Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Nay Pyi Daw Revisited - Mandalay, Myanmar

From Mogok in the mountains I journeyed back down to the lowlands and the dusty streets of Mandalay. A solid six hour drive by car, repressing vomit all the way.

If I haven't professed my disappointment at what has become of Mandalay, the storied former capitol of the Kingdom of Burma, let me do so - in brief - now.

Mandalay has been the victim of two waves of destruction in recent times. In the 1980's large portions of the city were devastated by fire, sending countless pieces of vintage architecture up in smoke. Many residents were displaced on account of it. The new structures that have replaced the old are hideous, with almost zero exceptions.

More recently Mandalay has turned into a major transit center for goods coming and going from all directions. While beneficial for the economy, Mandalay authorities seem to be unable (if not uninterested) to check the type of development which the boom has brought. That said, the going development theme across the city is to pull down architectural antiquities in favor of cheap new construction. This shortsightedness on the part of municipal authorities is pretty widespread around the world, but never have I seen it more wholesale than in Mandalay. At least not in the Southeast Asian context. As a result, Mandalay might be the least interesting city in the region from an architecture and design perspective.

If it weren't for the happy fact that Mingalar Cinemas, Myanmar's biggest movie theater operator, painstakingly cares for a few grand old picture palaces, I might completely write the place off.

First on my Mandalay cinema odyssey is the Win Lite. 

Elevated view of the Win Lite Cinema

The Win Lite is the only remaining mid-20th century movie hall in Mandalay. It has managed to avoid both fire and rampant, shoddy development. When I last conducted research in the city in 2010 there was another 1950's era theater - the Ma Soe Yein Cinema - but that was recently demolished, leaving the Win Lite, which dates to 1958, as the oldest surviving movie theater in town.  

From my narrow Yankee perspective the Win Lite Cinema could easily pass for a New Deal-commissioned government building in just about any American city. Its heavy, streamlined modernism exudes authority, much like the similarly fashioned courthouses and post-offices of 1930's America. Strength, reliability, deliberateness. "We will give you your dose of entertainment along with food and gas rations."

A simple but elegant waiting area

The lobby area in this post-independence era movie hall is narrow compared to the spacious auditorium. It's as if - in keeping with its regimented aesthetic - loitering around the lobby area was intentionally discouraged. An in and out affair. Get you entertainment rations and be gone. 

Lower level seating

Mingalar Cinema staff was kind enough to allow me photograph the interior while a film was screening. The Win Lite contains 641 seats in total

Exiting crowds

My afternoon at the Win Lite left me feeling slightly optimistic. A Valentine's Day crowd of mostly young couples packed the house to watch what looked like a well produced Myanmar romance. Capacity crowds like this are the exception rather than the norm, but theater management assured me that a steady stream of regulars keeps the Win Lite well in the black. Encouraging news in this era of movie streaming and "instatainment."

Friday, August 23, 2019

The Kithi Cinema - Mogok, Mandalay Region, Myanmar

There's a bit of magic being performed upon Myanmar's movie theaters these days. A celestial twist of collective fate that has been working its way from town to charm-stuffed town across the country. The magic is that for the past couple of years a good number of theaters have been ushered out of purgatory, and the eventual rubble heap, through the shimmering gates of salvation. That's right, old movie theaters throughout Myanmar are being renovated at a fairly high rate. The lone down side is that for this new generation of theater renovators, the shimmering part is literal. Crimes against architecture are being perpetrated one cheap, shiny piece of vinyl at a time.

Take, for instance, the Kithi Cinema; a classic Tropical Art Deco theater right in the heart of Mogok. The Kithi was contracted at the height of Myanmar's movie theater construction boom, which followed independence from Great Britain in 1947. In the years to follow, Tropical Art Deco came into vogue among the country's builders and architects. As the style proliferated, many of its finest examples found expression in the form of movie theaters, matching these iconic cultural venues with the most lavish architectural trend of the era.

In a shining sign of these current times, however, some of Myanmar's nascent theater renovators seem to have little regard for yesterday's design sensibilities. Case in point, the Tropical Art Deco facade of the Kithi has been completely covered up with uninspired, vinyl paneling. It's a bittersweet outcome for an otherwise positive development. Getting a reactivated original movie hall - with all it's crowd-drawing potential and landmark status right in the center of a historic town - is a good thing. Getting mutilated architecture in the process is bad. The most unfortunate part is that it's completely unnecessary.

The original Tropical Art Deco crest of the facade of the Kithi Cinema peaks out from behind the hideous vinyl paneling 

Beast kills beauty.

From this angle, a corner of an adjacent building is visible in the foreground. Though in dire need of some sprucing up, this is the type of simple, but elegant architecture that much of Mogok - and Myanmar cities in general - is comprised of. The the same type of architecture that has been needlessly obscured in the Kithi Cinema.

When modernizing old movie theaters it's not uncommon for the theater's functional components to be completely replaced. Take seating, for example. Before renovations, the Kithi was making use of its original teakwood seats. While beautiful in their own right, hard wood seats do not sit well (no pun intended) with 21st century audiences. The newly installed cushioned seats, on the other hand, mark a technological upgrade that will make watching movies more comfortable. As will the new and improved sound system and digital projection. With such improvements, a bit of provenance is sacrificed for an enhanced user experience.  But unlike the functional aspects of movie theaters - seats, the screen, audio and projection - the facade is strictly ornamental and should be restored to its original look.

The Kithi's grand auditorium has been completely gutted and modernized. A section of it has been cut away to make room for a second, mini-auditorium, so that the theater can screen two films at the same time. Overhauling a square box auditorium to improve the movie-watching experience is acceptable so long as no rare architectural elements are removed. Obliterating an original facade is unacceptable.

A smaller, secondary auditorium has been cut from the original.

Galaxy Cinemas, the company behind the revival of the Kithi, is attempting to brand itself with a distinct visual identity. All of their theaters feature the same boxy facade of red and silver, whether built from the ground up or from existing movie theaters that they renovate. Ostensibly, their design concept is riding the wave of the current building boom that is making its mark on many parts of the country. As such, the upstart company is attempting to make themselves appear sleek and new.

As important as brand identity is, it's a poor excuse for covering up good architecture. Galaxy could have achieved the same visual branding simply by tidying up the original tropical Art Deco facade. The company logo, moreover, placed in a suitable spot on the old facade, would have served as a fine branding marker, without dishonoring the architecture and the theater's long history. This is a conceptual error that I see being corrected, at great expense, years later all over the west.

Oddly enough, the lobby area, including a pair of beautifully crafted teak stairs, wooden poster cases and wood paneled ticket booths, have been painstaking restored to their original mid-century look. If the same attention had been paid to the facade, this would count as a stellar renovation job.

Restored poster display case and stairs in the lobby if the Kithi Cinema.

Had I arrived in Mogok just a month or so earlier I would have been able to document the Kithi in its original Tropical Art Deco guise. Thanks to the power of the internet, I was able to track down an image of it pre-mutilation courtesy of photographer Jamie Johnstone. Click here to view the photo.

Below is a sample of other Tropical Art Deco movie theaters I've had the good fortune to document throughout Myanmar.

The Yuzana Cinema - Pyin Oo Lwin

The Myoma Cinema - Pyin Oo Lwin

The Aung Tha Pyae Cinema - Yemathin

The Aung Mingala Cinema - Dawei

The Win Cinema - Toungoo

The Aung Theit Thi Cinema - Myaungmya

The Hla Thiri Cinema - Minbu

The Kemarat Cinema - Keng Tung

The Thwin Cinema - Yangon

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Baho Cinema - Mogok, Mandalay Region, Myanmar

The 6 hour car ride from Mandalay to Mogok began at dawn. Soon after passing the city limits we became entangled in a sea of oncoming motorbikes, crawling in from the outskirts to city center. This daily commute of rural labor into the booming markets of Mandalay was further exacerbated by an over turned truck blocking one half of the road a few miles out. Once past the twisted metal, with its cargo of bricks spilled across the cratered bi way (see video below), the pace of things quickened and we cut through dusty, roadside villages en route to the mountains. 


Mogok is a storied place. A mountain top "Ruby Land." The historic source of much of the world's supply of high quality rubies. 

The origins of this spectacular town on the Shan plateau begin centuries ago when what is now Mogok was nothing more than a high altitude hinterland of the Shan princedom Mong Mit. Legend has it that a band of Shan hunters casing the forest for a good kill chanced upon some lovely red stones in the foot hills. The hunting band gathered up said stones and brought them to the Sawbwa of Mong Mit, who later organized mining expeditions to the hills above.

Some time later, the mines of Mogok were bequeathed to the Burmese king at Mandalay, who continued excavations in the name of the crown. To this day, Mogok township is located in Mandalay Region, even though its geographic kinship is with the Shan plateau, not the alluvial plains of the former.

In the age of European imperialism, it was the French who initially had interests in the gem mines of Mogok. But it was only after the British conquered upper Burma in 1886 that its ruby mining industry took on an industrial character. An excavation firm called the British Ruby Mines Ltd. took charge of the mines, as the colonial administration turned what had been a collection of makeshift mining camps into a permanent town.     

Stunningly framed by a string of verdant hills, the Baho Cinema of West Mogok. 

Mogok consists of two unequal (in terms of size and population) halves. East and West Mogok, for lack of better designations. Both halves developed in the vicinity of nearby ruby mines, and both halves were eventually graced with their own movie theaters. 

The theater highlighted in this post, the Baho Cinema of West Mogok, is a real jaw dropper. I would go out on a limb to say that it is very possibly the most strikingly situated movie house on this warming planet. Its monumental scale juxtaposed against a low slung residential neighborhood and tied together by a backdrop of verdant peaks calls to mind an alpine village, cinema substituting for church.    

The neighborhood across from the Baho is built into the side of a steep hill, offering excellent views of the cinema and surrounding landscape. 

The Baho Cinema was built in 1961. It was the first permanent movie theater ever built in West Mogok and the second in the city overall.

It's not clear whether or not the Baho was ever nationalized. During the Ne Win government (1962 - 1988) the vast majority of Myanmar's theaters were brought under state control. But due to its relative inaccessibility (there's no airport and the road is slow and treacherous) and the fact that ethnic armies opposed to the central regime were stationed nearby, Mogok retained a larger degree of autonomy than many other places. 

Whatever the case, the Baho remained in operation until about 2013. It's been dormant ever since. But not for much longer.

Late last year, a permit was obtained from the Ministry of Construction to start renovations. A local entrepreneur has apparently purchased the Baho and plans on restoring it to a fully functioning movie theater. Had I arrived just a few weeks earlier I've have been able to photograph the auditorium with its original wooden seats in place. It was completely gutted during this photo session in mid-January.

Old posters still cover the walls in the main office of the Baho Cinema

The former projectionist of the Baho Cinema demonstrating how films were rewound by hand. 

While the exterior of the Baho Cinema boasts of a svelte modernist design, interior details like the stairs to the balcony seating are elegant works vernacular architecture, utilizing tropical hardwoods.  

Staircase details

Facade close up

Getting the best views of a theatre - or any urban building, for that matter - often involves accessing nearby buildings. In the above photo, the daughter of the shop-house owners posed for a portrait on her rooftop, which offered the best view of the Baho around.    

Some elevated footage of west Mogok and the Baho Cinema.

Mogok is one of those spirited kinds of cities that are few and far between these days. Upland Southeast Asia at its most charming. It deserves a lot more attention than I'm willing and able to give it in this little post. For one, getting there alone requires advanced permission from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, a private tour guide and a private driver, all of which can become quite costly. 

The second theater that I documented in Mogok isn't nearly as visually dramatic. For my next post -if I can dislodge my head from my mundane reality at the moment - I'll spend less time on the theater and go into more detail about Mogok itself. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Aung Mingala Cinema - Nyaunglebin, Bago Region, Myanmar

On the opposite end of town from the YMBA Cinema - a straight shot if you follow to the street parallel to the train tracks - is old Nyaunglebin. This section of town flourished in the heyday of train travel. The British-built system that slinks its way across Myanmar was at the forefront of the modern market economy when it opened - piecemeal, one section at a time - in the early 20th century. To this day, town centers in many secondary and tertiary cities are at their most elegant near the train station, reflecting the economic heft carried by the locomotive.  

Nyaunglebin fits that mold. From the faded elegance of the train station, the town's produce hawkers begin their serpentine rows down the sidewalks, their fresh fruit and veggies displayed in sprawling piles in front of them. Behind them stand the rows of architectural treasures; ornate old buildings, largely intact, but so badly neglected that they appear as slumping, brittle shadows of their former selves. 

Among this collection of vintage structures stands the Aung Mingala Cinema. Unfortunately, the exterior of the Aung Mingala was so far gone from modifications and neglect that photographing it would have been a futile effort. The interior, too, didn't have much to offer, except for a few hand painted flourishes on the proscenium, which are displayed below.

Abandoned auditorium of the Aung Mingala Cinema

A hand painted Zatt Minn Thar, or traditional Myanmar actor/dancer, flanks both sides of the wooden proscenium at the Aung Mingala Cinema 

The Zatt Min Thar

A painted Ga Lone figure, enemy of dragons, serves as a simple crest above the screen.

Looking back towards the projection booth and balcony seating. 

It's minutia like this that offers flickers of a forgotten past that will almost definitely be erased in the years to come. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Young Men's Buddhist Association Cinema Hall - Nyaunglebin, Bago Region, Myanmar

The Young Men's Buddhist Association has a storied history in Myanmar. Founded in 1906 to promote Burmese Buddhist values during the height of British colonial rule, the organization was an early incubator of the anti-colonial movement. It was at the insistence of YMBA members that the "footwear controversy" - a long-running debate between the Burmese Buddhist clergy and British officialdom over the practice of removing ones shoes when entering Buddhist sites (the Brits didn't expose their funky toes) - was pushed into the political sphere. Eventually the offending British were forced to capitulate, marking an important victory - if only symbolic - for the oppressed over the oppressors.

Despite the sectarian ring to its name, the YMBA had no formal connection to the then fractious Buddhist clergy. In practice, its function was much in line with its Western counterparts the YMCA and YMHA - social clubs based on religious affiliation, sans religiosity.  

A simple metal gateway to the right of the YMBA office once marked the way to the YMBA Cinema. The sign now advertises the YMBA football pitch, but in years gone by it was festooned with movie ads. 

The Nyaunglebin branch of the YMBA - founded in 1962 - was the only one in the country to ever have a purpose-built movie theater. The reason for this unusual coupling speaks volumes to the progressive nature of the organization, if not the local founder. 

Unlike other branches of the association, which depended for their survival on outside donations, the founder of the Nyaunglebin branch was intent on it being self-sustaining. This was as much a political sentiment as it was an act of entrepreneurship. His logic was to keep at bay those who sought to gain sociopolitical influence by donating money to a quasi-religious institution - an upstanding statement given the political climate of the times. Post-colonial Burma was a budding democracy. In so being, it was a highly divided and fractious society, in which money could go a long way politically. It was this state of affairs which ultimately and decisively came to an end with General Ne Win's military coup of 1962.

The YMBA Cinema was in essence the answer - at least in Nyaunglebin - to the day's political corruption.

Molded concrete signage is a common feature among on many early to mid-century buildings in Myanmar. The gold paint here adds a little bit of pizzazz. 

The building pictured in the two photos above, however, is not actually the YMBA Cinema. It's the head house of the larger YMBA complex, which includes the former cinema. This handsome building, which fronts onto the busy Old Yangon-Mandalay Highway, contains the office and meeting hall on the 2nd floor, with retail space (another way of raising funds) on the ground level. The cinema is located in an adjacent building just behind the office.

The logo for the YMBA symbolically situated above its founders on the office wall.

The YMBA Cinema was accessed by a long corridor on the side of head house. The cinema is now closed, but has since been transformed into a football pitch. 

Some ten years ago, the Nyaunglebin YMBA closed down the movie theater. Dwindling attendance was the main culprit. Keeping true to the YMBA community spirit, the large hall was converted into a football pitch, complete with AstroTurf. That's how I found it this past January. 

Teak wood theater seats, left overs from the days of cinema, are piled up at the far end of the hall.

From film to football - or soccer, for my American readers. This view depicts holes for the projectors flanked by balcony level seating.

Looking towards where the screen used to be.