Philip Jablon, creator of the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project website, says the first historic movie house he stumbled on in Bangkok was the Sala Chaloem Thani in Nang Loeng. Dating to 1918, the huge, wooden structure is one of the oldest theaters left standing not only in Thailand but anywhere in Asia. During the cinema’s early years, silent films were accompanied by a live brass band.
Since 2009, when Jablon first began posting his blogs, he has catalogued more than 230 theaters in Thailand. The amateur architectural historian, who works for a Philadelphia moving company every summer to raise funds for his work in Thailand, estimates that 90 percent of these have been abandoned. His blog posts are illustrated with straightforward photography of old Thai cinemas in various states of decay, and contain colorful descriptions of his personal encounters with people as well as places.
Last month I sat down with Jablon at the Bangkok Edge Festival, where he was exhibiting his theater photos, to talk about his passion for old Thai movie houses.
“When I first started exploring standalone cinemas in 2009, there were still eight or nine of them operating in Bangkok,” says Jablon. “Now there’s only one, the Chinatown Rama, still running.”
Located in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown, the historic theater used to screen Shaw Brothers kungfu films but now favors second-run Hollywood films.
Bangkok’s first-run cinema scene today is dominated by mall cineplexes controlled by the Major Cineplex Group (with 50 percent market share) and the SF Group (35 percent). Aside from the Chinatown Rama, only the Apex-owned theaters – the magnificent Scala movie palace and the less impressive Lido, which was eventually subdivided into three screening halls – operate as standalones.
Asked about the precipitous decline of the standalone cinema in Bangkok, Jablon explains the timeline.
“A construction boom in the 1960s and 1970s, largely spurred on by US military support in the region during the Vietnam War, included the development of movie theaters in Bangkok.
“People didn’t have much for home entertainment then, so the movie theater essentially became a sort of living room for the neighborhood,” says Jablon.
One neighborhood where cinema thrived was Wang Burapha, an area to the west of Chinatown that had once been the site of a royal palace. In 1951 the old palace was bought by a local businessman who razed the building and erected three movie theaters, along with a hotel and a shopping plaza, in its place. In honor of the area’s royal legacy, two of the theaters were dubbed King and Queen, while the third was called the Grand. This cinema triad served as a prime entertainment center for Bangkok teenagers during the 1960s, much as Siam Square did for later generations.
“As Bangkok succumbed to urban sprawl, car ownership increased and many people moved to the suburbs. The inner city was left to the poor, and with less traffic coming to the independent cinemas, owners invested less on upkeep. Eventually locals could buy a cheap theater ticket just to spend the day in an air-conditioned space, often sleeping there, rather than for cinematic entertainment.
“The decaying cinemas basically turned into flophouses, which attracted drugs, gay cruising, and prostitution.”
With a recent renewed interest in architectural preservation among Bangkokians, things are looking up. In fact two historic Bangkok theaters received preservation awards from the prestigious Association of Siamese Architects (ASA) within the last five years.
In 2011, the first award recipient was the aforementioned Sala Chaloem Thani, which occupies land belonging to Thailand’s Crown Property Bureau (CPB). Reportedly the CPB have drawn up plans to restore the wooden cinema for use as a repertory art theater. If this happens, it will become the oldest active, purpose-built movie theater in all of Asia.
In 2012, Bangkok’s Scala movie palace was likewise presented with a preservation award. Arguably the most architecturally significant movie theater in Southeast Asia, the 876-seat Scala was designed by once-prolific architect Chira Silpakanok and opened in 1969. The grand lobby features a five-tiered chandelier, golden ceiling medallions, and a 20-meter bas relief along a wall above the auditorium entrance, among other highlights. It still functions as a first-run cinema and has recently found new fans among Bangkok hipsters enjoying the retro vibe.
In early 2012, Chulalongkorn University, landlord of the entire Siam Square neighborhood in which the theater stands, revealed a redevelopment plan which called for replacing all existing structures in Siam Square with a series of shopping malls. The announcement received considerable criticism from a broad spectrum of Thai society, after which the university decided to reconsider the plan.
A third historic cinema in the Bang Rak neighborhood may also see restoration in the near future. The Prince, found in a narrow alley off Charoen Krung Rd, was reportedly built in 1908 on the grounds of a royal family member’s estate.
According to Jablon, “If the date is correct, this would make it one of the oldest operating movie theaters in Asia, if not anywhere in the world.”
The Prince, which after its decline as a first-run standalone became a cruising venue before being abandoned, falls within the recently designated Klong San-Bang Rak Creative District. As such there are plans to restore and revive the once-venerable cinema.
Jablon says he’s not finished exploring Bangkok for urban cinema treasures.
“I’ve been hearing about old theaters in Lat Phrao, Thonburi, and Minburi,” he says, “And I just hope some of them are still standing.”
The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project — seatheater.blogspot.com/