Monday, August 25, 2014

Pecha Kucha Presentation in Bangkok

Tomorrow, for a mere 6 minutes and 40 seconds, I will be preaching the gospel of preservation for Southeast Asia's stand-alone movie theaters. Pecha Kucha is the event. Chulalongkorn University is the backdrop.

If you are in Bangkok, come and hear my sermon. 

In the weeks to follow, there will be fresh new images and stories from the forgotten corners of Southeast Asian popular culture. And I promise to dig deeper than ever before. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Thai Film Archive activates Scala and Lido

This past week,Thailand's two most iconic film venues - the Scala and Lido theaters - showcased a cultural event that only an iconic film venue can adequately showcase. 

The Scala hosting Alfred Hitchcock's "The Lodger"

From August 7th to the 13th, the Thai Film Archive hosted Thailand's first ever silent film festival. In collaboration with the British Council of Thailand, the Thai Film Archive, led by chief archivist Dome Sukwong, curated a program that consisted 7 films from Asia and Europe. All films were accompanied by live musical performances, much the way silent films were presented in the early 20th century. 

The grand finale of the festival was a screening of Alfred Hitchcock's 1927 masterpiece, "The Lodger," with a magnificent score provided my pianist Trisdee na Patalung. 

The decision to hold this unique festival at the legendary Apex theaters of Siam Square, coupled with the fact that each showing had near-capacity crowds, ought to be an indication of the intrinsic cultural value of both Scala and Lido. They are much more than just venues for entertainment. They are icons of cultivated sophistication. Indeed, if the motto of the Thai Film Archive is true, that "Cinema Enlightens," then the Scala and Lido are houses of enlightenment. 

Proposals to demolish either Scala or Lido to make room for shopping malls, as has been in the planning stages for more than two years, would be an error of judgement on the part of Bangkok civic leaders. In short it would be a net loss for the Thai capital, if not Thailand as a whole. 

Below are a few shots of the Scala during the final night of the festival.

Filling the Scala

Friday, July 18, 2014

Memoirs of a Movie Theater Maestro

Mr. Chalong Praditsuwan stood out in my mind as one of the more thoughtful characters I had encountered while researching Thailand's stand-alone movie theaters. Having once been at the helm of entertainment in his home town of Taphan Hin, Phichit, Chalong knew all the ins and outs of the movie industry in Thailand, past and present, including the societal shifts that had rendered his business lifeless.

He was also in possession of one of the most affable personalities out there, a trait, I surmised, that would lend itself exactingly to the making of a short documentary about Thailand's movie-going past.

A return visit to his movie theater-turned-private home after more than four years proved me correct. Here's the outcome of that meeting.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"The Architecture of Dreams" Part 2

"I've always loved movie theater architecture. Well, maybe not always, but at least since the early 80's. Since I bought "Architectures de Cinemas," by Francis Lacloche (Editions du Moniteur, 1981). In those days I was living in Paris, working in some architectural office, I saw many old cinemas closing down one after the other. I got myself some old 1960's movie programs and spent many weekends looking for these lost, closed-down-but-maybe-still-there cinemas anywhere I went. I was feeling like some kind of urban archaeologist, trying to find a forgotten Egyptian temple in a deserted suburban street.
Then came 1990, and for some reason I had the opportunity to quit my job, my flat and everything, and spend a long time travelling around the world. I came back 8 months later with a suitcase foll of sketch books, souvenirs and slides. Cinema slides, of course.
There are kinds of cinemas, but you can always recognize a movie theater anywhere in the world, even without any movie posters of the facade. Why? Because they all have something special. Something about adventures, love, fantasy. Something about dreams. It's the architecture of dreams."
Philippe Doro

The Cinemas of Thailand

The Saeng Tawan Theater, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Tippanetr Rama, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Hong Rama, Sukhothai, Thailand

The Malai Rama - Lopburi, Thailand

Marquee of the Chalerm Rath Theater - Khon Kaen, Thailand

The Sala Chalerm Krung - Bangkok, Thailand

The Paradise Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The Capitol Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Hat Yai Plaza - Hat Yai, Songkla Province, Thailand

Friday, June 27, 2014

"The Architecture of Dreams"

When French illustrator Philippe Doro completed his around-the-world journey in 1990, he returned to his Parisian abode with a vast photographic record of stand-alone movie theaters. Of particular interest to this archive, two of his stopovers happened to be in Southeast Asian countries - namely Malaysia and Thailand. 

A few weeks ago, Mr. Doro reached out to the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project with an offer to share his Southeast Asian cinema photos. What he forwarded along is nothing short of an ocular gold mine. A few dozen vivid shots of elegant mid and early 20th century movie theaters just before their fall from grace. 

To be sure, a good number of the Thai theaters in his collection are no longer in existence. There's little reason to doubt that the same isn't true for the Malaysian ones. Future expeditions by the SEAMTP will, hopefully, be able to answer that question.

In the mean time, feast your eyes on good Philippe's collection of Malaysian movie theaters c. 1990. And check out his blog on the architecture of Brussels when you're finished. 

The Cinemas of Malaysia

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

The Rex

The Majestic

Kota Bharu, Kelantan, Malaysia

The Lido

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The Capitol

The Cathay

The Coliseum

The Federal

The Odeon

The Pavilion

Kuala Terengganu, Terengganu, Malaysia

The Rex

Malacca, Malaysia

The Capitol

The Federal

Penang, Malaysia

The Star

The Wembley

Rawang, Selangor, Malaysia

The Rex

The Cinemas of Thailand, coming soon............

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Celluloid Economics: Why Thailand should take a cue from Singapore and restore its old movie theaters

This article appeared in the Bangkok Post on May 13th of this year.

"A Singapore-based development firm is making that city the first in Southeast Asia to undertake the full restoration of a historic downtown movie theatre. Meanwhile in Myanmar, one of the region's oldest operating stand-alone cinemas will undergo restoration.  

The Capitol Theatre - Singapore
Renovations to Singapore’s iconic Capitol Theatre (closed since 1998) are due to be complete in early 2015, paving the way for it to reclaim its erstwhile title as the city-state’s premiere destination for cinema entertainment. 
The renovations are part of an estimated 1.1 billion dollar (29 billion baht) mega-project that will also include a hotel, shopping center and residential units. The single screen Capitol will serve as the anchor of the development, a concept which marks a stark departure from the norm when it comes to seemingly outmoded stand-alone movie theatres in Southeast Asia. 
Rather than following the standard pattern of demolishing an exquisite movie palace in order to make way for a new development, Capitol Investment Holdings, the project’s developer, has smartly opted to allocate S30 million of the total budget to breathe new life into the historic theatre. 
If Singaporean developers are willing to invest tens of millions of dollars to revive an 85-year-old single-screen movie theatre, perhaps it’s time for planners and developers in Thailand to begin rethinking the fate of the country’s own historic movie theatres. Nationwide, there are a number of viable candidates. 
Bangkok alone counts three historic movie theatres that, if properly preserved, would serve the city as valuable sources of cultural capital for years to come.  Regrettably, all three are either under threat from demolition by neglect, or from redevelopment plans.   
Two of the three – the Scala and the Lido theatres, both nestled in Siam Square – are currently in operation. The pair are run and maintained to world-class standards by their original owner-operator, Apex Theatres, which is now owned by Ms. Nanta Tansacha, daughter of company founder Pisit Tansacha.  

The Scala Theatre - Bangkok

The Lido Theatre - Bangkok
Despite being two of the most beloved cinematic institutions in the country and able to count as their patrons most of Thailand’s artistic elite, both the Scala and Lido are at risk of being lost to demolition. Pending loss of the theatres comes at the behest of Chulalongkorn University, landlord of all of Siam Square, which is seeking to increase its revenue by replacing all existing structures in the district with a series of shopping malls.  
The Scala is arguably the most luxurious movie theatre in all of Southeast Asia, a fact not lost on Thailand’s architectural preservation community. In 2012, the Association of Siamese Architects certified the Scala an architecturally significant structure.  Its sumptuous modern lobby, featuring a 5-tiered frosted glass chandelier, tapered columns, golden star ceiling medallions and a 10m horizontal wall relief are some of the highlights of this a one-of-a-kind architectural spectacle. 
The Lido, unfortunately, bears much fewer distinctions, having lost many of its original architectural features to a fire in the early 1990’s. It is nonetheless a valuable cultural asset in the heart of the city, especially when coupled with the Scala. 
The third Bangkok movie theatre that is under threat is the Sala Chalerm Thani, sometimes known as the Nang Loeng Theatre.  

The Sala Chalerm Thani Theatre - Bangkok

Dating to 1918, the Sala Chalerm Thani is one of only several theaters left in Thailand dating from the earliest years of movie-going. Its wooden walls and timber frame, combined with its age, endow it with unrivaled historical worth.  
Tentative plans to restore the Sala Chalerm Thani by its landlord, the Crown Property Bureau, have been posted on the cinema’s fa├žade for several years now, but a definitive time frame has yet to be given. Should restoration occur, however, and the theatre is once again made a venue for film, it could be rightfully billed as the oldest active, stand-alone movie theatre in all of Asia.  
Outside of Bangkok, a handful of other elegant but unused stand-alone movie theatres have great restorative potential.  
In Chiang Mai, the once-grand Sang Tawan Theatre – featuring an intricate terra cotta mosaic depicting traditional northern Thai village life on its facade – looms over one of the city’s most important intersections. Though it has been closed for more than 10 years, a restored and active Sang Tawan could do wonders for a section of the city that’s full of important socio-cultural resources, yet sorely in need of an anchor institution.  

The Sang Tawan Theatre - Chiang Mai
Similarly, in the city of Udon Thani – one of northeast Thailand’s economic hubs – the long-abandoned Vista Theatre stands at a prominent corner directly across from that city’s largest public park. 

The Vista Theatre - Udon Thani
In sum, each of these sidelined theatres represents a golden opportunity to transform the cities or neighborhoods in which they stand.  
Admittedly, reincorporating an old movie theatre into a contemporary city economy is no simple task. Yet for a city to have the means to reach back into its past and make a forlorn artifact not only relevant again, but a contributing part of contemporary society, shows vision and know-how on the part of local leaders.
Singapore is achieving this via restoration of the Capitol Theatre. 
Singapore might seem like an obvious place for the restoration of an old cinema to occur. After all, it is a high-income city-state that can comfortably afford to undertake such a project. But that rationale falls short if one considers the restoration of the 80-plus year-old Waziya Cinema soon to commence in Yangon, Myanmar. The latter is unquestionably not a high-income country, yet planners in Yangon have smartly identified the invaluable cultural capital bound-up in historic movie theatres. The Waziya is one of the oldest active stand-alone cinemas in Southeast Asia. It's a crowning gem of Yangon's Cinema Row, a movie theater district that in recent years has been modernized and replaced by buildings.   
There is much to be gained through preserving select parts of the past, and cinemas are no exception. The revival and preservation of stand-alone movie theatres have indeed proven beneficial to the cultural and economic life of surrounding neighbourhoods. Numerous examples from cities around the world attest to that.  
Now Singapore is taking the lead regionally.  
Restoration of the Capitol Theatre should serve as a precedent for cinema preservation in Thailand and all of ASEAN."

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Ma Win Rama - Ban Rai Village, Sukhothai, Thailand

About seven kilometers outside of Sukhothai City is the village of Ban Rai. Like many such villages in the lower north of Thailand, Ban Rai owes its existence to its past as a trading hub for agricultural goods. The local market provided the gravity that pulled farmers and farm hands in from the surrounding fields. A town, in all its bucolic modesty, sprang up around it. 

In the middle decades of the 20th century, the jungles of upper Thailand were being felled to make way for the expansion of market-based agriculture. On account of that, local business entrepreneurs who dealt in agricultural products and services tended to prosper from the increased production, which became known the world over as the "Green Revolution." 

In 1972, the owner of the Ban Rai's market, having profited handsomely from Green Revolution expansion, decided to diversify his business holdings. With a high volume of foot traffic already in place, he surmised that building a movie theater on the grounds of his market would be a natural fit. Similar market place-movie theater combinations were being developed across Thailand in response to an increased appetite for film among the populous. 

Home electrification in rural Thailand, it should be stated, had yet to become widespread by the early 1970's. If villagers living in the vicinity of Ban Rai wanted a dose of modern entertainment they would have to travel all the way to Sukhothai City for a movie theater. Television and other technologies predicated on having an electrical source were not yet an option for most. Opening a theater in Ban Rai thus made practical sense. 

Enter the Ma Win Rama.

The Ma Win Rama: A simple yet sleek and elegant mid-century Thai movie theater. It's place white facade subtly accented by its name in red, plaster letters on its peak. 

For the first 20 years of its existence, the Ma Win Rama was predictably successful. To nearby villagers, it was the most immediate entertainment venue; one of the only local spaces that offered a window into a another world, or a fictitious refection of their own. 

But as houses got wired for electricity, and different mediums for viewing movies became more widespread, the Ma Win Rama began to lose customers, if not its standing as an important community gathering point.

In the mid-1990's the theater was closed. The owner, however, invested in a tour bus company which now connects Sukhothai with points near and far. Win Tour is its name. 

Veranda-inspired lobby area, a common signature of many Thai stand-alones.

Ticket booth

Wooden, bi-fold doors, nailed shut.

Plaster signage

For a more detailed, if not entertaining background on the Ma Win Rama, please watch the short documentary below: