Saturday, October 18, 2014

Theatre of Dreams in the Northern Capital

As published in the Bangkok Post
October 14th, 2014

Promises of an exotic cultural experience amid the street-side hawkers of historic Chang Klan Road, home of Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar, fall well short of expectations. Today, the scene among this shopping zone differs little from a half dozen such sites across the country. For a growing city which relies heavily on its unique historic identity as a main selling point, Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar leaves much to be desired.

But the promised intrigue of the Night Bazaar is not without historic precedent. At the street’s southeast corner, a relic of Chang Klan Road’s storied past stands obscured from view beneath a veil of visually polluting vinyl billboards. If those adverts were ever peeled back the Night Bazaar would get a peek at the Saeng Tawan Theatre, Chiang Mai’s grandest ever movie theatre.

Built in 1978 – at the tail end of Thailand’s mid-century movie palace construction boom – the Saeng Tawan was the fourth and final movie theatre contracted by Chao Chaisuriwongse na Chiang Mai, a descendant of Chiang Mai’s royal household who fashioned himself into the city’s primary cinema benefactor. Chao Chaisuriwongse commissioned the Saeng Tawan to be the most luxurious of his quartet of theatres, all of which were located to the east of the old city walls.

The site chosen for the Saeng Tawan was the 4-way junction of Chang Klan and Sri Donchai roads, today marking the informal southern boundary of the Night Bazaar area. Local architect Aj. Chulathat Kitibutr, now internationally known for combining the best of traditional Thai architecture with the comforts of modernism, was contracted for the design.

Aj. Chulathat faced the Saeng Tawan at a 45 degree angle to the intersection. Doing so allowed the theater’s elegant fa├žade, featuring an intricate terracotta tile mosaic depicting Chiang Mai’s history, to be seen clearly from the two bisecting streets. Upon completion the Saeng Tawan Theatre became a figurative masthead of the upper Chang Klan Road corridor

Like the majority of stand-alone movie theatres in Thailand, if not the world over, the waning years of the 20th century were not kind to the Saeng Tawan. A proliferation of home entertainment systems – TV’s, VCR’s, and karaoke machines –  combined with an increase in car ownership among locals, made trips to a pedestrian-oriented movie theater that didn’t provide much parking less appealing, if not altogether inconvenient.

By the late 1990’s, Chiang Mai had become home to two sizable shopping malls, both of which were able to attract the city’s auto-centric consumer base with secured parking garages. Once inside, shoppers had the added option of seeing a movie at the seven-screen multiplex theatre that accompanied each of the newfangled malls.

And that marked the death of the Saeng Tawan.

When the ailing picture palace’s contract expired in the early aughts, the owners never bothered to renew it. The dormant Saeng Tawan has served several less glamourous functions over the subsequent decade and a half – from restaurant to snooker hall, and most recently a warehouse for a company that prints billboards.

The fall of the Saeng Tawan ushered in a gradual decline of the Night Bazaar and upper Chang Klan Road in general. Lacking a genuine anchor institution, the area is facing its first real cultural deficit since it gained its “exotic” reputation decades before.

“Back then, Chang Klan Road was different from now” recalled Ms. Trasvin Jittidecharak, owner of Silkworm Books and lifelong Chiang Mai resident. “The first Night Bazaar was…just an ordinary street market. It was a real tourist attraction. The 3-storey [high] Chiang Mai Night Bazaar [building] was built much later, during the tourism boom of the 80s. It was more authentic in the past.”

Indeed, Chang Klan Road was well known for its eclectic cultural mix well before the Saeng Tawan was ever built. The designation of the area as “Night Bazaar,” in fact, was not without good reason: For decades this stretch of city was home to ethnically non-Thai settlers. Moslem Hor Chinese, many of whom were descendants of caravan traders who forged trade routes that linked China’s Yunnan Province to the northern Thai principalities, made their homes along upper Chang Klan. An Indo-Pakistani community grew there, as well, attracted by the city’s welcoming social climate and growing commercial opportunities. The original “Night Bazaar” was the market that these traders held every evening.

Within this melting-pot atmosphere, Chiang Mai’s first ever permanent movie theater – The Patthanakorn Theatre – came into existence on Chang Klan Road in 1923, one year after the State Railway of Thailand made Chiang Mai its northern terminus. Completion of the railroad made the transportation of film reels from Bangkok a rapid and regular occurrence, precipitating the rise of a movie exhibition industry.

Over time, the Patthanakorn was supplanted in popularity by other Chiang Mai movie theaters, including the much newer Saeng Tawan. But as Chiang Mai’s debut picture hall, it helped to solidify the reputation of upper Chang Klan Road as an important cultural center.

Throughout Thailand in general, the once popular pastime of movie-going in grand stand-alone movie theatres like the Saeng Tawan is dangerously close to being completely lost. Cities around the world, however, are finding that the restoration of such movie theaters can serve as growth engines for broader economic development goals. In New York, for instance, the city government is covering half the 92-million dollar cost for the renovation of the 84 year old Loew’s King’s Theater on those exact principles. Closer to Thailand, neighboring countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Burma are taking action to preserve some of their own picture palaces for use as film and concert venues.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, old movie theaters are treated like yesterday’s garbage, with little attention given to readapting them for contemporary audiences.

Although it will take nothing short of a visionary developer to execute the Saeng Tawan’s restoration to world standards, doing so would endow Chiang Mai with an exciting piece of cultural infrastructure which would go a long way towards helping the city grow sustainably. And for a neighborhood flush with history, in a city which markets itself on its well preserved past, restoring the Saeng Tawan Theatre would be the perfect compliment.

In the meantime, it’s still fun to dream.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Wiang Mai Theater Revisited

Five years ago, a trip to Mae Sariang and the former Wiang Mai Theater proved only partially fruitful. Long devoid of film, the Wiang Mai had been serving as a propane gas retail center for more than a decade.

Five years ago, a sales woman tending to the business denied access to the sealed theater beyond the lobby. Locked up tight was the order of the day. The big boss, she explained, off in some other part of town tending to his gold mine of a gas station, had no time for riff-raff. She would not ask permission on my behalf.

The Wiang Mai Theater in streetscape context

Black and white by night

A return trip to Mae Sariang this past week was no different. Free reign to photograph the gas tank-filled lobby was welcomed, but yonder auditorium remained off limits. 

"The boss man, he's mean," said the sales woman matter-of-factly. 

5 years ago, not bold enough to seek a higher authority, I was resigned to my meager allowance of access to the theater's lobby. Not much of a concession considering the lobby is a retail business, hence open to the public.  

But now, emboldened by the sweet smell of success, having meticulously transformed myself into Thailand's movie theater mouthpiece, troubadour of forgotten places, I sought out the gas station Godfather at his headquarters.

Upon first impression, I almost wished I hadn't.

Owner of the Wiang Mai Theater Mr. Khamron Aomaree

Enthroned behind a cheap folding table in the store house of his gas station, the boss man lorded over an army of minions, circling about doing this, that and the other. Heavy set and physically imposing - like any good boss man should be - he acknowledged my presence with nothing more than the stone cold stare of a wild west gunslinger. By way of communication, boss man said nothing. But his wide eyed, slightly askance gaze ordered me to state my business or get out.

With his movie theater the stated agenda, boss man gestured for me to sit down. I asked his name, to which he responded by handing me an official document with his name penned in at the bottom. Thai chicken scratch. I couldn't read it.

"Khamron Aomaree" he said at last, finally breaking from his gangster gaze. 

Free of the poker face, the mood lightened and Mr. Aomaree told the saga of his forlorn picture house, before ordering one of his employees to unlock the auditorium for me.

Leftovers from more jovial times.

Gas canisters queued up in front of the ticket windows

Many old theaters contained sound rooms for customers who preferred to watch foreign films in their original language. Tickets for sound rooms were priced slightly higher. Pictured above is the ticket window for the sound room at the Wiang Mai Theater.

Gas tanks in the lobby of the Wiang Mai. 

Auditorium, long sealed shut.

The theater business was a legacy of Khamrom Aomaree's father, who built Mae Sariang's first ever movie theater decades before. As was common for movie theaters in remote areas of Thailand even as late as the 1960's, that original theater was built of wood. Today, wooden movie theaters are an extreme rarity in Thailand. The majority of them were either replaced with concrete theaters by the 1970's, or they were simply demolished and not replaced at all.

The iteration of the Wiang Mai Theater that's standing now was built as an upgrade from the Aomaree's original wooden theater in 1971. About that time, a law was passed in Thailand banning movie theaters built out of wood as potential fire hazards. 

The sound room at the Wiang Mai was a later addition. The room simply enclosed a section of seating on the balcony. The sign on the door advertises it as "air-conditioned room."

Inside the sound room/air-con room. 

Carbon arc projectors in the projection room. 

Ornamental iron grating on the projection window.

Balcony view

Design details

Khamron held little esteem for the theater business. 

"It was a dishonest business in the old days," he admitted,  referring to the unequal business terms dictated by the movie distribution companies. "I'm glad to be out of it,"

Fortunately, Khamron Aomaree did not get rid of his old white elephant altogether. Today, the Aomaree family legacy stands as reminder to the people of Mae Sariang that, once upon a time, a culture of public entertainment and shared pleasures existed outside of karaoke bars and beer halls.