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.


  1. I guess my comment on an earlier page was wrong ! Theres 3 left - for now. But such a loss, keeping and restoring all 6 even if some converted to multiplex or nightclub would have created a unique entertainment precint.

    1. The latest I heard is that there's only two remaining Cinema Row. The said Waziya and the Thwin. Around the corner to the left stands the Nay Pwi Daw and the Shae Saung. To the right, the Thamada, which is one of the most elegant theaters around. Hopefully these won't be sacrificed to progress.