Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Shae Saung Cinema Revisted

There are two noteworthy sights on Sule Pagoda Road, Upper Block. The Nay Pyi Daw and Shae Saung cinemas.This duo of "Burmese Polychrome Theaters," both tidily maintained by Mingalar Cinemas, are the last vintage structures left on one of the most high profile blocks in the country. All other old buildings, including two more cinemas that once stood across the street, have been pulled down, bit by bit, over the past 20 years.

One might assume that the charming old stock of buildings that used to line this gateway thoroughfare were demolished to make way for new ones that reflect Myanmar's bright new demeanor since entering the world stage. Think again. Not a single one of the buildings which has replaced the old stock is worth a second look. Functional mediocrity, at best. Too bad collective confidence doesn't necessarily make cities look good.

The Shae Saung Cinema circa 2016

The Shae Saung Cinema, however, does look good. At least I think so. It and its sister theater - The Nay Pyi Daw - up the street are two beacons of the cityscape from a time when movie theaters were the proverbial living rooms of the city, and reflected that important social role in their architecture.

Many a visitor to Yangon have remarked about the two colorful movie theaters accentuating the block. Place makers in the truest sense.   

Street vendors in front of the Shae Saung provide cheap snacks to movie-goers while enliven the street. 

Crowds shuffle in at Stall level seating. A ticket taker stands by the door.

During past visits to The Shae Saung, as well as other Mingalar operated cinemas, I was never able to get past the front door. If I did it was only to slouch down in a seat for a movie. Facades were the most I could hope to document. Over the past two years, however, Mingalar and me have gotten familiar (the theater chain sponsored my most recent Myanmar theater survey). These days instead of swift dismissals by theater security, I get the red carpet treatment from theater managers and the privilege of full access to Mingalar's entire fleet of mid-century movie palaces. A golden ticket in the hyper-niche world of movie theater photography.

Here's a few shots of the auditorium I took between screenings. 

Balcony seating at the Shae Saung Cinema

The Shae Saung has over 600 seats, making it one of the largest movie theaters in Myanmar.

Comfort and luxury are trademarks of Mingalar Cinemas. The Shae Saung is no exception. 

Most theaters in Myanmar built prior to the Ne Win coup had English names, indicative of the country's past status as a colony of England. Soon after Ne Win took over, a policy was hatched that forced name changes from English to Burmese in a bid to restore a sense of dignity to the nation. Shae Saung translates to "Pioneer," but the cinema's original English name was "The Light House."

In this age of cut-rate architecture the name Light House seems more appropriate now than ever before. The Shae Saung Cinema is a beacon, a light house if you will, signaling a time when architectural design was not the domain of developers but of artists. Even if it's not your cup of tea aesthetically, it's hard to deny the artful design and its keystone role in the life of this once elegant block.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Migalar Waziya AKA Waziya 2 Cinema - Hlaingthaya Township, Yangon

It would take nothing short of a military dictatorship feigning benevolence to erect a movie theater like the Waziya 2 Cinema up in Hlaingthaya Township on the outskirts of Yangon. I don't mean that cynically. Back in the early 1990's, no bottom-line minded private theater operator would have had the gumption to plop a massive movie hall in the middle of a rice field in the sticks. Stuff like that only happens when turning a profit is as easy as stealing the wealth of a nation.

Indeed, the kleptocrats behind the Than Shwe government went through a mysterious period of theater construction in the early to mid 1990's. At least 3 that I know of were built in Yangon, a few in Mandalay and others elsewhere, too. It may have simply been part of a wider infrastructure development initiative that the generals put in motion in the aftermath of the 1988 pro-democracy crackdown. Placate the citizenry with new roads, bridges, ports and why not a movie theater or two? What better way to make them forget how much they hate you?

Whatever logic lay behind this act of generosity, its legacy is a block of hulking concrete with a movie screen in it. Not an architectural beauty by any stretch, but looking at it, it's hard not to indulge in a little dystopian fantasy. You can just about feel big brother's cold, pan-optical gaze leering down at you from this cement cinema hall. Personal freedoms swapped for failed cradle-to-grave security and some propaganda films. Reality surrendered.

That's more the Soviet version than the Burmese Road to Socialism, but the look is the same. 

That was then, of course, and this is now. A brave new Burma is upon us, no longer fettered to the whims of dictators. Capitalism and the whims of the market have taken their place, and movie theaters are reverting to private ownership.

Enter Mingalar Cinemas. The Yangon-based theater chain - Myanmar's largest - acquired the Waziya 2 in 2015 following a two year spell of sitting dormant. The new owners sank some money into it, sprucing it up enough to mute the authoritarian look and adding some much needed pizzazz. They dropped the "2" from the title (Waziya "1" being a Beaux Arts beauty from the 1920's in downtown Yangon) and prefixed "Waziya" with the company name.

"At first we thought we would divide the single-screen auditorium into three smaller ones," a company rep told me, "but in the end we opted to keep it as one to accommodate larger crowds."

Since installing top-of-the-line Christie 4K Digital Projectors and Dolby Digital Sound, the new and improved Mingalar Waziya Cinema is doing better than ever.

"It's a good thing we kept the auditorium whole," mused the representative. "On weekends the theater is usually packed."

Crowds pour out of late afternoon Sunday screening at the Mingalar Waziya Cinema.

Packed house weekends are no exaggeration. I arrived on a late Sunday afternoon just in time for a screening to let out. A Burmese romantic comedy judging by the billboard. As I surveyed the grounds for prime angles to shoot, the theater's doors opened and a trickle of people sauntered out. Moments later the trickle turned into a deluge, as seemingly satisfied movie-goers poured out into the surrounding lot towards their bicycles, motorbikes and idling taxis parked outside the gates. It was a beautiful sight to behold. The good old fashioned collective pleasure of the cinema, sacrosanct in its concrete stand-alone guise, in full swing. If tickets for all 651 seats weren't sold then it was pretty close. 

A quartet of movie-goers go to the movies.

The side entrance of the Mingalar Waziya is where the box office and lobby are.

Box office 

Staff at the Mingalar Waziya cleans up the theater between shows.

Gentle illumination

Now, I don't know this for certain, but by the looks of it most of Hlaingthayar Township was probably agricultural in the 1990's when the Waziya 2, as it was originally called, was built. Most of the nearby structures look tellingly recent. Others are little more than slapdash huts by the side of the road and other developments on the fly. Between the two are tracts of fallow rice fields.

Nowadays, Hlaingthaya is thick with industry. Young factory workers and their families comprise the majority of residents, who in turn make up the bulk of the audience at the Mingalar Waziya. Prescient planning by the military gov. to plop a movie theater in a rice paddy that would soon be zoned industrial, densely populated and in need of leisure activities. And a wise move on the part of Mingalar Cinemas to buy it up, slap their brand on it and keep it intact.


For those of you who only follow The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project blog and don't follow my Twitter, Instagram or Facebook feeds, you might not be aware that I'm in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign. The aim of the campaign is to raise funds for a feature length documentary about my work photographing old theaters in Thailand and Myanmar. Details of the campaign can be found by clicking here.

If you like the work I do, please consider chipping in. Even the smallest donation (200 Thai Baht, or $7 US in this case) helps.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Things to come from the #theaterhunt

The trip was grueling. In 23 days, 27 towns were visited. Some for no more than a few minutes. Or just long enough to learn that there were no theaters left to shoot.

Of all the predictions listed in my pre-departure post only a handful occurred. No run ins with raging ethno-nationalists, thankfully, nor any skin contact with scalding tailpipes. I was sidelined by a case of the green-apple quickstep for a spell, but it couldn't have come at a more convenient time. Namely, while sucking up the largess of my old alma mater at a comfortable Mandalay hotel.

The theater tally has yet to be tallied, but I suspect it's somewhere in the range of 27 theaters, give or take. A few were repeats. Most were never before seen. Among the batch are some outright gems. Hopefully my photography will do them justice.

As I sort, edit and delete my way through this batch of images, the 2018 Myanmar Theater Survey motherload, I leave you with a preview of things to come. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Route to Myanmar's Movie Theaters

For the third consecutive year, ye olde Myanmar map will be put to good use.  From my starting line in Yangon, I plan on moving in a northwesterly direction up through Western Bago and then zig-zag  my way across Magwe, Mandalay and Sagaing Regions. Barring any holdups, the survey should end in either Myitkyina, Bhamo or Kalay before heading back down to Yangon by the 21st of February. I will try to squeeze in as many towns and their respective movie theaters as possible in a northerly race against a three-week time limit.

First stretch of the theater hunt. 

Dry Zone theater hunt route

Upper Myanmar theater hunt route

If all goes as planned I will get severely ill - possibly from food poisoning - lose some weight I can ill afford to lose, and maybe suffer a burn or two during this expedition. I will get diarrhea. Dehydration will get me once or twice. I will vomit. The civilian informants and local gendarmes who chased me out of Natmauk - General Aung San's birthplace - and Thandwingyi in 2011 will have hopefully found more useful things to do. I am bracing myself for the inevitable night at a flea bag hotel with mosquitoes, bed bugs and/or carpet beetles. I am bracing myself for the inevitable town with no hotel at all, or no licence to host foreigners. Strange skin irritations will come as no surprise. In the Dry Zone cities, I am prepared mentally to have a few unpleasant encounters with raging ethno-nationalists. I will try not to drink too much Myanmar Beer. I will forget to exercise. Loneliness followed by bouts of mild depression will creep up on me. I will photograph lots of old movie theaters. In the end, barring catastrophe, I will be smitten with Myanmar as usual.

You can follow me on Instagram and Facebook which I will be updating regularly while on this survey.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Myoma Cinema - Ye-U, Sagaing Region, Myanmar

World War II history buffs, here's one that you might appreciate. 

Shortly after the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942, the bucolic little burg of Ye-u in Sagaing Region got caught up in the ravages of war. The town's freshly minted Myoma Cinema was commandeered by the occupiers and put to use for nefarious purposes. Specifically, a subterranean chamber was built beneath the auditorium, which, according to the current owner, was used as some sort of prison/torture chamber by the Japanese. 

As far fetched as that may sound, that's what I was told. This unassuming, timber framed cinema hall, with brick nog walls and a gabled roof, more akin to a country cottage than anything else, had a dungeon below it. And it's still there, according to the current owner. 

The ever-humble Myoma Cinema, looking very much like a country cottage, holds a dark secret below its floors.

Beautiful brick flooring, exposed trusses and tree trunks for structural supports.

A Gaumont Kalee 12 projector, dating to 1939, still stands in the Myoma Cinema's wooden projection booth.

A portrait on the wall of the projection room depicting the wife of the original owner.

The humble sign board for the Myoma (Central) Cinema hangs unassumingly beneath metal eaves.  

Wooden bench seats.

 A cursory search for information on the internet doesn't yield much about any instances of Ye-U in World War II. The most significant thing I could find was that it was, and indeed still is, the terminal town of the Mandalay-Ye-U train line, which was bombed during the war. Needless to say there is zero information about a movie theater serving as a torture chamber or prison for the Japanese occupiers. 

The fact that the current owner of the theater, who was otherwise extremely accommodating, spoke no English, nor I any Burmese, didn't help things. Had communications between us been better I might have gotten access to the alleged chamber below. The only way I was able to find out about the nefarious crypt in the first place was to record the woman talking about the theater and then replay it for some bilingual friends when I got back to Yangon. Had I known about it when I was there, you can be sure that I'd have asked for access.

Maybe I'll follow up, with a translator, during my upcoming theater survey in February.  

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Mingalar Cinemas sponsors 2018 Myanmar Theater Survey

Mingalar Cinemas has been on my radar quite a bit of late. The Yangon-based movie theater chain (Myanmar's largest) has been quietly opening new locations across the country, venturing beyond their traditional mainstays of Yangon and Mandalay. Last December they opened their first branch in Mon State. Prior to that, they opened new theaters in Pyay, Bago and Magwe, while also increasing their theater holdings in Yangon and Mandalay, respectively. 

Mingalar's expansion isn't a big surprise. Most of Myanmar's leading companies have jumped at the new economic opportunities present since the country's reemergence on to the global stage. But as a theater chain - the nation's most prolific, at that - it's Mingalar's approach to expansion which is worth taking note of.

The company logo of Mingalar Cinemas

In stark contrast to most other theater chains around the world,  Mingalar Cinemas has an affinity for acquiring and renovating antique movie theaters. That's a rarity these days, especially in Southeast Asia, where the multiplex-shopping mall combination has become the norm. To see a movie exhibitor show any interest in preserving the architectural history of its very own industry is a much welcomed change.

Mingalar's newest branch - the theater in Mon State mentioned above - is the 72 year old Bayint Cinema. After nearly a decade long stretch of sitting vacant, Minagalar purchased the impressive old theater on the Mawlemyine waterfront and renovated it from top to bottom, carefully preserving all of its exterior architectural elements in the process. Besides adding a new entertainment venue, this marks a key preservation victory for Mawlemyine, a city with a uniquely historic if run-down building stock.


The Bayint (King's) Cinema before and after its 2017 renovations by Mingalar Cinemas

Mingalar has done the same elsewhere in the country, taking forgotten cinema spaces out from the doldrums of history and into the 21st century. In so doing, the company is helping to conserve an architecturally rich identity that Myanmar is gradually becoming famous for, while expanding their own footprint along the way.    


Pictured above is The San Pya Cinema, in downtown Yangon. The photo on the left was taken c. 2010, when it was basically a flophouse. On the right is The San Pya in 2017, three years after Mingalar Cinemas bought and renovated it into a first class theater with three screening rooms. All the classic International Style architecture was preserved, and the intersection still has its landmark movie theater. 


Inside and outside The Thamada Cinema - Minaglar's crown jewel movie palace. Probably the most spectacular movie theater in Southeast Asia after Bangkok's Scala

The Shae Saung Cinema is another mid-century beauty, perfectly preserved by Mingalar Cinemas.

For all the reasons stated above, I am extremely proud to announce that Mingalar Cinemas is sponsoring my 2018 Myanmar Theater Survey, commencing in February. This 5th round of movie theater documentation will probably be my last in Myanmar, so to go out on a high note like this is truly an honor. It is my hope that this sponsorship will result in more preserved cinema treasures down the road.

Monday, December 25, 2017

One Person's Trash

In the days before the corporate world came to reign supreme over the movie exhibition business, movie theaters had a whole lot more character than they do today. That goes for just about everything from the architecture of the theaters themselves, right down to the tickets they sold.

Speaking of tickets, it wasn't so long ago that tickets to movies in Thailand had a real charm to them. While some distinguished their theater's tickets by using very basic patterns, others were minor masterpieces designed by professional artists. The best of them were so finely detailed that they resembled actual currency, utilizing the same intaglio printmaking techniques that is indeed used in the design of money.  

For those accustomed to the computer printed tickets that are now the norm at Thailand's omnipresent multiplexes, let the collection below prove that there was once much more to this piece of ephemera than mere corporate logic.  

The Empire Theater - Bangkok

Some theaters had the custom of printing the logo and name of the film on their tickets if it was highly anticipated. That was the case for The Empire Theater pictured above. The movie on display is for the Thai spy thriller Hao Dong

The Cathay Theater - Bangkok

The Prakanong Theater - Bangkok. 

The Odeon Theater - Bangkok

The two tickets for The Odeon Theater pictured above and below were free entry tickets. The theater manager's actual signature can be seen written in purple ink. They are likely from the 1950's or 60's.

The Odeon - Bangkok

Two versions of the ticket for The Capitol Theater - Bangkok

Speaking of The Capitol Theater, I took the logo from the ticket above and printed it on a t-shirt. I've been selling that t-shirt, pictured below, to raise funds for more research and photography of Southeast Asia's dwindling stand-alone movie theaters. So if you want to grab yourself a nice T and support a starving photographer at the same time, this is your chance.

Each Capitol Theater t-shirt is $15 (free shipping if you're in Thailand). If you're outside of Thailand the shipping is an additional $15 dollars (sorry, but international shipping isn't cheap). Unfortunately, I only have sizes L and XL left in stock.

Click on the PayPal button below to get yours today.  

Shipping destination