Friday, October 2, 2015

The Victory Recalled - By Ron Nguyen

The following essay was submitted by to me by a reader of this blog. If anybody else out there has any stories related to Southeast Asia's movie theaters they'd like to share, feel free to send them along.

I remember going to the Rap Victory (Vietnamese, like Thai, puts the name after the establishment, “rap” meaning “theater”) in District 5 to see Chinese swordfight movies – “wuxia” I believe is the term for this film genre – those were the pre-kung fu era movies that featured swordfights and wirework, churned out like clockwork by the Shaw Brothers Studios. (Actually this was the beginning of the Golden Harvest Studios’ reign, which burst through the silver screen with “The Big Boss,” the debut feature of the kung fu movie legend known as Bruce Lee.) Rap Victory’s birth certificate also cited a Vietnamese name: for those who couldn’t pronounce “Victory” it was called Rap “Le Ngoc” (“Crystal & Diamonds”- possibly a wishful allusion to the grander state of affairs befitting an opera house?) In the press or advertisements it always went by “Victory Le Ngoc.” Maybe there was a chandelier or two hanging in its foyer? Memories fail me at this point.

I was still in junior high, which dated Rap Victory back to late 1960’s. Come to think of it the theater predated even the 1968 Tet Offensive, the turning point of the (North vs. South) Vietnam War, because I recall the fiery hubris of this tense period making reference to its location as a landmark, District 5 being one of the few districts in the city that saw troops engaging in direct combat. On the northern end of the same district, where my family lived, the Hotel Victory (no relation to the theater) which served as an American GI’s barrack was blown up one night one block away from our house.

I was glad to see from your blog that the theater still exists and even thrives (as of 2010) I might say, even though back in the days, the motorcycles had a proper “parking lot” (Saigon/HCMC has always been a two-wheeled vehicle town), a covered alley to one side of the theater, as opposed to being kept right there in the lobby. Maybe the new government was fond of the name “Victory,” therefore allowed the theater during the early postwar years to keep its doors open – and its name intact, albeit under a more apt Vietnamese translation: “Toan Thang” means total victory. (Had it not been for its new indigenous name I would not have recognized the place.) This is an indicative aspect of the war’s house-clearing aftermath because most names belonging to the former regime, names of streets, establishments, and institutions whether they ideologically stuck out like a sore thumb or not were summarily changed, or shall I say, eradicated. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Luna Theater - Yala, Thailand

On the main drag of downtown Yala, just a stones throw from the city's lone cineplex, a classic mid-century movie theater stands partially buried behind a frontage of cheap new construction. Fortunately the concealment is only partial, giving the observant passerby a chance to notice the telltale fin sign jutting skywards off of the building's cubist concrete facade.  

From the street, much of the Luna's facade is obscured by a new, frontal addition.

Neon letters spelling "LUNA" in English, Chinese and Thai span the vertical length of the sign, paying quiet homage to the theater's past.

Luna signage 

The Luna Theater was built in 1960, at the height of the International Style movement in architecture. The builder was apparently a Singaporean transplant, which might explain why it has an uncommon aesthetic for a Thai theater (have a look at these Malaysian theaters for comparison). 

Old Luna stayed in business until the mid-1990's, after which its auditorium was gutted and turned into a parking garage. Nothing therein remains that's worthy of documentation.

Parts of the lobby, fortunately, have been spared the hatchet, allowing the decorative details to remain visible for all who enter. In particular, the right lower lobby and accompanying staircase, which once led movie-goers up to balcony seating, seems to be fairly well preserved. If this colorful little sliver of preservation is any indicator, the Luna must have been a sight to see.

The Luna lobby, now part of a spa facility

Tiled flooring and stair in the lower lobby.

In its current iteration, the Luna Theater has been largely given over to a beauty spa. For this, the owner has smartly made use of the old theater's decorative lobby splendor. Beautification of the female form in an artfully designed cinema lobby: What a combo!

Ascending the wrap-around staircase like countless movie-goers from decades passed.

Inside the projection room.

Like a pair of rusted cannons on a forgotten battlefield, the Luna's carbon-arc projectors stand as a hidden reminder of the past. 

Diesel generator, suggesting that Yala City did not have a steady electricity supply when the Luna Theater was built in 1960.

Luna signage - more akin to theaters from neighboring Malaysia/Singapore than Thailand.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Indra Theater - Nakorn Sri Thammarat, Thailand

Last week, at the invitation of a professor of philosophy from one of Bangkok's finest universities, I gave a talk about Thai movie theaters - past and present - and the nature of my work. It was a relaxed, informal talk, given to an active little class of about 25 students, all of whom politely endured a lecture in woefully bad Thai.

Before the students arrived, however, the professor and myself sat around talking movies, movie theaters and all things related. One bit of the conversation stood out in particular, so while its still fresh in my mind let me circumvent the actual order of my research to bring you this interesting missive from the annals of Thai movie theater history.

The Indra Theater, long abandoned in the heart of Nakorn Sri Thammarat

Said professor hails from Nakorn Sri Thammarat, southern Thailand's 2nd biggest city. A city which, in decades passed, surged with energy thanks to a quintet of massive stand-alone movie theaters huddled together in the heart of town.

The professor's invitation for me to speak to his class was inspired by a photo I posted of the Indra Theater - one of the downtown cinema halls in which he often took sanctuary as a youngster. Predictably, the Indra was the main focus of our talk.

From the many Hollywood classics the professor recalled watching at the Indra, our conversation evolved into one about the erstwhile profession and forgotten talents of the live movie dubber, once a staple of the Thai cinema industry. These live voice actors would entertain movie-audiences in real-time, lending Thai language to foreign films and dialogue to Thai films shot on 16 millimeter (which lacked an in-film audio track).

By many accounts, the dubber was the most important component of the Thai cinema spectacle. A good one could be more of a crowd pleaser than the actual movie stars in the film.

The key to being a good dubber, I've been told, the most important trick of the trade, was the ability to improvise the on the spot, tweaking the characters, or even the plot to make it slightly more relevant to the local audience. For instance, if the dubber was from the same town or region that the theater was in, he or she might speak in the local dialect, or even adapt characters in the film to represent local personalities.

The Indra Theater and its streetscape.

No story of a dubber at work has ever been more insightful than the one that the professor related to me last week before the start of his class.

The year was 1973 - a particularly volatile year in Thai history, best remembered for large scale student protests against a corrupt, dictatorial regime and the violent military crackdown which ended them. Into this context of heightened political tension, with the flames of "people's power" burning hot, Sidney Lumet's iconic police drama "Serpico," starring the wildly popular Al Paccino in the title roll, opened at the Indra Theater.

Thai version of the Serpico poster

Serpico, for those who aren't familiar, is the Hollywood account of real life New York cop Frank Serpico's political lynching at the hands of the New York City police department. In the film, as in real life, the upstanding bobby refused to take kickbacks from local criminal organizations, the going trend among many in the NYPD of the times. By shunning the practice and serving as a whistle blower against police corruption in general, Frank Serpico drew the wrath of the entire New York police bureaucracy. He almost got himself killed in the process.

According to the professor, Nakorn Sri Thammarat in the early 1970's had a similar problem with its own police force. Many officers had a acquired a base reputation for corruption, extortion and other forms of constabulary graft. Local grievances against the police were high on account of it. So when Serpico made its premiere at the Indra Theater, sympathetic crowds showed up in droves.

The ticket booth and lobby of the Indra Theater, now littered with debris.

Among Nakorn Sri Thammarat's more famous dubbers of the time was a man named Sirichai. According to the professor, Sirichai was a master at rousing a crowd. Whether the movie was foreign or Thai, for example, Sirichai always reserved his southern Thai accent for sidekicks and supporting characters, much to the amusement of the southern Thai audience.

But Sirichai's greatest talent was his deft ability to tweak a film's plot and characters to sync with contemporary Thai issues. He had a penchant, moreover, for using his role as dubber to address the day's top political scandals, both at the national and local level. And corrupt politicians were his number one target.

With Serpico, making political satire for Sirichai was like shooting fish in a barrel. It turned out to be his voice-over Magnum Opus.

Refuge from rain in the Indra's abandoned lobby

The crooked cops in the film were all given names corresponding to Nakorn Sri Thammarat's most notorious lawmen. The crowd, well aware of who was who among the city's police ne'er-do-wells, reacted with cheers and hysterical laughter at the associations the dubber made. The on-screen cops and the cops on the streets of Nakorn Sri Thammarat, if only for a few hours, became one and the same in eyes and ears of Indra Theater patrons. From the rank and file right up to the top brass, no corrupt member of the local police department was spared Sirichai's adaptive lampoonery. The crowd went wild, apparently, and because the film's initial dubbing session was recorded on tape for use in later screenings, multiple crowds were exposed to Sirichai's crusades. 

The Indra auditorium. Ghostly voices of Sirichai's Serpico can almost be heard echoing throughout. 

Not everybody got a kick out Sirichai's antics, however. As the professor explained, the dubber's satirical Serpico adaptation got him slapped with a libel lawsuit, which he ended up being found guilty of. 

But as so often happens in these sorts of cases, the lawsuit martyred him, making him into a local hero and even more popular among movie-goers in Nakorn Sri Thammarat.  

The sign for the Indra Theater, stashed away inside the ticket booth.

Sirichai's career as a movie dubber came to a close with the decline of Nakorn Sri Thammarat's stand-alone movie theaters, as it did for all of Thailand's once illustrious voice actors. But for this local personality, the experience he had gained from working a crowd of movie-goers was parlayed, ironically, into a career in politics.

Sadly, he died prematurely, before his political career had a chance to bloom.

Today, it's hard to imagine that the now-abandoned Indra Theater played host to this fascinating episode in Thai cultural history. Sirichai's Serpico.


Traveling to these theaters and digging up this history is very fulfilling, but it ain't cheap. You can to play a role in their continued documentation get a great little memento at the same time. Here's how:

For a small donation of $6, you'll be mailed these two original movie tickets from Nakorn Sri Thammarat, Thailand. The white and blue ticket was a VIP ticket to from the Wirote Rama Theater, which is still standing the heart of downtown. The yellow ticket was for open air movie screenings held throughout the province.  

Supplies are limited, as no theaters in Thailand print such tickets any longer, so get yourself these unique movie theater keepsakes while supplies last. Just click the Paypal button below:

Ticket for the Wirote Rama Theater

Ticket for outdoor movie screenings in Nakorn Sri Thammarat

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Movie Theaters of Thailand: A photographic portfolio

If you are a fan of The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project and want to own a unique body of original photography from it, here's your chance.

After years of documenting stand-alone theaters in Thailand, 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. See the samples below:

All 20 images laid out on a table

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

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Burapha Theater - Ban Chang District, Rayong Province, Thailand

Picture, if you will, Thailand in the mid-1970's. In fact, lets make it an even 1974, for relevance sake. The country is firmly on the path to industrialization, particularly in the realm of industrial agriculture. Think canned fruits and fish and massive amounts of rice to be exported across the globe.

1974 also marks the second to last year that the United States waged wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. For the duration of the war, the US and Thailand had entered into a "strategic partnership" characterized by large transfers of military assistance and development dollars from the US in exchange for the use of Thai military facilities. This was the quintessential case of the Arsenal of Democracy arming a right wing regime on the front lines of Communist  

Six Thai Air Force bases served as staging grounds for American planes to fly aerial assaults over Indochina. One of those bases, U-Tapao Air base, was located on the western edge of Rayong Province, along Thailand's then rapidly industrializing eastern seaboard (it is now fully industrialized).

With soldiers and technicians and all the accompanying service jobs that sprang up alongside the air base, the climate was ripe for a state-of-the-art movie theater to serve this military ecosystem. And so, in the nearby town of Bang Chang, the Burapha Theater was born.

The Burapha Theater - a stand-out among Thai stand-alones.

Side view of the Burapha Theater's sizable headhouse, which includes ticket booths, concession stands within multi leveled lobby.

Support columns in the lobby of the Burapha Theater are made of concrete, but sculpted to resemble trees.

The Burapha Theater was brought into existence by Mr. Somphong Chotiwan, who, by 1974, was already a well established figure in the movie exhibition industry of Bangkok and Eastern Thailand. Being based out of the much older Nang Loeng Theater in Bangkok, his birth place, and nerve center of Thailand's film industry, also made him well situated to be a movie distributor. His company, Meung Chol Films, had grown into the biggest distributor of films in eastern Thailand.

Then as today, movie distributors divided Thailand up into regional zones in which only select companies could operate. Each distribution company would purchase the rights to a film from the various production houses, usually headquartered in Bangkok, and then circulate it to theaters within their respective networks.

Some distributors built their own theaters, or purchased preexisting theaters within their network, thus eliminating the need to share profits with independent theater owners. This practice was fairly common, and for successful film exhibitors, it became a fast track to empire. 

Three levels of lobby at the Burapha Theater

Old poster display on the third level of the theater

View of the "Soundtrack Room" where American Air Force pilots once comprised the chief clientele. A glass wall separated this room from the rest of the auditorium.

By the early 1970's, the town of Ban Chang had been feeling the economic benefits of its proximity to the U-Tapao Air Base for years. Awash in money thanks to a base full of foreign soldiers, cutting-edge leisure facilities were a necessity. The town already boasted of two active theaters, one of which - The Ban Chang Rama - was owned and operated by Sompong Chotiwan. But the resident English speaking population over at the air base were at a linguistic deficit when it came to watching movies, even when the movies themselves were American made. 

Until the mid-1980's, most Thai theaters employed live voice actors to give foreign movies a Thai voicetrack. To do this, original in-film soundtracks were muted while dubbers read from a Thai script that was written to fit the plot. Often times story lines were modified to suit Thai tastes, or the dialogue improvised on the spot. For the Thai movie going public, a good dubber was an essential part for the movie going experience. For non-Thai speakers, however, it made the films inaccessible.

Necessity being what it is to invention, Thai theater entrepreneurs accommodated their English-speaking clientele by building "soundtrack rooms." Such rooms were small, air-conditioned seating sections behind a large glass windows, into which a speaker system separate from the main auditorium brought the original language soundtrack. Spectators therein could watch the film along with the rest of the audience while enjoying the original soundtrack. Down below, the Thai dubbers were working their magic. Everybody, as a result, was happy

Looking towards the screen from the Soundtrack Room

With the Burapha Theater, Sompong Chotiwan had not only built the largest, most luxurious movie house Ban Chang had ever known, he also ensured that the American soldiers stationed at U-Tapao Air Base were able to partake in the cinema experience without losing the plot.  

One of the theater's former employees recalled American airmen renting little bungalows that were then in the vicinity of the theater when on leave. "They'd stay in those bungalows for a few days at a time," he explained, "usually with their 'lady friends.' At night they'd come watch movies at the theater before going out on the town."

Auditorium in full view.

The soundtrack room can be seen at the top rear of the Burapha's auditorium.

Like phantoms of movie-going passed, seats still remain in the Burapha Theater

Burapha Theater dimensional signage

By the middle of 1975, the US had officially ended its wars in Southeast Asia. Soldiers, technicians and all other military personnel stationed at Thai bases were shipped back to the States, along with all their cohorts in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Just like that, the soundtrack room of the Burapha Theater lost its biggest client base.

But despite the loss of Americans, the Burapha Theater continued to do brisk business throughout the 1970's, 80's and into the early 90's. By that time, broader changes in Thai society were starting to make stand-alone movie theaters like the Burapha unprofitable. 

One by one, these graceful giants of modern architecture went out of business, as the movie-going masses in Thailand capitulated to the convenient, but spiritually barren multiplex theaters located in the new shopping malls. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Burapha Theater screened its final film in 1995.

If you want to see the Burapha Theater for yourself, it can be found within the central market area in the heart of Ban Chang City, Rayong Province, Thailand.


Want to own a unique keepsake from Thai movie theater history AND support the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project at the same time? For a very small donation of $6 you'll be mailed an authentic movie theater ticket from the Scala Theater in Surathani, Thailand. These tickets were hand stamped from 1988 and feature the theater's classic retro logo. Had I not salvaged them, they would have eventually been destroyed

Proceeds from each ticket will go directly to continued movie theater documentation in Southeast Asia, ensuring that a record of this unique cultural history will survive in the public domain for all to enjoy.