Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Shae Saung Cinema Revisted

There are two noteworthy sights on Sule Pagoda Road, Upper Block. The Nay Pyi Daw and Shae Saung cinemas.This duo of "Burmese Polychrome Theaters," both tidily maintained by Mingalar Cinemas, are the last vintage structures left on one of the most high profile blocks in the country. All other old buildings, including two more cinemas that once stood across the street, have been pulled down, bit by bit, over the past 20 years.

One might assume that the charming old stock of buildings that used to line this gateway thoroughfare were demolished to make way for new ones that reflect Myanmar's bright new demeanor since entering the world stage. Think again. Not a single one of the buildings which has replaced the old stock is worth a second look. Functional mediocrity, at best. Too bad collective confidence doesn't necessarily make cities look good.

The Shae Saung Cinema circa 2016

The Shae Saung Cinema, however, does look good. At least I think so. It and its sister theater - The Nay Pyi Daw - up the street are two beacons of the cityscape from a time when movie theaters were the proverbial living rooms of the city, and reflected that important social role in their architecture.

Many a visitor to Yangon have remarked about the two colorful movie theaters accentuating the block. Place makers in the truest sense.   

Street vendors in front of the Shae Saung provide cheap snacks to movie-goers while enliven the street. 

Crowds shuffle in at Stall level seating. A ticket taker stands by the door.

During past visits to The Shae Saung, as well as other Mingalar operated cinemas, I was never able to get past the front door. If I did it was only to slouch down in a seat for a movie. Facades were the most I could hope to document. Over the past two years, however, Mingalar and me have gotten familiar (the theater chain sponsored my most recent Myanmar theater survey). These days instead of swift dismissals by theater security, I get the red carpet treatment from theater managers and the privilege of full access to Mingalar's entire fleet of mid-century movie palaces. A golden ticket in the hyper-niche world of movie theater photography.

Here's a few shots of the auditorium I took between screenings. 

Balcony seating at the Shae Saung Cinema

The Shae Saung has over 600 seats, making it one of the largest movie theaters in Myanmar.

Comfort and luxury are trademarks of Mingalar Cinemas. The Shae Saung is no exception. 

Most theaters in Myanmar built prior to the Ne Win coup had English names, indicative of the country's past status as a colony of England. Soon after Ne Win took over, a policy was hatched that forced name changes from English to Burmese in a bid to restore a sense of dignity to the nation. Shae Saung translates to "Pioneer," but the cinema's original English name was "The Light House."

In this age of cut-rate architecture the name Light House seems more appropriate now than ever before. The Shae Saung Cinema is a beacon, a light house if you will, signaling a time when architectural design was not the domain of developers but of artists. Even if it's not your cup of tea aesthetically, it's hard to deny the artful design and its keystone role in the life of this once elegant block.