Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema - Pathein, Irrawaddy Region, Myanmar

A concrete jungle in a watery land. That's Pathein for you. The biggest city in the Irrawaddy Delta. Myanmar's proverbial rice bowl.

Pathein's past primacy can be read in its logistical heritage. It is the terminus city for a railroad spur that juts southwest from the Yangon-Pyay line - the country's oldest rail line. British colonial logic designated Pathein as the western most fresh water port in the Delta that could be reachable by locomotive.

Today the port is still bustling. The train, much less so.

For the workers on Pathein's busy waterfront - the longshoremen, sailors, porters and so on - downtime is often spent as it has been for decades, under the flicker of film at the Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema.
    

Subdued International Style architecture of the Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema



The entrance to the Shwe Pyi Taw is along the length of the building. The grand head house is reserved for small shops. Recent renovations have resulted in the entrance side of the theater being clad in colorful vinyl panels.


Lobby


Shadows and colors

The Shwe Pyi Taw has been entertaining Patheinians - dock worker or otherwise - since at least the mid-1960's, according to the floor manager. Once one of a trio of theaters in the city, including one which stood directly across the street, the new and improved Shwe Pyi Taw is now the last operating cinema in town and one of only two still in business in the entirety of the province.

To stay afloat, the theater was given a complete renovation in 2015, which cut the number of seats down by nearly sixty percent. In fact, the entire auditorium was physically reduced in a bid to save electricity costs against a newly installed air-con system; the first the old theater has ever had.

In addition to a rightsized auditorium with new seats and climate control, projection and sound have both been upgraded to digital. 



Part of the 20-plus staff at the Shwe Pyi Taw in leisure mode between screenings.


Door girl on duty


The wall on the right is the original wall of the Shwe Pyi Taw before renovations reduced the auditorium. On the left is the new wall after, post-reduction.


Old carbon-arc projectors sit unused in the former projection booth. A new projection booth, containing the digital audio-projection system, has since been built. 


All new seats in the Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema



VIP seats. Most theaters in Myanmar have their back several rows of seats separated by partitions for couples. Added privacy for a few extra Kyat.


Screen views


Reduced number of seats, increased comfort.


The Shwe Pyi Taw Cinema at night

In 1968, the central government nationalized all the movie theaters, with oversight given to the Ministry of Information. A special department tasked with running them was established in the form of the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise. Under the MMPE's stewardship, most of the country's cinema halls were neglected, with few if any improvements made to the majority of them. The end result was a fairly well preserved, if shabby, stock of traditional movie halls across the country.

Since 1997, the MMPE has been privatizing its movie theater holdings. While many of those sold off have since been razed to make way for new developments, a few, the Shwe Pyi Taw included, have been had new capital poured into them with the aim of making them profitable again. It remains to be seen how many of Myanmar's stand-alones will be salvaged in this manner, but the very fact that it's happening at all is noteworthy. 

Even if only one is preserved for every 5 that are destroyed, Myanmar's movie theater evolution will be moving in a very interesting direction compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, if not the world.



Monday, April 11, 2016

Theater of Dreams - By Jiradet Ophatpanwong

The following text was translated from Thai to English between March 27th and April 11th, 2016.
The original work is from a 28 year old Thai journalist, Mr. Jiradet Ophatpanwong, writing for A Day magazine. By all accounts, A Day is the most popular magazine for alternative content among 18 to 35 year-olds in Thailand.

I took some creative license with the translations, particularly when translating my own quotes. Because Thai is my second language and I am far from having native proficiency in it, many of the ideas I attempted to express were, by necessity, simplified. In the translation process, I often elaborated on those ideas, matching what I was trying to convey and would have said had my Thai been more advanced.

I hope you enjoy.

Phil
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A Day 

- Issue 186. February 2016

ISSN 1513-6205

Theater of Dreams:

Dreaming of theaters in the real life world of Philip Jablon.


By Jiradet Ophatpanwong

If it weren't for modern day technology it's likely we'd have never met.

Without the advent of Facebook, chances are slim that I'd have ever come to know this particular American.

I learned of Philip Jablon because of his page "The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project" - a depository of his photos of old stand-alone movie theaters from around Southeast Asia. He's been posting photos there, along with in-depth data associated with each theater, for years now. The data he collects comes to him the old fashioned way of going into the field and engaging with the people.

From the start of his project, six years ago, to the present, Philip Jablon has covered almost three-hundred stand-alone movie movies theaters in his travels around Southeast Asia. He counts tens of thousands of photos to his credit.

This past January, Philip opened an exhibition of his photographs of old Thai movie theaters at H Gallery, in Bangkok. In February, more of his photos were exhibited at the seminal Bangkok Edge Festival. For the latter he selected mostly photos of Myanmar theaters, with the sole Thai exception of the legendary Scala. The point of that, he claims, was to juxtapose the many historic movie theaters in Myanmar with the one left in Thailand and to communicate to a Thai audience the preciousness of our last remaining movie palace.

Admittedly, every time I gave my virtual praise to one or another of his photos through the mundane act of "liking" it, I would quietly ponder what motivated this sibylline American to stray so far from his home just to indulge his curiosity with our cinema halls. When the virtual world ceased to satisfy my own curiosity, I turned to the real world for answers by inviting him out for a chat at a location of his choosing.

It's not hard to guess which meeting place he chose.

I

"We'll get to soak up the atmosphere if we do it here," said Philip, in Thai, referring to the interview I was about to conduct. 

The 'here' he spoke of was the Scala Theater, the very location he suggested when I inboxed him. 

"The Scala is a special theater. Luxuriant. Spectacular in its architecture," he explained as we settled into the center of the grand, if time-worn hall. Philip's Thai is copacetic.

"If we talk about pure aesthetics, the Scala is absolutely the most beautiful theater in Southeast Asia. But beyond that, it's huge, it's in great condition and the architecture, well, again, it's simply stunning. Praiseworthy. Anybody who comes here would think so. I've never heard anybody express otherwise. In fact, every visitor I get I bring them to the Scala and they always say 'wow,' or 'this place is incredible.' An American guy I'm friends with told me that since he discovered the Scala, it's become his favorite place in Bangkok."

At the completion of that final sentence I rubbed my eyes and turned my gaze to the theater that the American had just praised.

There's no denying the beauty of the Scala. The architectural details that I saw before me were nothing short of impressive. But one undeniable fact stared me right in the face; an irrefutable sight that I was unable to overlook: The shabbiness left over from the passage of time. And that's to say nothing of the audio-video technology which, from our lobby vantage point, was beyond the scope of judgement.

But it was none other than him who said "Old places like this will necessarily meet their demise unless somebody gives it a second look, reevaluates it and takes action."

"Not just in Thailand. This type of situation exists everywhere. Technology changes, society changes and things from the past are impacted. If whatever it is isn't readapted to fit the new context it will become outmoded. It's inevitable. Think about this in terms of movie theaters. Nowadays everybody has a TV at home. Or a smartphone with video capability. It's absolutely not necessary to go to a movie theater to watch a movie.

"Another important factor is that many people now have cars. People have gotten used to driving everywhere for everything. The old fashioned movie theaters, like this one, didn't supply parking for their patrons, so their patrons stopped coming as parking became increasingly difficult. The theaters died as a result.

"That's a shame. These old theaters shine a light on our recent past," said Philip, with the last of its kind in the country all around him as proof.

The atmosphere surrounding us wasn't quite desolate, but it wan't exactly vibrant either. Ushers in their trademark yellow suit jackets did their duty on that afternoon just as they had for decades. One of many aspects of the Scala which reflects its connection to the past.




"You know what?" began Philip, beckoning my attention yet again. "If one day the Scala is torn down, Myanmar will be able to lay claim to the most elegant stand-alone movie theater in Southeast Asia."

II    

The site of our conversation stood tens of thousands of kilometers from his home town.

Philip was born in the city of Philadelphia, in the United States, when the city was at a low point.

"We're not an extremely wealthy city compared to others in America. It's a working class town, for the most part. But 30 or so years ago, when I was a little kid, Philly was in a bad state," explained Philip, recalling life in his home town. "Back in the 19th and early 20th century Philadelphia was extremely prosperous because of its role as America's largest industrial center. We manufactured everything. It was a mighty city back then. But following World War 2, our economy started to decline. Industry left the city for other places and the city steadily went into a depression.

"By the time I was born there were abandoned factories and warehouses all over the city. Unemployment was high, as was crime. Roughneck kids roamed the streets. It was a little intimidating growing up in Philly back then. You felt like you had to constantly be on guard. It was like 'what kind of nut am I going to run into today?' That was what it was like growing up in Philly when I did. It wasn't ideal by any means, with all the potential for violent encounters and street crime, but it definitely molded me."

There were times as a young man, Philip admitted, that he detested his home town. But over time he realized that those were just the sentiments of a young person with a narrow range of life experience.

"After returning from my first trip to Asia I saw [Philadelphia] with fresh eyes. I had become acutely aware of the changes there. What had gotten better. What hadn't gotten better. It was then that I really began to appreciate having grown up in Philadelphia when I did. At a time when Philly was truly down in the dumps. Before people wanted to live there. I'm glad I had that experience."

How growing up in a city full of unemployment, abandonment and crime could be a source of pride was perplexing, so I pressed him on the issue.

"It forced me to interact with a broad range of people from diverse backgrounds. We all had to live and study and work together in spite of our differences. To walk the same streets. There's a very human lesson in that. To admire the diversity and the different walks of life.They all have their good and bad points. Poor, middle, rich; they all have their sets of knowledge and expertise which they employ in the act of living. We've all got our own ways. I think there's something of value in that.

He continued:

"Humanity has many different sides to it, you know. If we take the perspectives of all different kinds of people we'll see a wider range of options before us. We'll see the strengths and weaknesses of each. I think diversity like this can help strengthen our imagination and creativity, things we need to live the lives that we aim for."

It was during this explanation that I first heard him use the word "diversity." He repeated this word many times during the course of our conversation, employing it in what seemed like each topic we covered, almost as though it were a mantra in which he had put all his faith.

"Diversity makes life interesting," Philip insisted to the journalist of a different nationality.

III

If a city plagued by societal ills was the dark side of Philip's memory of growing up in Philadelphia, then movie theaters were the upshot. 

As a young man, every week or so Philip's parents would take him to the movies in one or another of downtown Philadelphia's many stand-alone movie theaters.

"When I was young I didn't travel much beyond neighboring countries like Canada and Mexico. But around the age of 12 or 13, I first started getting interested in movies from Asia. That was a key point in my life, because those films showed locations which were so incredibly different from the world I was accustomed to. It was intriguing to a young person like I was at the time. It fired my imagination. I wanted to understand the places I saw. I wanted to understand Asia, the ways of life there.

"I remember one day my dad taking me to see the Jackie Chan movie 'Police Story 3: Supercop' in one of our downtown theaters. That was my first time seeing a Chan film and it blew me away. The action was amazing and the locations that they were shot it seemed so exotic to me. When we were walking back from the theater, through downtown Philadelphia, past all the shops lining the streets, and the people going about their business, I remember feeling extremely stimulated. That made a strong impact on me.

"During the walk my dad said to me 'What's great about watching a movie like that is it transports us to places we'd probably never get the chance to see in person.' And that was it! At that moment I decided that some day I would visit those places in person. I was going to explore Asia. Little did I know it would some day become my home."

Years passed. When he reached college age, Philip enrolled in a local university where he selected Kinesiology as his major, preparing for a career as physical education instructor. But after a few semesters he realized that it wasn't for him and he decided to change directions.

"Yeah, at first I thought I'd become a gym teacher for the simple reason that it offered a stable income and wasn't all that difficult. But the curriculum and my fellow classmates bored me. They were unimaginative dullards, if I have to speak truthfully. They all seemed to have a very bland, overly procedural outlook of life. 'First you do this and then you do this and bla bla bla.' Everybody was fixated on the straight ahead. Nobody seemed to have any other interests. At the time I was interested in having a diversity of experience. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, so to speak.

"Life has got to have variety. This world benefits from it. It's of great import. It helps everybody to have a more rounded perspective of things. In fact, it strengthens society, I believe. Diversity. It's an important aspect of a society.

"You know what I dislike most about America? I hate our fascination with the suburbs. Why? Because there is absolutely no diversity therein. The residents there want it that way. How do you understand others if you sequester yourself away in environments such as that? There's no interaction among people of different demographics. It's fuckin' boring. I mean, I get it! I understand the logic of wanting to have complete control over every variable in life. But I don't think it's good. A bit of uncertainty is good. Don't get me wrong, it's good to be able to predict certain things, but life isn't like that. The world isn't necessarily like that."

He continued

"How do we know how the world is going to be? This year there's a drought, for example, next year there's floods. That's the way things work."

In other words, hold onto hope, but be prepared for unpredictability.

Following his brief aspiration of becoming a gym teacher, Philip's career goals became foggy. Combining his general interests in history and society, however, with his childhood curiosity in Asia, Philip embarked on a new academic trajectory in Asian Studies. And as a prerequisite for graduation, all Asian Studies majors were required to spend a semester studying in Asia.

The country he chose for his semester abroad was Thailand.

It was because of his uncle, who had served as a visiting professor at Mahidol University, that Philip came to know of our Land of Smiles.

"I had no clue about anything back then. I only knew that I wanted to go abroad and explore. To see Asia. I also held the belief that I could somehow help the people of Asia; the people of Thailand. But when I arrived there I realized that I was the one who needed help," said the American, laughing out loud at his youthful folly.

"When you read guidebooks on Thailand, what was it that you were most interested in seeing," I asked

"I wanted to see the great city of Bangkok, of course. Bangkok seemed to me like a bustling metropolis, crowded and exciting and full of energy. But I was also interested in seeing the lives of Hill Tribes and rural society."

Philip explained that the weak points of such guidebooks are that they only detail tourist sites and obvious landmarks, seaside resorts and mountain getaways,  but they generally fail to convey any insights into the real lives of locals.

"For instance, they don't ever mention places like this," said Philip, sweeping his gaze around the Scala.

"Nowhere does it say that Thailand has this increasingly rare, world class movie palace right in its heart. In fact, they never mention anything about the classic old movie theaters of this country."

IV

Philip completed his undergraduate studies in his home town, but he returned to Thailand for his Masters degree.

A Masters degree that he almost didn't complete.

Enthralled by the relaxed and diverse environment of Thailand, Philip moved to Bangkok, first trying his hand as an English teacher before deciding to get a Masters degree in Sustainable Development. He enrolled in a program at Chiang Mai University's Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development with the idea that he would subsequently go into the International Development field, revisiting again his desire to help improve conditions in Asia.

"To graduate I had to find an issue to write my thesis about. My first idea was to write it about the proliferation of gated suburban subdivisions. I was perplexed by the rapid growth of these communities on the outskirts of Chiang Mai and their negative impact on the environment. But it didn't take long before I lost interest in this topic. So I changed it to Microfinance, expecting to study organizations that extended small lines of credit to the rural poor. But when I started doing the research I soon realized that it didn't inspire me. So once again I changed my topic. This time I chose the resettlement of Burmese refugees. Philadelphia had become a destination for a growing number of refugees from Burma. The topic was really interesting, but again, the research didn't excite me. It was at that point that the idea of not completing my degree crossed my mind. I simply could not find a topic that I wanted to write a thesis about."

While mired in this academic impasse, Philip began to casually document old stand-alone movie theaters around Chiang Mai and other provinces. This, it turned out, was a research project that he had an unrequited fondness for, and undertook it irregardless of whether it would be a practical topic to research for a Masters thesis. Clearly there was no nexus between documenting old movie halls and a career in Sustainable Development.

"Then one day my thesis adviser said to me, 'Philip, you can make this your thesis topic. It's a topic which has never been adequately studied, and it does indeed relate to sustainable development. We typically focus our research on rural communities, of course, but this relates to urban communities. That's not outside of our purview at all.'

After getting the green light from his adviser, Philip picked up the intensity of his research, making a blog and Facebook page to track its progress. Thus began 'The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project.'

"From the start I was aware that nobody was making a concerted effort to document these old movie theaters. So it seemed pretty logical that a good record of them could someday be a valuable resource. Again, thinking back to my childhood, I remembered spending many hours studying photo books of old Philadelphia. Seeing photos of Philadelphia at the peak of its economic prowess was very insightful to me. To see the beautiful buildings we once had and the numerous craftspeople and professionals who built and worked in them was an education in itself. Sometimes after examining those pictures I would say to myself, 'gee, I was really born in the wrong era. That looks much better.'

"I just applied the same logic to a Thai context. Without thorough documentation of Thai society, future generations won't be able to get that same experience that I had looking at old photographs of Philly. That was part of my rationale for undertaking the work. My way of 'helping' Thailand, I guess you can say"  

"The thesis topics I had initially chosen - urban sprawl, microcredit, refugee resettlement - while all interesting and worthwhile topics of study, didn't inspire me the way movie theaters do. They weren't topics that I felt eager to share. But old theaters, yes, that's a topic I discovered that I'm very passionate about."

Pausing momentarily on that theme, "How do passion and inspiration influence the work you're doing," I asked.

"No matter the nature of the work, if it's something I feel passionate about I'm happy to do it. And if there's a way to make a living out of it, all the better. That's the key. To balance the labor of love with labor of wages. Those who can figure out a way to satisfy both, now that's something special. Most people work jobs that they don't care much for, just to make ends meet. Not out of passion.

"If we've got work that we have passion for, it's as if we've won an award. Not an award like a trophy or anything like that but the award of life. Sure there might not be much monetary profit, but it makes life feel profitable. I feel that way about my work, I've gained a lot from it."



Philip and I sat in the very place we were discussing. 

Anybody who follows the news will know that the Scala Theater has received regular media coverage because of its precarious future in the face of demolition plans. Until now there has been no confirmation as to how much longer the grand old movie palace will be with us. 

Among the many Thai voices opposing the demolition proposal, a lone American has consistently voiced his own. His message has echoed across every possible medium that's accessible to him, be it an op-ed in a local newspaper, an essay on his personal blog or on his Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project Facebook page.

And not only the Scala. He has consistently championed the preservation of stand-alone movie theaters throughout the country. 

"Because every city should be as diverse as possible," he shot back, in response to my question as to why he's taken up the cause.

"And I'm not just talking about diversity in terms of people, though that's also important. I'm talking about diversity of buildings, of neighborhoods, of architecture. A city has to have variety! Okay, think of it like this: If you want to go watch a movie in a shopping mall, great, you've got that option. I'm not inherently against shopping malls and multiplexes. They clearly serve their purpose. But so do theaters like [the Scala]. Today I want to watch a movie in the theater in the shopping mall because it's convenient, it's climate controlled, I don't have to worry about looking for parking, etc. But other days I might want to go watch a movie in the stand-alone. I want to see interesting architecture, or to get that classic feeling that both my parents and grandparents experienced. If you want that option it's here, too. It's available. It's a real alternative. There's life here! It's got tremendous character. There's a direct connection to the public space of the street, you know? You might be strolling down the street and then glance up and there it is! A beautiful building staring you right in the face. This is extremely unique architecture."

"But if all you have are multiplex theaters in shopping malls, then Bangkok will have definitively lost some of its old dynamism. If it's only full of new buildings, it will be bland. If the Scala is allowed to be knocked down, Thailand will have arbitrarily conceded some of it's cultural dynamism. There are hardly any such theaters left in the entire country, and this is the finest example; the same one that has been delighting multiple generations. Coming here to watch a movie always leaves the movie-goer with a bit of the spirit of the place. It's a special place like that."

"So, you're saying that the destruction of an old building in order to clear space for something that is an improvement is a bad thing?" I asked, trying to better understand his perspective.

"Improvement? But are sure what's going to be built is an improvement?" he responded, purveying a new view for me.

"That all depends on how a given society views its past. Sure, by getting rid of older, seemingly outmoded buildings we have the chance to building things that are improvements for the space. But that doesn't usually translate into reality. Do you really think we build better nowadays? Let me give you a hypothetical example: The King's Palace. Can we knock it down to build something that's an improvement? Of course we can. But the existing palace has been around for generations and embodies a very important part of Thailand's identity. Nobody would even dare to think about tearing it down in order to build something newer or 'better' just because we have the technology and know-how to do so. Not for a second. So what we have to do is apply that kind of thinking to other structures. Sometimes holding on to what we already have just makes life better, you know? Things that have some history to them."

"Like you said, sometimes newer or more hi-tech does not equal better, right?" I probed.

"Absolutely not. We've got lots of great modern structures now. Some extremely modern designs. That's enough. Lets calm down for a second. If all we have are brand new shiny shopping malls the city won't be very interesting, will it? We'll probably start looking towards the past for inspiration, right? Maybe towards things which have helped us to build our identity. People have got to have some roots, and everybody must be able to feel those roots to one extent or another. To access them. The past relates directly to the present and this present will shape the future. All things are intertwined in that way. If we have nothing left from our past to really hold on to, nothing to feel or see, well I don't know what kind of society that would create. A society of rootless people, I guess."

He used a very fitting case study from his home town to further illustrate his point.

"Society cannot preserve everything. I'm not encouraging that. A city has to evolve continuously. But when it comes down to a city's last example of a given structure we have to preserve that. Philadelphia, my hometown, made that mistake already. Our final movie palace in the downtown area is in the process of being destroyed. Look, we can't hold on to every building that's got unique architecture or is beautifully designed. That's not realistic. But when we get to the point where there's only one of that thing left and we still go ahead and destroy it... Why? Now my fellow Philadelphians will never know that particular history. Never!"

"Boy is that a shameful thing! I literally feel ashamed for my city. The building they're replacing that movie theater with is a condo tower. That will make a ton of money for a very few investors, but the entire city of Philadelphia lost a huge piece of cultural capital. Hey look, I'm all for building new condos. I want Philly to build itself up again. But come on! Choose another plot of land! Don't destroy our culture so a few people can make a some money for themselves."

From what I could observe, it was a lack of patronage was killing the stand-alone movie theaters. "Do you think it's possible," I asked, "that all the outpouring of support is just talk? We say that we love these old theaters, but when it comes to actually supporting them, we show less interest."

"Sure, lots of people are like that. They see it in the press or on TV and they're like 'yes, the Scala should absolutely be preserved. It's important, it's beautiful, it should be off limits from demolition.' But then they end of going to watch movies in the shopping malls, because it's convenient, or because they're used to that. But really, if you want to show your love for the Scala, you've got to support it. You've got to come watch movies here. In English we say 'to put your money where your mouth is.' To be honest, that's the main reason that I've decided to continue this project. To keep reminding people of the Scala. Yeah, I've said it a number of times, 'preserve the Scala,' 'support it,' bla bla bla. Lots of people have come out one time to say preserve the Scala. But if we don't keep the advocacy up, people will simply forget."

"Is that because Thai people have short memories."

"No, it's not just Thai people. It's people at large. Most people are busy with their daily lives. Making a living, raising families. They don't spend time thinking about preserving old buildings, even if they are very fond of them. But if we can build a campaign around a place like the Scala and keep repeating, 'Scala is important,' "Scala is important,' 'Scala is important,' maybe it will eventually register. 'Oh Right," they'll conclude, "the Scala really is important.'

VI

For Philip, passion is the driving force behind his work, in the same way, as he admits, that money is the driving force behind what happens to the Scala.

It's no secret that equipment like cameras and lenses don't grow from the ground. Nor do airplane tickets fall from the heavens. Such things must be acquired with the exchange of sizable sums of money. When without sponsorship, the onus of funding his project comes from his own hard work.

Philip used his personal savings to get the project going before being awarded a grant from the Bangkok-based Jim Thompson Foundation, which recognized the value in the undertaking. The duration and extent of the grant, however, covered only a portion of Philip's ambitious goal. He has since raised some funds to continue the project by self-publishing a limited edition photo portfolio which he sells through his web-site. But proceeds from that only go so far.

While explaining how he has managed to keep his project afloat for these past 7 years, I thought back to our first communication via the cyber world. That same day he wrote back saying that he was in the US, but would be returning to Thailand in another six weeks.

Is it only me who would presume Philip's America trip was just a normal hometown visit?

"Actually, I usually go back to Philly every year for about 5 months to earn a living. I work for a moving company. Every time I go back home that's what I do. That work requires one to be physically fit. If you're not strong and in good shape, you won't be able to do it. We lift heavy things. You also have to be mentally strong to do this work, because lots of people look down on moving as a profession."

"Do you care what others think>" I inquired.

"I used to care, but not so much anymore. I understand exactly why I do this work and it's not because I have any great love for it. The money I make from it goes to support the project - something that I do love. My goal is to continue documenting the stand-alone movie theaters of Southeast Asia. My job in Philadelphia allows me the flexibility I need to do that."

Once the moving season slows down and his earnings are sufficient he returns to Thailand to continue documenting our old cinemas.

At this point, a good portion of his life has been spent traveling throughout Thailand and our neighboring countries for his project.

Now, if we were to examine this scenario in cut and dry terms, we would expect to see this 36 year old man with an advanced education working as a mid-career professional, building savings, owning a home, a car and raising a family. But life for people who follow their passions doesn't always work out that way. Aside from his parent's home in the US and his condo in Chiang Mai, Philip has excused himself from most other trappings (or benefits?) of standard career person.

"Over time I've gotten used to the lifestyle. Being unsure of whether or not I'll ever make a proper livelihood. But it's all of my own choosing, so I fully accept where I am. I can't claim it has anything to do with my upbringing, or my schooling. I made all my own choices. I accept all risks."

"I'd be lying, however, if I said I didn't worry. You know, I like this work more than anything else I've done in my life. But is it possible to support myself from it? I'm not getting any younger. In just over 3 years I'll be 40 years old. To be 40 and to not have anything. Well, I have some things, but not a whole lot. That's what happens, I suppose, when one sets out on uncharted waters."

"It's the encouragement that I get from so many followers that keeps me moving forward, though. People saying, 'Keep going, Philip. Go ahead. You'll get there. Just keep on building your name and you'll find the support you need.' Regardless of all that, I know that if my efforts to raise the profile of old movie theaters in Southeast Asia succeed; if I can convince people to think differently about these wonderful structures, then my work has been worthwhile."

"Hopefully I'll get some credit for that, but nothing is guaranteed."

VII

At the end of February, Philip will embark on a month-long work trip to Myanmar, traveling throughout the country to document stand-alone movie theaters. He intends to visit a different city every day.

For Philip, there is an urgency to this mission.

"I really need to return to Myanmar because the country is opening up [to foreign investment] and society is going to change rapidly. It's going to start adapting to new economic and political circumstances. There will be great things to come out of all that, like poverty alleviation efforts, along with rising living standards in general. But there will be unfortunate side effects to it as well. As money pours into the country lots of things are likely to be overlooked. For instance, I imagine if the shopping mall syndrome comes into play, with their cookie-cutter multiplex theaters, many people in Myanmar will welcome it as a sign of consumer progress. I think that's a pretty typical phenomenon when transitioning from a closed to an open society. At the same time, very few people will be thinking about preserving their old stand-alone movie theaters."

He gave an example of an area in downtown Yangon which until a few years ago had 6 movie theaters in a row. Such an agglomeration of grand old movie palaces, he explained, reflected a golden age of movie-going. Now, just a few years later, only 2 of the 6 remain.

"Myanmar still has a about ten luxurious old movie palaces from 60 or so years ago, I reckon. Most of them are in pretty good condition. There are also other stand-alone movie theaters that I wouldn't necessarily classify as movie palaces. If I'm able to document all that's left, I believe that I'll have created a very valuable record. Future generations will be able to see at least a portion of their once vast inventory of stand-alone movie theaters. That represents a lot of very interesting architecture. It will also encourage people in Myanmar to evaluate what is currently in existence and what should be held on to."

The American photographer with a fondness for Southeast Asia admitted that at present he is more concerned with Myanmar than Thailand.

The concern lies in the pending wave of development, which has the potential to wipe out a wide array of artifacts, antique movie theaters among them.

"Right now, Myanmar is like Thailand was 30 or 40 years ago. The cities are quaint. Full of old buildings. There's no expressways or sky trains. Relatively few people own cars. Most transportation is still done by bicycle or foot in the majority of towns. Things are basically local. All the cities have a very distinct identity. But if the country is intent on getting richer, on developing, these things will start to disappear. I believe Thailand has attained a high level of modernity already. It's actually to the point where people are starting to look towards the past. Looking back towards things that had value but were lost. Things that had social value. Things which Myanmar is going to start overlooking"

"When you go to Myanmar, is there any particular place that you really want to photograph?" I asked.

"Yes, there's one place I definitely want to document. The last time I was there I wasn't allowed to photograph the interior. But this time I think I'll be able to. I have a few Myanmar friends who said they think they can help me get access. I hope I can get in. It's gorgeous inside!"

I tried to imagine what he was referring to, but wasn't able. Which theater could he have been talking about?

"It's the theater I told you about before. The one that, if Thailand loses the Scala, will be the most beautiful movie palace in Southeast Asia."

As his sentence came to an end it all came back to me.

IIX

There was one question that begged further inquiry: Having the profound love for the old style movie theater that he does, did their destruction pain him? 

Or did he understand that their destruction is a pretty normal occurrence? Natural even?

"Both," Philip said. "In the case of Bangkok, for example, there were somewhere around 200 stand-alone movie theaters throughout the city over the years. As time went by society changed and those theaters began to fall. A very natural order of events for a thriving city. Cities need to develop. They can't stay frozen in the same condition for all time. On the other hand, however, I do feel a bit sad when they go, because they hold so much history for the communities they served. They were very important to their communities. So yes, I feel bad, but that's just how the world works."

"It's kind of like humans. Someday your beloved grandparents and parents are going to pass away. It's a guarantee. Yes, it will be sad, yes, you will feel a loss, but it's natural."

"What about when you look through the photos you've taken? How does it make you feel?" I asked.

"For many of them, I look back and I'm so glad that I took them when I did. A lot of [the theaters] have since been destroyed. Just yesterday, in fact, somebody in Myanmar Facebook shared my photo of The Win Cinema in the city of Toungoo. I photographed that theater about 6 years ago, but it's since been demolished. After it was shared, lots of people in Myanmar commented on it, expressing their memories and things like that. I feel lucky that I had the chance to document that place. For the people in that town it was something that they saw on a daily basis and took for granted until one day it wasn't there any more. Erased. But when they saw the photo I took of it, they were reminded of it. It took them back."


The Win Cinema - Toungoo, Myanmar. Since demolished.

"Would you say that it's common for us to overlook things that are close at hand?" I asked.

"Absolutely. I think it's a sign of being human," said Philip, with a sardonic smile across his face.

His photos aside, the conversation that that had transpired made me think back to the movie theaters of my youth, which had slowly become little more than dim memories.

As we stood up to leave, I asked him why he hadn't brought his camera with him, "Actually, I don't really like taking pictures," he admitted.

It suddenly all became clear. Had that sentence not come from the mouth of the man who has wandered around and taken tens of thousands of photographs of old movie theaters, I'd have never gotten the information necessary to conclude this story.

Where there's a will there's a way.

"Photography is work. It's a burden. It's not easy. But my objective is to show that there is value in old movie theaters, and I don't know a better way to express this. It's our best option for achieving that. Photographs, sketches, film. As records they are better than memories, because memories die with their owner. Photos, they last.

"They are memories that people can see."


 

 






Thursday, March 24, 2016

The San Thit Cinema - Ma-ubin, Irrawaddy Region, Myanmar

The San Thit Cinema stands just in front of the docks at Ma-ubin on the gently rolling Myitmaka River. The building itself is barely visible from the street due to its placement below street level and obscured behind a strip of one story shop houses that face the thoroughfare. Behind the theater, surrounding it on three of its four sides, are low slung warehousing facilities holding goods brought up off  and destined for the boats below. Bundles of raw tobacco, jars of various spices and sacks of rice are piled floor to ceiling in these wooden godowns, which are connected to each other, the waterfront and the cinema by a warren of narrow lanes. It's an ecosystem of transit, trade and leisure so tightly intertwined that it's as if it were a living organism. 


The waterfront scene at Ma-ubin is typical for a modestly sized port town in the Irrawaddy Delta. At just 40 miles by river west of Yangon, the bustling burg is ideally situated for riparian trade. In former times, one can imagine dock workers breaking from their duties to catch a film at the San Thit Cinema - or the Shwe Aung Cinema, which was just next door. Cinematic reprieve from a life on the waterfront was quite literally just a few steps away.  


Movie posters stapled to boards just above the main entrance of the San Thit Cinema


Ticket window


Beyond the folding wooden doors of the San Thit Cinema, a sea of hand crafted wooded seats, neatly arranged in narrow rows, unfolds before the eyes. Such a sight is increasingly rare in Myanmar. As the old theaters go out of business, owners sell the seats to antique dealers, usually in neighboring countries like Thailand and China, where a market for such cultural curiosities is quite strong. Alternatively, a handful of theaters in Myanmar have recently been modernized, in which case the old wooden seats have likewise been removed to make room for new cushioned ones.


Auditorium views


In the days before electrical lighting was a staple, natural light served as a means of illumination. The wooden awning windows at the top can be opened and closed to lighten and darken the auditorium as needed. 


Interesting curve in the balcony rail.


Balcony views



Almost all movie theaters in Myanmar feature partitions between every two seats in the back rows, as pictured in the above photo. This addition allows couples attending a film to have a modicum of privacy. In a conservative society like Myanmar, trips to the cinema for young lovers is generally the only privacy they're likely to get. These seats are at a premium because of it.


The man above was the caretaker of the San Thit Cinema. He has been at the San Thit since it opened in 1963, when he was just a young boy. 

Seven months ago the cinema stopped showing movies, though it still opens occasionally to screen football matches via an LCD projector. 

The name San Thit translates to "modern."





Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mutilated Cinema Row and other movie theater missives from Myanmar

Round 3 of the Myanmar Movie Theater Survey has come to a close. What was supposed to be a full 28 day-long expedition screeched to a premature halt, unfortunately, about a third of the way into it. A freak accident involving a scorching hot motorcycle tailpipe put a second degree burn on my heel, totally incapacitating me.

Likewise, the survey got off to an equally slow start, albeit not by my own doing. Demolitions and a cyclone simply left a dearth of material to document during the first leg of the trip.

But as bad as it all sounds, the in between was very productive, yielding almost as many new insights into Myanmar's movie theater archaeology as it did new photographs of old theaters. Above all else, it made me realize that 3 rounds of photography for Myanmar is not enough. Rounds 4 and 5 are thus in the pipeline.

The highlight of the survey was a panel talk on the subject of movie theater preservation held at Myanmar Deitta Gallery. The round table discussion took place in conjunction with an exhibition of Myanmar's Vanishing Movie Theaters, consisting of 15 images from my previous Myanmar surveys. About 60 people showed up for the talk, the main agenda of which was to draw attention to the plight of the Waziya Cinema - perhaps Myanmar's oldest existing cinema hall  

The low point of the trip - burned heel aside - was the fact that I waited 5 years to do it. About half of the theaters that I visited on this trip had closed down within that time frame. Others were demolished. Many vacant lots stood in place of what only a few years before was a mid-century movie theater. 

The most obvious loss to Myanmar's movie theater heritage since my last survey is "Cinema Row." Once the highest concentration of stand-alone movie theaters anywhere in Southeast Asia, the downtown Yangon strip went from having six theaters side by side to mere two. A before and after shot depicting the stretch of city is below.


Cinema Row c. 2010


Cinema Row c. 2016

But it's not all bad! As I start organizing my photos and notes I'll be sharing with you some surprisingly positive news from the Myanmar movie theater scene. Believe it or not, there are some interesting trends afoot. And unlike neighboring Thailand, where the crown jewel of movie theaters still faces the threat of demolition, the finest active theaters in Myanmar seem to be in very good hands.

More to come very soon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Myanmar movie theaters in focus

It's been almost six years since my eyes were first opened to the charms of Myanmar's cinema halls. Six long years since that first foray into a country flush with stand-alones and where most towns still had the almost virginal grace of not being beholden to the automobile, or its requisite bedfellows in space-consuming infrastructure. I mention that because, besides the fact that I'm seriously prone to road rage, cars are the main cause of decline in stand-alone movie theaters. Not home entertainment systems, DVD's, VCR's and such things as most prevailing logic assumes. Yes, those gadgets play a strong role, but if cinema-going was killed off by home entertainment then why, at present, are there more movie screens in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and a half dozen other Thai cities than there ever has been in history? The answer is because 99.9% of those screens are in shopping malls, the primary access point for which is the parking garage, via car, and Thailand is a car dependent country. Oil addicted, one might say. Going to the movies is still a beloved pass-time, but now a huge percent of those able to afford a movie ticket in Thailand live in car dependent suburbs, or are simply just accustomed to driving everywhere. The thousand seat stand-alone movie theater that once stood in the heart of town didn't supply secured parking. The multiplex theater in the shopping mall at the edge of town does. But I digress.

My last trip to Myanmar for a theater survey was back in January, 2011. Five years ago. That netted me a huge amount of photographic content from Shan State, Magwe, Bago and Thanintharyi divisions. Ever since then I've been yearning to get back there to pick up where I left off. By my estimates, there are are still a solid 30 or 40 old theaters yet to be documented in Myanmar, a good portion of which may still be in operation. But that number is dropping fast.

After mulling it over, I decided that there's no better time than the present. Tomorrow, February 18th, I'm flying over to Yangon to start a third Myanmar movie theater survey. This trip will hopefully lead me trough Irrawaddy Division, then back up to Shan State, into Kachin State, back down through Sagaign, Mandalay, Magwe and Bago Divisions, and ultimately into Mon and Karen states. I'm not sure that all of that is possible given only 28 days, but I will do my best.

In addition to the survey there will be a photo exhibition of some of my past work in Myanmar opening on February 20th at Myanmar Deitta Gallery on 44th Street just off Merchant Road in downtown Yangon. All 15 images on display will be for sale to help offset the cost of this expedition.

The highlight of this exhibition will be a panel discussion on the important social and cultural role of the cinema hall. Aside from myself, panelists will include US Ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell; Yangon Heritage Trust director Daw Moe Moe Lwin; Director of Urban Planning for the Yangon City Development Committee Dr. Toe Aung and Myanmar Motion Picture Organization Patron U Aung Lwin. Our talk will hopefully build awareness to the plight of the Waziya Cinema a classic downtown movie palace in Yangon which recently closed down.

Below are a collection of photos of Myanmar cinema halls that have either closed or been demolished since I was last there.




Thida Cinema - Yangon. Closed 2013


Kemarat Cinema, Keng Tung, Shan State. Demolished 2012


Win Cinema, Toungoo, Bago Division. Demolished 2012


Shwe Mann Cinema, Yangon. Demolished 2012


Myoma and Shwe Gon cinemas, Yangon. Demolished 2012


King Cinema, Yangon. Demolished 2012



Hsoo Htoo Pan Cinema, Yangon. Demolished 2012

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Paradise Theater - Pattani, Thailand

Push aside the grisly headlines regularly connected to Thailand's 3 southernmost provinces. Behind the reports of terrorist bombings and religious extremism is a gem of a region inhabited by some of the most hospitable people in the land. Pattani, the largest city in the region, is no exception. And despite an absence of active cinemas, mall-bound or otherwise, this is a town that deserves its due among Thailand's urban geography.

Within an hour of setting foot in Pattani I was being whisked around town on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a coffee shop proprietor who, aside from closing up his shop expressly to give me a guided movie theater tour, also refused to let me pay for the coffee. Two hours in, I was sharing a beer with a direct descendant of the founder of the city, a 7th generation Pattanian who graciously gave me an unsolicited tour of his 150-plus year old Sino-Portuguese manor, established by his illustrious forefather on land granted to him by King Mongkut. Old Town Pattani as the neighborhood is informally known, would no doubt be an attraction were not the city so closely associated with sectarian violence.

The following day I was invited down to city hall to talk movie theater history with the City Comptroller, whom I had met the previous evening while sipping beers with my new friend. As it turned out, the Comptroller's father was the movie booker for Pattani's quintet of cinema halls in the 1960's and 70's. We chewed the fat about the good old days of the cinema business, before the the threat of terrorism in Pattani scared people from going to public places. For Pattani, this was a key factor in the decline of movie theaters. 


The Paradise Theater stand's at the far end of an alley, just across from the river.

Of the 5 movie theaters that served the city over the years, only one remains that has any resemblance to its original function - The Paradise Theater. Unsurprisingly, the Paradise was newest of all the theaters built in Pattani, dating only to 1981, the tail end of Thailand's stand-alone movie theater construction boom. Its most recent owner, the southern Thai movie producer/director Khom Akaradej, closed it down in 2006, not long after the southern insurgency gripped the city. 

While the Paradise's dimensional signage still sits boldly atop the cornice, gently reminding people of merrier times, the once cavernous auditorium has been turned into a swiftlet's house.  

6 year sago, moreover, a story about the Paradise was submitted to this blog. You can read that here.


Dimensional rooftop signage, a hallmark of Thai stand-alone movie theaters.


Research led me to the Office of the City Comptroller of Pattani. Here we are creating good will over movie theater memories. 


Some photos taken near the King's Theater, now destroyed, supplied by the Pattani City Comptroller.