Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Sensational Signage of Siamese Cinemas

Don't bother trying to say the alliterative headline of this post 5 times fast. Trust me, it's a waste of time. I spent a solid two minutes doing just that and I'm not any better for it. 

But do feast your eyes on this second post to focus exclusively on Thai movie theater signage. Much like the previous installment, there are many delights to be found in this single facet of Thai movie theater architecture from yesteryear. More often than not, the huge cut-out letters were placed at the edge of the roof, boldly announcing the theater's name.

Architects of movie theaters in Thailand throughout much of the 20th century had a thing for dimensional signage. Part of that proclivity came from the fact that theater builders around the country were examining each others work for cues and inspiration. Since dimensional signage was in trend, it's what took root in the builder's psyche, hence proliferating throughout the relatively closed circuit that was Thai movie theater architecture. That's how evolution works.

Any review of mid-century commercial architecture in Thailand will reveal that dimensional signage was very much in vogue in general. But nowhere was it employed with more consistency then on movie theaters. 

Have a look at the proof below.

The Mahachai Rama - Mahachai, Samut Sakhon

The Bang Khae Rama - Bangkok

The Sirichai Theater - Chayaphum

The Khem Sawat Cinema - Fang, Chiang Mai

The Athit Rama - Tha Maka, Kanchanaburi

The Maharat Theater - Krabi

The Kosit Theater - Ban Pong, Ratchaburi

The Burapha Theater - Ban Chang, Rayong

The Khampaheng Saen Rama - Khamphaeng Saen, Nakorn Pathom

The Prince Theater - Bangkok

The Tang Sia Huad Rama - Nakorn Pathom

The Trisuk Theater - Khamphaeng Saen, Nakorn Pathom

The Sermsuk Theater - Kumphawaphi, Udon Thani

The Charoen Pon Rama - Pathumthani

The Aurora Theater - Chanthaburi

The Pak Nam Rama - Pak Nam, Samut Prakarn

The Kitti Rama - Chachoengsao

The Sra Kaew Rama - Sra Kaew

The Siri Phanom Rama - Phanom Sarakam, Chachoengsao

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Chalerm Sin Theater, chopped

Never mind that it wound down its cinematic life as a double-feature theater that was, by all accounts, a deviants' paradise, demolition of the Chalerm Sin Theater marks yet another loss to Bangkok's dwindling stock of stand-alone movie theaters. While it's no surprise that this one in particular is currently getting smashed out (it wasn't much of a looker to begin with), it is a shame to see nearly the entire inventory of this structural type and the culture it embodied getting collectively tossed into the trash dump of existence.

For the past few months, a wrecking crew has been painstakingly dismantling the 60 year old cinema building. A condo is slated to rise in its place.

The Chalerm Sin Theater from 2009. Its days as a movie theater were long over, but the building was in decent shape, having just been converted into a badminton hall. 

Gap toothed signage atop the Chalerm Sin Theater, with its missing letter 

The three images below were taken this morning, October 19th, 2016.

They taketh away.

Looking from where the screen would be, with the balcony in the distance.

Demolition man surveys his work. Decades ago, this same guy was a regular at The Chalerm Sin for movies.

Again, it's neither surprising nor much of a loss to Bangkok that The Chalerm Sin is being wrecked. While it certainly holds dear memories for the many who experienced it over the years, it was not a particularly important structure - cinema or otherwise - in the grand scheme of things. Its loss should, however, serve as a reminder that there are only a few of this type of building left in the city, most of which have great architectural and/or cultural worth. 

It's time for Bangkokians to start thinking very deeply about what kind of city they want Bangkok to be.   

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Sein Aung Win Cinema - Kyaukme, Shan State, Myanmar

If one were to take inventory of the many colorful towns in Myanmar and rank them in order of their physical character, Kyaukme would sit very near the top. This large town is one of those uncommon places that is worth visiting for no other reason than the place itself. All of its varied parts intermingle like clockwork, with no one aspect any more or less outstanding than the next. 

Despite the overall lack of any specific site or destination, everything in Kyaukme compliments everything else. There is no single anomaly of siting or design that throws off the balance. Even the newer buildings seem to have been built in consideration of those that were erected a century before. Suburban sprawl, chief denigrator of all urbanism, does not exist.

A street lined with shop-houses just a few blocks from the train station.

At the center of Kyaukme is the old market, a low slung wooden structure taking up an entire square block. From this commercial core the town pushes out into a high density grid. The buildings, while diverse in age and style, have a uniformity of scale that runs through the whole town. Everything seems accessible. Everything very human. The scale of its streets in relation to the size of its buildings; its steady commercial buzz and busy street-life, sans the gridlock and pollution induced by cars. 

Kyaukme owes at least part of its past prosperity to being on the train line, the primary economic lifeline in centuries passed. But where most Southeast Asian towns that were built up along a train line have outgrown their original confines, in Kyaukme they seem to have changed very little. Add to this thriving human scale environment the flourishes of antique architecture in good condition and you have a living piece of history. A very special place, to say the least.

The U San Baw Building, one of several ornate old department stores in the center of town

A nice old building near the train station.

As in much of Myanmar, the well preserved structures of Kyaukme were not necessarily preserved out of intention. Years of economic isolation has meant that the financing needed to replace old buildings with new was often absent. 

Kyaukme, like a number of other cities in Myanmar's ethnic states, has the added obstacle of war in the surrounding rural areas to further stifle investment, freezing the townscape in an unintentional time warp.  

While war and disinvestment make for an ugly combination, the effect of the two on Kyaukme's physicality - aesthetic, functional, what have you - has been a boon, ensuring a well preserved stock of buildings and the accompanying culture that makes use of them.

Old department store

One of Kyaukme's many understated structures



View from the steps of the temple on the hill.

What would a well preserved Southeast Asian town be without a cinema to document? The silly but true answer is it wouldn't be one that you'd hear about on this blog. We like to stick to our proverbial guns here at The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. Fortunately, Kyaukme still has The Sein Aung Win Cinema, the existence of which gives me a bit of licence to boast about the town in general.

Elevated view of The Sein Aung Win Cinema in downtown Kyaukme.

With a synoptic description of the larger town in mind, it should come as no surprise that Kyaukme's lone theater is too a bit of honey for the eyes. But that's true of most of the theaters in Myanmar. The unfortunate thing is that said theater, The Sein Aung Win Cinema, is no longer a contributing to Kyaukme's steady din of vitality, having been mothballed since 2012.  

Multicolored louvre windows highlight the central tower of The Sein Aung Win. A golden star with a red outline sits at the top.

Sein Aung Win means "Victorious Diamond"

Perforated, decorative blocks comprise the central strips in the theater's cornice

Ticket windows

A poster case behind the concession stand decorated to resemble a diamond.

The Sein Aung Win Cinema was built in 1957, at the height of Myanamr's movie theater construction boom, which dated roughly from 1947 to 1962. Politically, the period corresponds to the brief window between independence from British rule and the ascension of General Ne Win's military dictatorship. That short democratic interlude saw an explosion in the arts in Myanmar, then Burma, as post-World War 2 rebuilding kick-started the economy.  

In the realm of design, The Sein Aung Win is a bit of a puzzle. Not the typical Art Deco or Art Modern that characterized a large portion of Burmese cinema architecture of the era. While I'm no architecture expert, I'm also no rookie, but this has got me scratching me head. I can only conclude that this is some sort of composite.  

Pilasters and weeds

The date of completion, 1957, is molded onto the side cornice, now obscured from view by a newer structure. The only way I was able to find it was thanks to a tenant in the neighboring building who led me up to a second floor balcony so I could take this picture.

From its heyday in the late 1950's to its closure 4 years ago, The Sein Aung Win Cinema saw a gradual loss of viewership until running it proved too much for 75 year old U Kyaw Aung, owner of the theater. The Kyaukme native picked up the reins from his father, who opened it 59 years ago. 

When asked what he thought the future of the theater would be, U Kyaw Aung was not very hopeful, expressing doubt that it could ever be made operational again.

"I'm too old, anyway," he said. "There needs to be a younger generation to do the work." 

For the time being The Sein Aung Win stands in a lull. Mothballed, presumably, until some investor makes a move on it. Hopefully that move will be in line with Kyaukme's immaculately well preserved character. A rare example of a Southeast Asian town that has managed to avoid, whether intentionally or not, the trappings of progress and the piecemeal destruction of history which it so often brings. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Sein Myit Tar Cinema - Hsipaw, Shan State, Myanmar

The next major town to the west of Lashio in upper Shan State is Hsipaw (pronounced See-Paw). This little hamlet has gained some renown over the past decade or so among travelers for its vintage atmosphere and sedate pace. A freeze frame of the old upland Southeast Asia once romanticized in Western literature and film. Comparisons to Luang Prabang, Laos, minus the tourist hordes have been tossed around with some accuracy, though that same reputation has led to a steadily increasing stream of them. Visitors hoping to experience a pristine Shan princedom devoid of other map-toting, rubber-necking travelers will be let down.

That said, Hsipaw's old school authenticity is still present. Like most small towns in Myanmar, regardless of what part of the country, a human scale, pedestrian oriented intimacy prevails. Those who come from lands where the car has gained primacy as a way of life will find their relative absence in Hsipaw refreshing.

Another relative absence, though maybe only noticeable to that slim subset of architecture enthusiast with an affection for them, is the movie theater. The last one in town - The Sein Myit Tar Cinema - had been turned into the local branch of Myanmar Apex Bank in the past year or so, replacing the leisurely pursuit of movie-going with the serious business of finance.

For history's sake, at least, the Art Deco exterior of The Sein Myit Tar has been kept intact, a visual reminder of the cinematic pleasures once shared within. But only for those old enough to know it.

Now you know it, too.

A quintessential Myanmar Art Deco movie theater, whose name I forgot to record.