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.

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