fragments of obsolete cinema
It’s now a sukiyaki restaurant whose one remnant of its past life is the word Texas in its name.
But once upon a time there stood a cinema in an alleyway linking the two main streets that run through Bangkok’s Chinatown or Yaowarat. This ghost of a movie house was called Nam Chae, then it changed its name to Texas, presumably capitalising on the popularity of cowboy films in Siam, possibly some time just before the Second World War. I’ve not yet been able to find out when exactly Nam Chae morphed into Texas, or what this place had been before it became a movie theatre. If I had to make a wild guess, I would say that it was probably a Chinese opera house, like many of the cinemas that used to line the streets of Yaowarat throughout most of the twentieth century.
Right now historian Kornphanat Tangkeunkunt is finishing up her PhD thesis, part of which deals with the life of Yaowarat’s cinemas. This means that in the not too distant future there’ll be an English-language source to look up this kind of thing.
A movie listing I came across in an August 1949 issue of the Bangkok Post newspaper indicates that, at this point, Texas was still showing cowboy films (a B-movie called Apache Rose). A few years later, some time in the early 1950s, the cinema made a shrewd move: it started specialising in Indian films. Between the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s Texas showed largely mythological films, and featured many of Homi Wadia’s titles. Its calculation seemed to be that the Bangkok moviegoing crowd would take to the Indian mythological films on the basis of their familiarity with the Ramayana tale. But, that aside, the aesthetic appeal of the mythological films, a sort of B-grade stunt attraction, must have played a large part too.
From around the mid-1960s to its closure at the end of the 1970s, Texas shifted to showing the kind of musical romance exemplified by Yash Chopra’s films. At this point the cinema had a few other competitors, such as the Queens cinema nearby, which also became known for showing Indian romances (and handing out free handkerchiefs on premiere nights!)
Indian films such as the Homi Wadia one in this ad were almost always shown with a form of film lecturing called phaak,in Thai, and versioning in a local translation – a term specifically chosen by the leading versionists in Siam to differentiate this mode of oral performance from the practice we call dubbing. Around the late 1950s, when this Hanuman film was being shown at Texas, the versionist(s) would have performed while the film was being projected – in other words, the film would have been versioned live.
That’s why, at the bottom left-hand corner of the ad, is printed the name of Texas’s star versionist, Panyaphon (1905-1961). This is the stage name of Phen Panyaphon, a fascinating man who, in his short life, had mastered many modes of folk and stage performances. He also worked across several types of modern media, from radio to cinema and television. In current film historical parlance we would now call Phen Panyaphon an ‘intermedial’ figure. One day I’ll blog about this forgotten artist. For now, just take note of the fact that Panyaphon was the solo versionist of this Hanuman film. He did all the voices and probably inserted poetic narrations and jokes as appropriate.
Also, take note of the fact that the convention of versioning Indian films, rather than screening them with subtitles, implies that the moviegoing crowd drawn to the mythological films was more likely to have been Bangkok’s ethnic mix. And perhaps the biggest group of viewers might have been those who could understand spoken Thai perfectly well, or well enough, but who weren’t proficient at reading. I can imagine many such social types around the late 1950s, the latest wave of Chinese migrants, perhaps, or the petty labourers… All in all, the versioning convention would seem to suggest that, in the main, Indian films weren’t a form of entertainment watched only by the Indian diaspora whose Indiatown was situated within walking distance from Texas.
What always makes me smile is the logo that Texas had adopted at this point. With the boom in cinema building in the recovery period after the Second World War, air-conditioning became an obligatory attraction for Siam’s urban movie theatres. Second grade cinemas like Texas had to keep up with the new picture palaces being built in the gleaming international modernist style, and which boasted curved CinemaScope screens. If the shabbier, older cinemas couldn’t change their screen type and refurbish their auditoriums, the least they could do was install air-conditioning. And so the Texas, once the vista of galloping cowboys and now of Hanuman somersaults, acquired some impressive snow blankets and icicle caps.
By the early 1970s, a little over a decade after the military dictators began to push developmentalist policies and anti-communist nationalism, Texas, along with Queens cinema, started to advertise themselves as cinemas of the phatthana era. This word means developed. What was it that entitled both cinemas to make such claims? “Klin hom yen sabai” said the ads. Their cool and fragrant auditoriums!
These days, there is only one functioning cinema left in Bangkok’s Chinatown. You can spot it easily enough, right on Yaowarat Road itself. The rusty remains of a few letters bearing the two or three names given to this cinema during its past lives are still up there, in Thai and Chinese. Inside, I hear that it’s a bit like Tsai Ming Liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn.
Earlier this year, my anthropologist friend Panarai Ostapirat, whose mother grew up in Yaowarat, took me on a ghost tour. On foot, we followed a hand drawn map made from her mother’s memory of the cinemas that used to jazz up her neighbourbood. Walking around, following this map, we could still see a ravaged façade here, a broken, dirt encrusted awning there. A few months after our walk, Panarai sent me a message that we’d made it just in time. We had taken some photos of the art deco inspired entranceway of what used to be Cathay cinema, including the glass cases for putting up posters and lobby cards along its narrow passage. The place is now a Tesco superstore, and they’ve just plastered over this haunting architectural remnant to make the whole area look the part of the brand’s uniform plastic white colour scheme.
The cinephile in me still finds it surprising that there’s not been a concerted effort to restore and preserve some of the old cinema theatres in Yaowarat, given that cinemagoing there played such a central part in the cultural life of Bangkok only a generation earlier. But I know that, these days, architectural restoration and preservation projects are luxuries afforded only to sites with royal association.
May Adadol Ingawanij