By WISE KWAI
THE REGION’S cinematic past, present and possible futures unfold in a Bangkok photographic exhibition, “Future’s Ruins”, which looks at the moribund former standalone cinemas that used to be common in Bangkok neighbourhoods and in cities across the Kingdom.
The couple dozen or so photos are the work of Philip Jablon, an American who is an affiliate researcher at Chiang Mai University. Since 2009, he’s been working in Thailand and Southeast Asia to raise awareness about the importance of old cinemas and how keeping them open helps communities.
Running through May at the H Project Space in Bangkok’s Sathorn neighbourhood, his “Future’s Ruins” exhibition comes amid much concern for the future of Bangkok’s only active standalone cinema, the Scala in Siam Square.
On Facebook recently, Jablon posted a video he made in his hometown of Philadelphia, while standing in front of what was left of the Boyd, a historic movie palace that was the last of its kind in the City of Brotherly Love’s downtown.
In fluent Thai, Jablon says he hopes the Scala doesn’t meet a similar fate as the Boyd.
“Certain people want to destroy it,” Jablon says. “That would be a mistake.”
Run by the Apex group, which also operates the neighbouring Lido multiplex, the Scala is surrounded by uncertainty as Siam Square owner Chulalongkorn University is keen on tearing down the theatres in order to build more shopping malls.
But those plans appear to be on hold, at least temporarily, with leases on the Scala and Lido reportedly extended until at least 2018. And, in another recent Facebook post, Jablon shares news that Apex will invest in a new screen for the Scala, raising more hopes that the Art Deco theatre, its neon marquee, grand lobby and sparkling five-tier chandelier might still have few good years left.
Phuangthong Siriwan, general manager of Apex, remains hopeful. “We’ve kept the Scala going for so long out of passion,” she says. “We went to the Department of Fine Arts to have the building registered as architecturally significant.
“Things have changed, though. We are at the centre of Bangkok. It’s up to the university. They have to do what works.”
Aside from the Scala, there are moves afoot to preserve and restore other Bangkok cinemas, among them the Nang Loeng, a barn-like teakwood edifice in the historic Rattanakosin enclave. Officials at the Thai Film Archive have been keeping close eyes on the theatre, which is formally known as the Sala Chaloem Thani and is owned by the Crown Property Bureau. Hopes are to reopen the Nang Loeng in time for its 100th birthday, sometime around 2018.
Sompong Chotivan, former manager of the Nang Loeng, is anxious for the reopening.
“When the Sala Chalerm Thani is done this will be a very strong community,” he said. “It will benefit the community and everybody who comes to the Nang Loeng neighbourhood”
And yet another faded old theatre, the Prince, in Bangkok’s newly burgeoning riverside Creative District, is due for some much-needed sprucing.
Art curator Atty Tanitivit, director of the Atty Gallery and a member of the Creative District, says the Prince is worth saving.
“Bang Rak Market has been known for its charm due to its diversified food options and juxtaposition of the old and the new,” Atty continues. “The revival of the Prince Theatre would add yet another layer to the area. If used as a creative space, be it a theatre or a public space, it would become another ‘must visit’ spot in Bang Rak. With its centralised location, it could also act as an attraction for creative businesses, especially food-related, in the area.
“If Bangkok wants to compete with other cities in the region, we have to be able to somehow utilise old buildings while preserving their legacy. If we let these buildings crumble or tear them down for new developments, Bangkok will soon lose its charms, as well as its livelihood.”
Moves to revitalise old cinemas in Bangkok come amid action elsewhere in the region, such as Singapore, which has dusted off its long-moribund crown jewel Capitol Theatre as a palace for performing arts and first-run movies. And in Malaysia, community activists in George Town, Penang, are working to reopen the Majestic, a moviehouse that dates back to 1919.
Meanwhile, Jablon is on the hunt for more cinemas to preserve in photos. He’s been in Myanmar for the past couple of weeks, revisiting places he first saw around six years ago and travelling to new locations. His work has been hampered by a wounded ankle, burned as the result of an unfortunate meeting with a motorcycle’s tailpipe.
While some of the old Burmese cinemas he photographed six years ago have been swept by the wave of redevelopment in the rapidly modernising country, other places are looking better, among them a chain of old stand-alones being revitalised by the Mingala Cinemas group, which is installing state-of-the-art systems and showing current hit Hollywood films.
“Their strategy is to acquire and upgrade old stand-alones without compromising the original architecture,” Jablon notes. “It’s proof that a major cinema operator can also take part in preservation of cultural and architectural heritage.”
“Future’s Ruins” runs until May 29 at the H Project Gallery, 201 Sathorn Soi 12. Sales of photos from the show will benefit further research and documentation of cinemas in Southeast Asia. For details, check HgalleryBKK.com.
Jablon also has “The Movie Theatres of Thailand”, a portfolio of 20 photos printed on A4-size Mulberry paper, handmade in Chiang Mai. There are nine sets left from a limited run of 35. The cost is US$300. For further details, check SeaTheater.blogspot.com.