fragments of obsolete cinema
In the early decades of cinema in Siam, before the nationwide circulation of newspapers and the expansion of radio broadcasting, film exhibitors adopted highly localised tactics to advertise their coming attractions. Max Linder’s name used to flutter from horse drawn carts and Douglas Fairbanks’s jumped out of printed pamphlets.
Sathit Semanin (สถิตย์ เสมานิล), one of the founding members of suphapburut (สุภาพบุรุษ) – the most well known among the grouping of modern Siamese writers in the 1920s and 1930s – once wrote a wonderfully vivid article reminiscing about moviegoing in his youth. Born in the early 1890s, his first movie experience was an itinerant show that took place in the village of his rural childhood. There were fuzzy images of boats, a newsreel of some sort that kept breaking. The adults complained that the show wasn’t as entertaining as the modern and very popular folk opera called likay. All you saw were mouths moving without sound, they said, “like ghosts.”
In 1913 Sathit moved to Bangkok, which at that point already boasted several cinema theatres. He wrote that drumming up patrons in those days wasn’t just an affair for the printed pages:
“High-class moviegoers who read newspapers could look at the programmes listed there. But most ordinary folks learnt about the new programmes via a single horse-drawn cart. The matchbox-shaped cart was made of tin, painted black with white letters down the side. On the cart someone would be distributing programme leaflets, accompanied by a band consisting of a boisterous drum, a clarinet and a pi [a type of wind instrument]. The horse dragging the cart through Bangkok’s busiest streets was often painfully thin, so thin you could see its ribcage. Children would dash after it asking for the new programmes” (my translation).
Another type of advert, targeting those “high-class” clienteles with purchasing power, came in the form of programme booklets published by the cinemas themselves. An example I’ve come across is a booklet produced by the Chalerm Krung cinema in January 1934, two years or so after this royal-funded temple of modern surfaces opened for business. Consisting of roughly thirty pages of bi-lingual texts printed on fine, thick paper, the booklet provides patrons with capsule synopses of the “coming attractions!” – “It’s a tuneful riot,” or, a particular favourite of mine, “เป็นเรื่องรักอย่างหยดย้อยเรื่องหนึ่ง” – along with a list of the stars and the production studio. That’s half the story in any case. The other half are the full page adverts promoting a fulsome array of consumer goods – Ovaltines malt drink, Lux soap, Reynold cycle chains, Camel cigarettes, Pebeco toothpaste, Seng Chong shoe maker, and the Vauxhall car.
Juxtaposed in this manner, the adverts remind us of the proximity between cinema and consumption. It also gives us a sense that from the start, in Siam as in elsewhere, the business of cinema was about making entertainment accessible to a relatively broad range of social classes and constituencies. Some of the ads in this Chalerm Krung booklet don’t bother with Thai texts at all, and instead seem to explicitly address moviegoers within the colonial and auto-colonial ecumene. Examples are the ads for Texaco Oil, Haig scotch whisky, Adet brandy, or the announcement from Badman’s store that a wonderful new selection of “Royal Danish porcelain” is obtainable at lower prices this year.
This is the only ad in the booklet that’s entirely in Thai, extolling the virtues of the Cresival brand of cough syrup. I’m amused to discover that dream palaces in Siam have also had a long history of proximity to the promotion of pharmaceutical products. The figure of the itinerant voice performer or versionist who toured rural villages during the Cold War period performing films projected on 16mm and, in between deliberately long breaks for reel change, waxed lyrical about the virtues of a particular brand of worming tablets, is now firmly established in collective memory. It has since been affectionately transformed into vibrantly coloured mythology in Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s film Monrak Transistor (2001). The Cresival ad in the booklet – hailing “you, sir, you are sick” – suggests that the strategy of pushing pills and potions at the movies took place in urban theatres before its eventual institutionalisation on the itinerant circuit.
Two more ads provide fascinating clues about the history of photography in Siam. Photography enthusiasts in the country who took up happy snapping in the days of the 35mm roll are well accustomed to brand names such as Kodak, Agfa and Fuji. But Selo Film? This brand, with its striking tin soldier logo and long rectangular box, was manufactured by a film (and camera) producing company called Ilford Limited, situated in the southeast of England. The Thai text claims that Selo Film is “fast and suited to Siam’s climate,” and exhorts potential patrons to “try it, try it.” The declamation would suggest that, at this point in the early 1930s, Selo was perhaps a new presence in the Far East and was trying the break into the Siamese market. It would be interesting to track the extent to which the appearance of this brand in Siam related to the colonial trade route linking the UK to India and beyond.
This last ad is of one of the earliest photography studios in Bangkok called ห้องฉายานรสิงห์, or the Narasingh Studio. The difference between the English and Thai language description of what it is exactly that Narasingh has to offer is illuminating. The English speaks of the studio undertaking “all kind of artistic work.” Yet the Thai, when translated back into literal English, describes what the Narasingh did in terms of “shining a light and drawing an image (ฉายและเขียนรูปภาพ).” This is often one of the most intriguing things about researching technological practices in the past. You come across what now reads like an anachronistic phrase, which leads you to try to grasp the understanding and imagination of the capacity and potential of that technology within a particular time and place. Different societies and cultural moments conceptualise new or foreign imaging technologies partly through language, and create uses for them in the context of existing ritual, performance, or artistic practices.
May Adadol Ingawanij