Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Min Thiha Cinema - Katha, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

In the book Burmese Days, George Orwell's account of colonial life in backwater Burma is set in a little town called Kyauktada, which is a fictionalized Katha. The latter is where Orwell spent a year serving the British empire as a cop, and where he compiled most of the rotten little details that he ultimately knit together into his literary classic. 

Katha is remote as far as Burmese towns go; well off the beaten path at the far eastern edge of Sagaing region. To the north from Mandalay it's either a two day boat trip, an 11 hour train ride or a nauseating drive over an ill-paved road. All to get to a little town which, while not for want of charms, is also a dime a dozen in provincial Burma. But the Orwell connection has pull. It serves as a conduit for the trickle of foreign tourists - mostly literary minded types - who make the arduous journey. They come to soak up the atmosphere that Orwell populated with his jingoists and "natives;" to glimpse the sites he described in such intimately cynical detail. The dusty streets lined with teak wood cottages; the shabby little European Club, where all the bitching and moaning of home-sick colonials was centered; the little Anglican church set up by missionaries; the police station and of course the actual home that Orwell resided in while there. I shared a brutal slog of a ride over a washed out road in the back of pick-up truck from the train station in Naba over the mountains to Katha on the night I arrived with two middle aged English travelers who were inspired to make the trip after reading Emma Larkin's  Finding Orwell in a Burmese Teashop. Theirs was a case of literary tourism to the second power and proof that old George still holds currency all these decades later. 

What the tourists don't come to Katha for - and probably never even take note of while sauntering around the sweet little city - is the old movie theater right in the heart of it. That seems to be the preserve of your humble narrator alone. 

The Min Thiha Cinema - a low-slung arcade fronted building. 

The Min Thiha in streetscape perspective

Katha is a typical upcountry town that it is compact. Easy to navigate on foot at a leisurely pace. After many years of exploring such towns I can practically find the theater with my eyes closed. Setting out on foot, I make my way to the central market. If the theater still exists chances are it can be found within a few blocks of here. Next is to spot an oblong structure with few if any windows. Maybe a cobweb covered ticket window consisting of a pair of holes just large enough for a hand to be put through. Once you've found this building chances are you've found the old theater.  

Typically I make a beeline for the theater the first chance I get. But at Katha I made a detour to the riverfront hoping to get a feel for the town's geography from water's edge on out. At dawn, from a few select angles, the Katha waterfront has an alien - almost Dalian quality to it. The dry season drought exposes much of the Irrawaddy riverbed, leaving the current to shape the sandy bottom into all manner of terraqueous designs. 

View of the Irrawaddy from the Katha banks

After an hour of taking in the riverscape, I set out on an exploratory walk through town, confident that I would bump into the old theater without asking a single person for directions. And so it was. First contact with the Min Thiha Cinema was made - after a few cups of hot tea - at about 9am. 

The Min Thiha is an arcade fronted movie hall. A fairly common architectural style among mid-century Burmese movie theaters. The fa├žade of the building consists of a large portico with a series of arch ways. This elongated type of frontage corresponds to the length of the auditorium, rather than its rear - the more common design among stand-alone movie theaters. It allows for crowds to exit faster and more efficiently thanks to a series of doors at the end of the rows. It does away with any annoying bottlenecks when patrons are leaving the theater.  

Tables set up for noodles and other goodies across from the Min Thiha Cinema

Directly across the street from the Min Thiha Cinema is a little noodle stand with a few wooden tables to sit and eat at. I took a seat at one, ordered myself a bowl of khauk swe thoke, scarfed it down and then merrily pressed the vendors in my piss poor Burmese about adjacent picture house. Apparently my pronunciation in Burmese of a few certain phrases is impeccable. "Does this town have an old cinema? Is that an old movie theater? I love old movie theaters," etc. Beyond that I can say next to nothing. But the exactitude with which I speak these few lines leads people to believe, at first, that I'm fluent in Burmese. The reply I get is typically incomprehensible to me. This time was no exception. 

After a bit of hand signaling and light pleading on my part, a key was produced and the theater doors flung open for me to explore the interior. 

Nothing was left within the Min Thiha. The auditorium floor had been cleared of all seating, much of it having been piled up on the stage in front of the screen. The only noteworthy architectural element was the concrete balustrade at the balcony level. 

All the seating at the Min Thiha has been tossed into a pile on the stage.

I wish I had dug up some juicy morsels about the Min Thiha that would connect it directly to George Orwell. How nice it would have been to learn of some Orwellian folklore regarding the place: 'George Orwell watches a Charlie Chaplin at the Min Thiha.' 'George Orwell breaks up a fight at the Min Thiha.' 'George Orwell apprehends a thief at the Min Thiha.' 'George Orwell defuses a bomb at the Min Thiha.' But no such legends exist. Chiefly because the Min Thiha didn't exist while Orwell, then still known by his birth name Eric Blair, was in town. Orwell, or Blair, lived in Katha from 1926 to 1927. Locals dated the Min Thiha to 1956 or so. 

Whether or not there was a theater in Katha in Orwell's days is open for conjecture. If there was, it's reasonable to assume that he frequented it. It would have made for an ideal distraction from the heat and malaise of everyday life. In the book Burmese Days there is a single mention of "cinemas," but it doesn't confirm whether or not there was one in Kyauktada. Possibly Orwell omitted it from the story as a means of making the place seem less "civilized."

On the same street as the Min Thiha, about fifty meters away, the shell of a much older theater stands, now serving as a motorcycle garage. I wasn't able to get any information at all about that place, but the few shots of it that I have will be the subject of a future post.

The Orwellian connection to Katha didn't amount to many fluent English speakers either. Nobody who could deliver any interesting facts about the Min Thiha. On my last day in town I ran into an inn keeper who was fluent, but by that time I was itching to get on the road. Other theaters in other towns were waiting. 

One of the receptionists at the hotel I stayed at, a native of Katha, did mention that the Min Thiha was soon going to be renovated and returned to a life of movie screenings. Given the trend throughout Burma to renovate old movie halls, this isn't all that surprising. My only hope is that the renovation job honors the original design as much as possible.  

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The San Thit U Cinema - Myanaung, Irrawaddy Region, Myanmad

It's hard to believe that just three short months ago I was lugging my camera around Myanmar looking for old theaters to shoot. If you'd have told me then that in a few weeks time the world would be in the midst of a pandemic induced lockdown, I'd have politely dismissed you as another peddler in conspiracy theories.  But lo and behold, here we are.

Three months ago I was happily ensconced in the time machine that is small town Myanmar. The town of Myanaung to be exact, in the northwestern corner of Irrawaddy region. As the crow flies, Myanaung looks like it's a short trip by road from Yangon. But due to its position on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River, with scarcely a spanning bridge for hundreds of miles, getting to Myanaung takes forever.

This relative remoteness is a bit of a blessing. While trade with Myanaung is facilitated by both road and river, it's far enough from any major highway routes to be commercially protected from the scourge of slowly growing highway retail. A dense and lively urban core thrives as a result. Only the richest families own private cars, so there's little need for car oriented infrastructure on a mass scale. Everyone else makes due with bicycles and motorbikes.  

Myanaung still does most of its trade by river boat. Goods are carried up the riverbank by laborers. The central market lies just beyond. 

Myanaung's central market (above) 
and the ornate shops and godowns that surround it (below)

The pace of life in Myanaung is busy, but not overwhelmingly so. Foot traffic reaches its peak where commerce is most brisk; at the old central market. This bilevel wooden structure would be the architectural showpiece in almost any other town of this scale, but in Myanaung it's out done and out classed by the stunning array of shops and godowns that surround it. For whatever mysterious reason the facades of these buildings are being meticulously restored. 

Myanaung's commercial core abuts the Irrawaddy waterfront, conduit for much of the town's trade. Cargo is carried from mostly small vessels up the steep riverbank by longshoremen, where it's then parceled out to various warehouses and market stalls. The labor at Myanaung's port is done by teams of men and women as opposed to cranes and container systems. Technology is on the march across Myanmar, but old ways still persist in most places. Myanaung is no exception.    

Two quick blocks from the central market stands yet another architectural charm. The local movie theater, of course. 

Morning gatherers at the San Thi U Cinema

Over the years, three different movie theaters have stood in Myanaung. The two older of the three, both constructed of wood, were pulled down long ago. Remaining is the 60-plus year old San Thi U Cinema. Myanaung's first and only brick and concrete movie hall. 

The San Thi U is a rock of a building. It's head house walls are a solid foot thick. The front portico lightens the load, visually, with its slim-ish collumns and proportionately thin roof, but everything behind that looks like it was carved out of a granite cliff.  I didn't get to meet the owner, but it's pretty obvious that whoever built it intended for it to project an aura of strength. Either that or bricks were still dirt cheap in those days. Maybe both.  

A noodle vendor set up along the side of the theater structure feeds hungry laborers on their way to work.

San Thi U Cinema signage

Posters abandoned in poster cases and on bulletin boards in the lobby. The San Thi U stopped showing films about 10 years ago.

The teak wood seats of the San Thi U piled up in a field on the grounds of a local temple. Probably to be used as firewood. 

Word among the locals was that the San Thi U stopped screening films about 10 or 12 years back. Today it's used to store construction material like rebar, but it seems like it may have been sitting dormant for a while prior. 

All the wooden bench seats were recently removed, donated to a nearby temple where they sit in a tangled pile in a patch of open ground. 

Given the vibrancy of Myanaung as the commercial epicenter of west-upper Irrawaddy region - not to mention the already a strong movement to restore and beautify old buildings in town - the San Thi U Cinema seems prime for a revival. Years ago, just about every town on the west bank of the Irrawaddy in this part of the country could lay claim to its own cinema. Now the nearest one is in Hinthada, which is a few hours away by road. I'd imagine that the denizens of all the little smallvilles between there and Kyangin would flock to Myanaung for a movie and a rip-roaring good time in the "big city" if the San Thi U were to reopen. 

Guess we'll see how things pan out after the pandemic.