Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Padaythar Cinema - South Okkalapa, Yangon, Myanmar

Putting aside reports of ethnic cleansing going on in Rakhine State and the many unfulfilled political expectations, Myanmar as a whole has received glowing press coverage over the past several years. The super charged economy pegged to government reform, blossoming democracy and a budding arts and culture scene have made for many a fancy read about Southeast Asia's "final frontier."

That's all good. It's a fascinating country, after all, and I couldn't recommend a more worthwhile place to visit. But there is an egregious downside to the progress being made that isn't getting nearly as much attention as it deserves.

The unsustainable growth in the use of cars.  

In 2010 when I first visited the city, yeah, there were cars. There was even traffic jams. But now it's terrible. So terrible that the quality of public life has declined collectively so everyone can enjoy their own private ride in a car. Does that equation make sense? The total quality of life for all has plummeted, so that for the individual passenger in a car it can improve. It's a weird zero sum equation if you ask me.  

I know, I know. High traffic volume is an indicator of prosperity. A sign of progress. Please! Spare me the apologist sentiments for this pathetic century-plus lifestyle trend.

Yangon's charm is being choked out by the car. The municipal government chopped the sidewalks in half to increase the parking capacity. In the process they've kicked vendors who earned a living on those sidewalks off of them. All the quiet little side streets - the numerical streets - have become jammed with cars. It's really a pathetic scene. Anybody who tells you otherwise is clearly in love with their car-centric lifestyle.

Now that I've finished my rant, here's a little story about my trip to the South Okkalapa neighborhood to visit The Padaythar Cinema.  

I arrived there by taxi.

The Okkalapa's, both north and south, were essentially massive public housing projects. Their geneses began in the wake of the post-World War Two civil and ethnic conflicts that rocked newly independent Burma. Refugees fleeing the fighting poured into Yangon. The government responded by extending the city grid to the north and east, and filling it in with housing. A few movie theaters were built in the early 1960's to provide some much needed escape for the newly minted urbanites. Among them was The Padaythar.

The Padaythar Cinema stands in the middle of an overgrown field, gated off from the otherwise crowded South Okkalapa neighborhood. 

Cinema ruin in an overgrown field. 

Iron bars on the old ticket window

Nice foliage conveniently blocking my facade view. 

My cabby had a vague recollection of a neighborhood cinema tucked away somewhere in the middle of South Okkalapa. It's been at least 10 years since the Padaythar closed down; plenty of time for it to fade from memory. He stopped on few occasions to ask directions from various street hawkers and pedicab drivers until we found our way there. 

The midday sun was reddening my neck as I pushed open the shoulder-high chain link fence surrounding the cinema grounds. I walked across a dirt tract with what seemed to me like swagger, but I probably looked like a mad man. No more than 10 steps in and I was spotted by a rent-a-cop lazing in front of fan in the shade of the theater's veranda. He tried to wave me off, but I quickly turned the tables on him, beckoning him near as I strode purposefully towards the abandoned theater he guarded. As we neared each other, I slowly raised my SLR from its bag and, with the other hand, extended a finger towards yonder ruin. "I photograph movie theaters," I blurted in crummy Burmese. He shooed me off again, but I held tight, repeating my original phrase and adding "I like movie theaters very much," in earnest.

For my next gesture, I indicated with the flick of my hand that I only intended to shoot the exterior. With that he was convinced. Over the next ten or so minutes I made the photos that you see above. Interior shots were strictly forbidden.

When I had completed my work I thanked the guard, exited the theater grounds and haled a taxi back into town.