Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Route to Myanmar's Movie Theaters

For the third consecutive year, ye olde Myanmar map will be put to good use.  From my starting line in Yangon, I plan on moving in a northwesterly direction up through Western Bago and then zig-zag  my way across Magwe, Mandalay and Sagaing Regions. Barring any holdups, the survey should end in either Myitkyina, Bhamo or Kalay before heading back down to Yangon by the 21st of February. I will try to squeeze in as many towns and their respective movie theaters as possible in a northerly race against a three-week time limit.

First stretch of the theater hunt. 

Dry Zone theater hunt route

Upper Myanmar theater hunt route

If all goes as planned I will get severely ill - possibly from food poisoning - lose some weight I can ill afford to lose, and maybe suffer a burn or two during this expedition. I will get diarrhea. Dehydration will get me once or twice. I will vomit. The civilian informants and local gendarmes who chased me out of Natmauk - General Aung San's birthplace - and Thandwingyi in 2011 will have hopefully found more useful things to do. I am bracing myself for the inevitable night at a flea bag hotel with mosquitoes, bed bugs and/or carpet beetles. I am bracing myself for the inevitable town with no hotel at all, or no licence to host foreigners. Strange skin irritations will come as no surprise. In the Dry Zone cities, I am prepared mentally to have a few unpleasant encounters with raging ethno-nationalists. I will try not to drink too much Myanmar Beer. I will forget to exercise. Loneliness followed by bouts of mild depression will creep up on me. I will photograph lots of old movie theaters. In the end, barring catastrophe, I will be smitten with Myanmar as usual.

You can follow me on Instagram and Facebook which I will be updating regularly while on this survey.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Myoma Cinema - Ye-U, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

World War II history buffs, here's one that you might appreciate. 

Shortly after the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942, the bucolic little burg of Ye-u in Sagaing Region got caught up in the ravages of war. The town's freshly minted Myoma Cinema was commandeered by the occupiers and put to use for nefarious purposes. Specifically, a subterranean chamber was built beneath the auditorium, which, according to the current owner, was used as some sort of prison/torture chamber by the Japanese. 

As far fetched as that may sound, that's what I was told. This unassuming, timber framed cinema hall, with brick nog walls and a gabled roof, more akin to a country cottage than anything else, had a dungeon below it. And it's still there, according to the current owner. 

The ever-humble Myoma Cinema, looking very much like a country cottage, holds a dark secret below its floors.

Beautiful brick flooring, exposed trusses and tree trunks for structural supports.

A Gaumont Kalee 12 projector, dating to 1939, still stands in the Myoma Cinema's wooden projection booth.

A portrait on the wall of the projection room depicting the wife of the original owner.

The humble sign board for the Myoma (Central) Cinema hangs unassumingly beneath metal eaves.  

Wooden bench seats.

 A cursory search for information on the internet doesn't yield much about any instances of Ye-U in World War II. The most significant thing I could find was that it was, and indeed still is, the terminal town of the Mandalay-Ye-U train line, which was bombed during the war. Needless to say there is zero information about a movie theater serving as a torture chamber or prison for the Japanese occupiers. 

The fact that the current owner of the theater, who was otherwise extremely accommodating, spoke no English, nor I any Burmese, didn't help things. Had communications between us been better I might have gotten access to the alleged chamber below. The only way I was able to find out about the nefarious crypt in the first place was to record the woman talking about the theater and then replay it for some bilingual friends when I got back to Yangon. Had I known about it when I was there, you can be sure that I'd have asked for access.

Maybe I'll follow up, with a translator, during my upcoming theater survey in February.  

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Mingalar Cinemas sponsors 2018 Myanmar Theater Survey

Mingalar Cinemas has been on my radar quite a bit of late. The Yangon-based movie theater chain (Myanmar's largest) has been quietly opening new locations across the country, venturing beyond their traditional mainstays of Yangon and Mandalay. Last December they opened their first branch in Mon State. Prior to that, they opened new theaters in Pyay, Bago and Magwe, while also increasing their theater holdings in Yangon and Mandalay, respectively. 

Mingalar's expansion isn't a big surprise. Most of Myanmar's leading companies have jumped at the new economic opportunities present since the country's reemergence on to the global stage. But as a theater chain - the nation's most prolific, at that - it's Mingalar's approach to expansion which is worth taking note of.

The company logo of Mingalar Cinemas

In stark contrast to most other theater chains around the world,  Mingalar Cinemas has an affinity for acquiring and renovating antique movie theaters. That's a rarity these days, especially in Southeast Asia, where the multiplex-shopping mall combination has become the norm. To see a movie exhibitor show any interest in preserving the architectural history of its very own industry is a much welcomed change.

Mingalar's newest branch - the theater in Mon State mentioned above - is the 72 year old Bayint Cinema. After nearly a decade long stretch of sitting vacant, Minagalar purchased the impressive old theater on the Mawlemyine waterfront and renovated it from top to bottom, carefully preserving all of its exterior architectural elements in the process. Besides adding a new entertainment venue, this marks a key preservation victory for Mawlemyine, a city with a uniquely historic if run-down building stock.


The Bayint (King's) Cinema before and after its 2017 renovations by Mingalar Cinemas

Mingalar has done the same elsewhere in the country, taking forgotten cinema spaces out from the doldrums of history and into the 21st century. In so doing, the company is helping to conserve an architecturally rich identity that Myanmar is gradually becoming famous for, while expanding their own footprint along the way.    


Pictured above is The San Pya Cinema, in downtown Yangon. The photo on the left was taken c. 2010, when it was basically a flophouse. On the right is The San Pya in 2017, three years after Mingalar Cinemas bought and renovated it into a first class theater with three screening rooms. All the classic International Style architecture was preserved, and the intersection still has its landmark movie theater. 


Inside and outside The Thamada Cinema - Minaglar's crown jewel movie palace. Probably the most spectacular movie theater in Southeast Asia after Bangkok's Scala

The Shae Saung Cinema is another mid-century beauty, perfectly preserved by Mingalar Cinemas.

For all the reasons stated above, I am extremely proud to announce that Mingalar Cinemas is sponsoring my 2018 Myanmar Theater Survey, commencing in February. This 5th round of movie theater documentation will probably be my last in Myanmar, so to go out on a high note like this is truly an honor. It is my hope that this sponsorship will result in more preserved cinema treasures down the road.