Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Aung Mingala Cinema Revisted - Dawei, Thanintharyi Region, Myanmar

Another Survey Completed

Round 4 of Myanmar movie theater surveying went off without a hitch and two bouts of food poisoning. The gut problems cut me down ten pounds lighter than when I started, but there's no burnt ankles or any other malady this year to speak of.

My range of research on this trip was relatively narrow, but also dense with findings. Movie theaters old and ancient came into focus, and I acquired a sack full of movie theater memorabilia along the way. Most of it is trash, for sure, but you all know what they about one man's trash.

The little red strip on the above map is Mon State, where I conducted most of my research.

Mon State was my primary research site, supplemented by a few short, precision guided excursions into adjacent States and Regions, including Ayerawaddy, Kayin and Thanintharyi. All were fruitful, even if the pickings get slimmer each year. But for now, lets get things started on the good foot, because that how the journey began.


The Aung Mingala Cinema

If you've been following this blog long enough to remember my first visit to Dawei back in 2011 then you might recall pictures of a duo of pink movie theaters in a dust strewn backwater. Well the Dawei of 2017 is a bit different from the Dawei of 2011. Dust strewn it still is, though the backwater designation is starting to give way. The most notable change during my six year hiatus is the handful of mid-rise hotels that have been built. At least one other mid-rise tower is currently under construction. 

While the new giants are shockingly out of proportion for the low rise city of around 150,000 inhabitants, they are spaced out enough that the impact is not so dramatic.  

More dramatic is the noticeable increase in foreign tourists. In 2011, Dawei was still well off the beaten track for most of the trickle of foreign tourists that ventured into Myanmar. Six years ago, I remember running into a group of medical doctors on assignment for Doctors Without Borders who were flabbergasted at the sight of another foreigner. Today, the sight of the likes of me wouldn't amount to the bat of an eyelash. 

Most foreign visitors, however, seem to be more interested in intrepid travel to "unspoiled" hinterlands than the town itself. That's fine by me. All the more elbow room for when I'm seeking out the local cinema treasure.

The Aung Mingala in 2011 (left) and 2017 (right). While the new look white paint-job and tacky use of projected lights onto the facade has cheapened the aesthetic, it's the loss of the two palm trees behind the theater which most upsets me. 

Over the past few years a number of willing informants have brought me up to date on the Dawei cinema scene. "The Aung Mingala is now sporting digital projectors and showing 3D films, man" they'd announce. Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, "that weird looking one - what is it called, The Mingala Thiri? - that one's gone under." (Kites Tales Myanmar put together a nice photo essay on The Mingala Thiri Cinema in November of last year.) 

Both bits of intelligence are legitimate. The Aung Mingala has indeed gone through an entire overhaul, including the installation of air-conditioning, digital projection and a brand new screen and sound system. Maybe even cushy new seats to replace the classic but uncomfortable wooden ones. I wouldn't know for sure, as they were much more protective of the place now that it's been upgraded. Interior photography was strictly prohibited.  

In the exterior looks department it has lost a a bit of its mid-century Tropical Art Deco provenance, but mostly in the details. By and large it's as I remember it. What changes were made are not irreversible and a few low road improvements are completely acceptable if it means the building will be around for the foreseeable future. 

Moreover, now that digital projectors are in place, the viewing fare can diversify beyond the super-low-production-value Myanmar movies that had been the exclusive viewing fare for decades. A poster for the most recent installment in the Resident Evil dynasty was tacked up in the lobby. Such Hollywood schlockbusters would not have been possible had the circa 1960's carbon arc projectors not been replaced.  

The same manager from 2011 running the show.

Ticket booth 

 All said, it was good to start out this survey with an active theater. Ever more so considering that much of the new investment in Dawei is being spurred on by the pending development of a nearby deep sea port. Once complete, the Dawei Deep Sea Port and accompanying Special Economic Zone is anticipated to be a game changer in regional trade. Roads cutting through western Thailand to Bangkok and all points east and north will theoretically make shipping from the Indian Ocean quicker, bypassing the long established Straights of Malacca route, where Singapore is the main hub. 
Aside from a new and improved road from Bangkok to the Thai-Myanmar border, little work on the mega project has occurred thus far. It seems like all parties involved are waiting to see what happens via the broader geopolitical reordering that is seeming more and more inevitable these days. 

For the time being, that's a good thing for old movie theaters like The Aung Mingala. As property values rise, old movie theaters and the large footprints they sit on become prime targets for redevelopment, particularly when speculation is coming from outside investors who have little interest in anything other than reaping maximum profits. 

The fact that The Aung Mingala was recently upgraded further signals that the ownership has confidence in its longevity. 

Long live The Aung Mingala Cinema!


Donations warmly welcomed....

The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project is a one person show. Although I've had some generous grants over the years, by and large I'm self-funded. That does not mean that I'm independently wealthy, or living off of a cozy trust fund. When I'm not documenting, writing about or giving lectures about movie theaters in Southeast Asia, I'm a laborer in Philadelphia, PA. Part of the savings I generate from my labor goes towards this project, the aim of which is to promote historic movie theaters as preservation worthy sites. After 8 years of doing this work, old movie theaters have started to enter the collective consciousness in some circles within Southeast Asia. That's not completely my doing, of course, but I'm not too proud to accept a bit of credit. 

If you enjoy the photos and essays you find here and want to see it continue, please consider kicking in a couple dollars to help sponsor future surveys. Better yet, buy a photo off of me. Send me an email at sea.theater@hotmail.com and I'll send you a selection of images for sale. 

Thanks for reading,
Phil Jablon


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