Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Limited edition Thai movie theater photo portfolio, now available

After 6 years of documenting the decline of Southeast Asia's stand-alone movie theaters, I've finally come up with a product to sell.

Over the last few months I've scoured my archive and carefully selected 20 images of Thai movie theaters for a limited edition, handcrafted photo portfolio set. The images are all straight-on facade shots done in the typologies style. Here's a sample:

To speak of mass entertainment during the 20th century is to speak of film, and the place to see films was in stand-alone movie theaters. This fact was no different in Thailand. Throughout the 20th century, Thai entrepreneurs constructed over 700 of these leisure palaces nationwide. Today there are less than 10 still in operation.

This collection is limited to 35 handcrafted sets which are available for $300US each (shipping and handling included). Every set comes in a handmade box with a hinged flip top. The front cover features gold leaf inlaid text, along with the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project banner photo. Inside are 20 images (that works out to less than $15 dollars per image) printed on A4 size handmade Mulberry paper, and produced right here in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Each set is signed and numbered to ensure authenticity.

This sleek portfolio set can be neatly inserted among oversized books on a shelf, or laid flat on a coffee table. Otherwise, decorate a room by individually framing your favorite theater images.


Some of these photos have been featured in exhibitions across Asia. Others have never before been seen.

Keep in mind that only 35 of these portfolios will ever be printed, making them extremely collectible. Your purchase, moreover, will go directly to support further documentation of the stand-alone movie theaters of Southeast Asia. And believe me when I tell you that time is running out!

Many thanks for your support,

Phil Jablon

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Aurora Theater - Chanthaburi, Thailand

When a movie theater goes out of business but the building is spared the wrecking claw, there are innumerable potential ways to repurpose the space.  Generally speaking, however, only a few types ever come into being. 

Because movie theaters are big spaces, they are often used to store big things. Cars, for example - although the least flattering use for such cultural institutions - are commonly stored in old movie theaters, making them into parking lots.  

Space-eating furniture likewise finds its way into old movie theaters on the regular. Furniture warehouses. 

Department stores, or supermarkets are another common repurposing practice for former movie theaters. 

None of these secondary uses, of course, can match up to the sacred function that the theater was originally built for, but it's worth noting the post-cinema variety of conversions all the same. Not least of all because the Aurora Theater of downtown Chanthaburi has been given a most distinct post-cinema life. 

The street side marquee of the Aurora Theater, now faded, once added a bit of neon glitz to downtown Chanthaburi.

The facade of the Aurora. Elongated ornamental arches add a bit design flare.

When Mr. Prakorb Boonchauyserm bought the Aurora Theater from its original owners back in 2003, its days of screening movies were well behind it. But cinema was never on the agenda of the Bangkok-born gemologist. He had other plans in store for the mammoth former theater from the get go. With Chanthaburi's gem industry having slowed dramatically, Boonchauyserm sought to diversify his cash flow vis-a-vis new migrants to the region. Swifts, the birds famous for producing nests used in the Chinese delicacy Bird's Nest Soup, had recently taken up residence in parts of coastal eastern Thailand. "They flew up from Java and other parts of Indonesia to escape the bad forest fires they had down there in the late 1990's," explained Boonchauyserm.

Noting the cave-like proportions of the defunct Aurora Theater, Boonchauyserm surmised that making some minor modifications to the old building would attract the avian refugees to take up residence. Once a colony had been established, their nests could be harvested and sold to brokers who would supply the ever-growing market in China. 

Boonchauyserm's plan worked, and within a few years he was harvesting the salivary nests for tidy sums. Following his lead, other property owners in Chanthaburi began setting up "bird houses" on the higher portions of their own buildings. 

"Actually, I prefer to call them bird hotels, not bird houses," joked Boonchuayserm. "Because the birds leave a payment for the time they stay."  

Chanthaburi now has one of the highest concentrations of Swift hotels in all of Thailand.

Rooftop perspectives.

Seeking to expand on his success in bird's nest production, Boonchauyserm has most recently invested in processing equipment to turn the delicacy into a tonic. Once his recipe is worked out and government certification granted, he intends to market the bird's nest drink commercially.  

The boxy structure with the square holes in it on the roof of the theater is how the Swifts enter the building.

Prakorb Boonchauyserm with a bag full of cleaned and sanitized swift nests, harvested from the former Aurora Theater.

Aside from a well-established gemological industry and a growing bird's nest industry, Chanthaburi is also going through a bit of a cultural revival. Historic areas along both banks of the river front are quickly being renovated to accommodate new shops, hotels, bars and restaurants. 

Boonchauyserm has been a leader in this sector, as well. Just across from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Thailand's largest Catholic church, he is renovating an old wooden shop house to serve as a cafe, museum, as well as a production facility for his nascent bird's nest drink operation. 

"We're buildings mock caves to help tell the history of bird's nest," Boonchauyserm added. Other diorama-like attractions will also be included. 


With the Boonchauyserm's bird's nest drink pending certification, I inquired as to whether or not he'd sketched up a logo for the product. "Not yet," he admitted. This is the tricky part; creating a brand image that is distinct, but also relevant and tells a story.

Of course, what else would enter my mind but a way to connect the drink with the former movie theater that is its source?

"If I were you," I posited, "I would hire an artist to create a logo that incorporates the arches of the Aurora. It tells a story that is unique to Chanthaburi, to the theater and to your business, all in one. And to top it off, the arches are cool looking ."

Boonchauyserm paused for a moment to ponder my suggestion. Then, with the calm resolve of veteran entrepreneur he annouced "that's a great idea!"

So if you see a new bird's nest drink on the market, with some interpretation of these Brutalism-inspired concrete arches in the logo, you'll know it has a cinematic origin.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Chanthaburi Multiplex - Chanthaburi, Thailand

Don't let the Chanthaburi Multiplex fool you. The 4 screen cinema hall is only masquerading as a multiplex to avoid an "out of business" notice displayed at the entrance. 

Ok, Ok, so it's actually been of business since 2011, but the point is that this chopped up old dame was once a massive single screen stand-alone; the first to be built in the city of Chanthaburi during a theater construction boom that occurred in the early and mid 1980's. 

The Chanthaburi Multiplex: Its facade is partially obscured by neighboring shop houses built contemporaneously. As a result, the signage is off-center.

Said theater boom of the early 1980's was not without precedent. At the time, Chanthaburi was in the midst of a thriving economy due to a voluminous gems trade. Ruby mines in Chanthaburi and nearby Trad provinces had high yields in those days. Chanthaburi's well-established gemological industry served as a clearing house for the stones, enriching the town's jewelers and lapidaries in the process.

In fat times, build big, the logic goes. During those fat times, 5 theaters arose across the city.

Lobby of the Chanthaburi Multiplex. Terrazzo floor and solar system ceiling fresco. 

The theater opened in 1980 as The Chanthaburi Rama - an 880 seat single screener that replaced a decrepit wooden theater occupying the same plot of land for decades prior. The old wooden theater was called The Sin Tu Nawa.

By the late 80's, four newer theaters had been constructed across Chanthaburi, giving the town one of the densest concentrations of stand-alone movie theaters anywhere in Thailand. While this scenario must have been great for film enthusiasts, it made competition among the various theater owners stiff. As an adaptive measure, in the early 90's the owners of the Chanthaburi Rama divided their grand cinema hall into 4 smaller theaters, making it one of Thailand's first multiplex theaters. 

The procedure turned out to be a wise one. With four potential viewing options, the Chanthaburi Multiplex, as it had been renamed, could offer the same viewing fair as all the other movies theaters in town combined. 

One by one, Chanthaburi's others theaters began to close their doors, while the Chanthaburi Multiplex hung on until 2011. That year a brand new SF Cinema - Thailand's second largest cinema operator - opened a branch in a new shopping mall just outside of downtown. The Chanthaburi Rama/Multiplex's 31 year run came to a halt. 

Theater 4

Remaining details of theater 4

Exit of the stars

Rusting signage

Over the years, Chanthaburi's once hot gem industry has cooled significantly, slowing the overall economy of the city in the process. But the local business community has responded in haste, smartly adapting its historic urban core as an attraction in itself.

Chanthaburi's "Old Town" neighborhood is in the midst of an economic revival, as outside investors and locals alike renovate a 100 year old commercial corridor that winds its way along the edge of the Chanthaburi River. Most of the buildings in Old Town are neo-classical/sino-colonial shop houses, a few of which date back to the mid-19th century.

Across the river, the largest Catholic Church in Thailand anchors Chanthaburi's sizable Vietnamese community. There too, locals have started the process of renovating old houses and store fronts to meet the city's historic rebranding efforts.

All tallied, Chanthaburi's historic preservation initiatives have been successful, but it is still a work in progress. If it continues at this pace, downtown Chanthaburi could be a model for other areas of Thailand looking to capitalize off of their historic architectural and urban assets.

Unfortunately the 5 erstwhile cinema halls in town have not been given the same historic preservation treatment that other buildings have. Three of them, including two of the Chanthaburi Multiplex's four auditoriums, have been turned into nesting houses for swifts, whose salivary nests can bring a tidy sum on the open market.

Chanthaburi's lack of action towards it's collection of old cinema halls, however, is not unique. Thailand in general has yet to develop a workable model for resuscitating old cinema halls for contemporary cultural purposes. But as the phenomenon takes shape in neighboring countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Burma, perhaps Thai preservationists and developers will find inspiration to do the same with some of their own historic theaters.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Unnamed theater - Wang Nam Yen, Srakaew Province, Thailand

On an quiet residential street in the heart of Wang Nam Yen stands a structure that only natives of the sleepy mountain slope burg could identify as a former movie theater. Barely any evidence remains of its past life as place of leisure, nor could anybody seem to recall it ever even having a name.

Facade shot of the unnamed theater, Wang Nam Yen.

Of the scant known facts about the nameless theater's history - beyond the usual "it-was-the-greatest-place-in-town" laments - only one was of much interest: It was originally built by a retired soldier named Prasert Tridawas, probably in the early 1970's.

Also of note, the material used for the exterior walls is one-hundred percent gypsum panels, making this the only theater in Thailand I've ever encountered made of the pallid mineral. 

Mechanics tinker away in what was once an open-air lobby.

Auditorium shots: The only remaining evidence of its theater days are the ventilation windows on the upper side walls. Do note the elegant timber frame.

Facing the rear of the auditorium. The balcony has been boarded up to seal off the room.

Today the nameless theater of Wang Nam Yes serves as a garage and warehouse for an auto mechanic, its previous life as a movie theater is all but forgotten.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Wathana Rama - Wathana Nakorn District, Srakaew Province, Thailand

Contrary to popular belief, this work is not always a walk in the park. It seldom is, in fact. While interesting discoveries and positive interactions make all efforts worthwhile, there are other times when this work can leave you feeling fundamentally dejected. Like when you go to great lengths to track down such and such theater only to be casually dispensed with by a disinterested proprietor, or their lackey. No amount of reasoning on your part can gain their sympathy, until at last you find yourself shooed away like a common house fly.

Efforts to get information on the Wanthana Rama were in that vein. Instead of pressing the issue, I settled on a few lackluster shots of the theater's facade and pushed on. The only readily discernible data available is that the former theater has been retrofitted into a hotel called The Nakorn Inn.

Facade shot of the former Wathana Rama

Two eras worth of signage sit atop the former Wathana Rama, the lower of which is the original theater signage.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Srakaew Rama - Srakaew, Thailand

From a few choice vantage points the Srakaew Rama calls to mind a ruin from a lost civilization, abandoned to the jungle's verdant strangle. 

The Srakaew Rama resides in a mostly abandoned roadside development. 
While the ruinous aspect holds true at ground level, the more pedestrian reality is that the abandoned theater stands amid a failed edge city-type development, not an encroaching jungle. This was urban expansion on the heels of highway extension and the sky's-the-limit confidence brought on by automobile accessibility. Overbuilding at its finest is what it amounts to.

Thailand has no shortage of these kinds of blighted peri-urban cityscapes. They're nearly gratuitous in distribution, lining the edges of arteriole roads like warts on the fingers of civilization. This particular iteration originally housed a fresh market and the local bus station along with said cinema hall. Whatever order the collapse occurred in is unclear, but a mostly vacant business center is the clear result. 

But to dwell on the dingy aesthetic of this lapsed land would miss the point. In its midst lies a ghost of cinemas past that still bears some marks of distinction, and some architectural delights for those so inclined to venture in.  

The Srakaew Rama under morning sunlight. 

Had the Srakaew Rama been contracted in the years before developers went ape over projects that followed the highway, it might have been erected in the center of old Srakaew town, accessible by foot to a pedestrian-oriented population. The theater's architecture and scale are conducive to middle-of-the-block placement in a high density zone. One can imagine its bold signage and textured modernist facade serving as visual (and social) anchor to the traditional core of Srakaew. 

Even in its present run-down condition the Srakaew Rama is a sight to behold. Yet being removed from a practical location, conveniently accessed by motor transport alone, ensures that it remains a hidden secret to all except locals and visitors so recondite as to ask "excuse me, but does your town have any old movie theaters?"  

Ticket booth and poster boards

For those adventurous enough to seek out the secretive, the tomb of the Srakaew Rama makes for an elegant if grime-coated jaunt. 

Most notable among the leftovers is the handsome ironwork framing the ticket window and poster boards. These metal curlicues, painted a fading teal, add a loopy contrast to an otherwise streamlined concrete of the structure structure. 

"Coming soon"
While the lobby area may seem well preserved, venturing beyond reveals fewer visual delicacies. The auditorium, for one, has become a cave for bats, flying their erratic paths as they do. What seats remain were mostly ripped open, with their stuffing serving as breeding ground for all kinds of tropical fungi.

In short, surveying ended at about the ticket counter. Urban exploration, believe it or not, is not really my thing.
"Coming Soon" again

A mobile poster board with ornamental iron framing.

The writing on the door reads "Children taller than this line must
have a ticket to enter"

Even more than it's inconvenient location, the real reason for the Srakaew Rama's survival is simple neglect. The building's owner apparently took up residence in Australia years ago, abandoning the old cash cow for life down under. A more hands on overseer would have probably demolished it by now, or at least used it for some practical purpose.

Several locals remarked that it would be nice to see something become of the nearly 35 year old structure. A snack vendor operating a little stand nearby thought it would be nice if it were converted into a hotel, or lodging for itinerant workers. 

Whatever adaptive measures are taken to bring some use to this building, one thing seems certain: the Srakaew Rama will never show a movie again.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Sri Kabin Rama - Kabinburi, Prajinburi Province, Thailand

Most Thai cities, large or small, are connected to an extensive national highway system that seldom cuts through the city's older, pre-car urban core. The exception, of course, is vast Bangkok, the primate city, more than six-times the size of the second largest city. Numerous Bangkok neighborhoods have been eviscerated so that highways and expressways can wind their way through the jungle-dense metropolis.

But in the case of almost all other Thai towns, the highway was built around the urban core, with connector roads branching off onto narrow urban streets. This type of highway development is preferable to the alternative of ripping through the old town to bring traffic directly into the core. Old neighborhoods, saturated with history, have survived, if only in a stuffy coexistence with car traffic.

Despite being removed from the core, the highway system has managed to wreak havoc on Thai towns in other ways. While the town core may be structurally intact, they also tend to be economically flaccid. Thanks to the lifestyle shifts brought about by a rapid rise in car and motorcycle ownership, Thailand's "main street" economy, so to speak, has shifted to the peri-urban highway. There town dwellers and outside residents alike can easily drive (and perhaps more importantly, park) to take care of all their consumer needs. For all intents and purposes, the urban core becomes a bypassed zone, supplanted by national chain stores housed in boxy space-eating complexes. Aesthetic charms are at zero in these suburban behemoths. Sustainability is dubious.

Why the long introduction to the present state of Thai urban areas? Well, Kabinburi - home to the theater featured in this post - is perhaps the most obvious example a bypassed town in Thailand I've yet to encounter. It's present condition is a clear reflection of the Thai highway system's nefarious effect on dense urban cores.

Please bear in mind that this analysis is wholly observational. I will stop short of claims that the overall effect of the newer highway system is negative for locals. For all I know the economy might be better then ever on account of it. I'm simply saying that the economic pull of the highway has undermined the viability of Kabinburi's traditional urban core, where the streets are walkable, the architecture historic and aesthetic charms abound.  

Pulling into the Kabinburi bus station - appropriately located off the main highway outside of town - the first impression is of an interchangeable roadside pit. To reach the real Kabinburi requires a 5 minute-long song-taew ride away from highwayland.

Turning off the highway onto one of the several connector roads makes for an immediate change of scenery. The elevation drops a meter or so and the landscape goes from highway detritus to marshy and vegetated. To the trained eye, it is clear that the real Kabinburi has its roots in something riparian. Water was the fundamental nurturer of this settlement.

The song taew deposits passengers at the central market, just a stones throw from the train station, which in decades passed marked the most economically important part of town. Across the railroad tracks is the core of the town; the human scale agglomeration of shop houses, homes, banks, markets and, of course, a movie theater. The Sri Kabin Rama.

The now-abandoned Sri Kabin Rama nestled in its equally abandoned plaza - a victim of a car-centric economy, among other things.

Simple but attractive architecture, with it's neon-lit dimensional signage, so characteristic of the International Style. 

In small towns like Kabinburi, the local movie theater was often the most architecturally exciting building around. Eye candy for otherwise very ordinary, if not charming, little burgs. If it wasn't the architecture alone which caught ones attention, then it was the 2 and 3-story high hand painted billboards, festooned to the theaters facade, which lit up the street.

The Sri Kabin Rama, even in it lusterless post-life, is not surprisingly one of Kabinburi's architectural jewels. Set back from the street within an equally lifeless retail plaza, this asymmetrical dream palace pokes its head out from behind rundown shop-houses and lush vegetation.     

Its simple lines, asymmetry and signature sans serif dimensional lettering on the roof place this cinema relic firmly in the International Style school of architecture. The steel frame upholding the letters doubled as a structure to tie hand painted billboards advertising the film to. 

Left to decay

Fenced off lobby


As far as locals could recall - the owner included - it's been over 15 years since the Sri Kabin Rama last screened a movie. With its closure, so died the entire economy of the surrounding shop-houses, not one of which seems to have any activity today.

In a true sign of the times, the Sri Kabin Rama's owner is now focused on operating Tip Top Center, the anchor of an all-in-one strip mall sprawled out along the highway. He too followed the automotive trend towards the road to the detriment of the town. But for whatever reason, he has chosen not to demolished his old white elephant movie theater down in bypassed old town, Kabinburi. Good fortune for that. Its mothballed status will give future generations of Kabinburians a chance to decide a fitting reuse. Who knows, maybe some day the stand-alone movie theater will become hip again.