldn't be a better one.

The Waziya Cinema on Bogyoke Aung San Rd.

Details of the veranda

Entrance to lower level seating

An usher awaits patrons along the corridor of upper level seating

According to a Facebook post by Thant Myint U, the leading voice of Yangon's architectural preservation movement, there is talk of revitalizing the Waziya Cinema - the oldest and most architecturally intact of all the Cinema Row movie theaters. Dating to the 1920's, the Beaux-Arts Waziya - originally known as the Excelsior -  is one of the oldest active theaters in all of Burma, if not broader Southeast Asia.

Interest in its preservation seems to have gained momentum from having hosted the 3rd annual Watthan Film Festival, giving the old picture house exposure on a broader platform.

Night shot of the Waziya Cinema

Should the Waziya get restored this will be a huge victory for Yangon's architectural preservation movement. And for stand-alone movie theater enthusiasts, this will be enormous.

But vigilance must remain high, as there are three more elegant theaters in the vicinity in the Nay Pyi Daw, the Shae Saung and the Thamada that might also face the wreckers claw.

Hopefully this news will be noted over in neighboring Thailand, where the fate of Bangkok's exquisite Scala Theatre is still in limbo.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Updates and hold-me-overs

Please pardon the lack of content, but I have been out of the field for nearly 18 months and my inventory has run dry. It's been a long, slow 18 month hiatus from this project, the harebrained idea I dreamed up back in late 2008 with the ambitious goal of documenting all the remaining stand-alone movie theater across Southeast Asia. Indeed, in my absence from the region I've missed out on attending 4 SEAMTP exhibitions. One in Thailand, two in Indonesia and one in Laos. I can only imagine the number of theaters that have been demolished during this period without a proper record of their existence. 

But, ladies and gentlemen, trusty loyalists and casual followers alike, the hiatus will soon be over. In a little less than two months I'll be flying into Bangkok. The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project will be back in action. More details on this at a later date.

In the meantime, here's a little something to hold you over. 

This shot of Bangkok's King's Theater was sent to me a few years ago by a former US serviceman stationed in Thailand in the 1960's. King's was one of three theaters built on land formerly occupied by the Wang Burapha Palace, a grand old teak mansion built by King Chulalongkorn for one of his brothers. 

In the early 1950's Wang Burapha was purchased an razed to make way for the King's, Queen's and Grand theatres. Ask any Bangkokian who was around back then and they'll tell you that this area was the place to be for teenagers, with its trio of first class movie theaters and surrounding businesses all in one bustling section of town.

Today, the King's Theatre itself is gone. In its place stands the Merry King's Department Store.  

Judging by the "My Name is Pecos" billboard on the side of the theater, this photo probably dates from 1967 or 68.