Over the past decade, the story of Bangkok’s legendary Scala theatre has resembled the plotline of a post-war Italian Neo-Realist film. Our hero/protagonist – in this case played by the Scala itself – is a down-and-out former dignitary, trying at all costs to make it in a new world that has no place for the old, the unusual or the out-of-date. In scene after scene, our hero – clinging desperately to a shred of hope – fights against a relentless cycle of misfortune after injustice in an effort to simply exist. And just when a continued existence was starting to look like a sure thing, WHAM!, a fatal blow rocks our beloved protagonist down and out for the count.
As with most Italian Neo-Realist films, this movie ends with the audience feeling morally outraged, if not utterly hopeless. In our real life version involving the Scala, the audience is Bangkok: a cosmopolitan city in dire need of world-class venues for the arts and culture; a role that a reimagined Scala theatre could easily help fulfill.
After years of pushback against Chulalongkorn University’s plans to raze Scala in order to make room for a shopping mall, the school finally changed its tune in June 2020, just as Scala’s owner/operator, the Apex Group, announced that pandemic-related hardships would lead to the theatre going out of business the following month. Chula U’s Office of Property Management announced that it would not be demolishing the theatre, after which they opened up the bidding process to a pool of potential new operators, each eager to breathe new life into this iconic venue once Apex pulled out. At last, a just fate for Thailand’s last active movie palace seemed within reach.
But then the unthinkable happened; an ugly twist of fate worthy of the best Italian Neo-Realist dramas.
Amid the Scala’s closing ceremonies, Apex management indicated that they would be relocating Scala to another one of their properties – the Nong Nooch Tropical Garden in Pattaya. Nobody in attendance was quite certain what exactly this meant. As far those familiar with the matter were concerned, a new operator was supposedly in the process of being found.
Within a matter of weeks, demolition crews descended upon the Scala, stripping every bit of architectural splendor that had adorned the structure since its grand opening 50 years prior. A complete gut job was the end result. Like the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, Scala’s septuagenarian owners had carted away these worldly artefacts as if to be entombed with them for the eternal hereafter.
Scala has stood an empty shell ever since, with hopes for a culturally rich future all but forgotten.
A few days ago Chulalongkorn’s Office of Property Management spoke up again regarding Scala. They revealed that the original plan to make the site into a mall will indeed be coming to fruition. Central Pattana, subsidiary of the Central Group, headed by the Chirativat family, has been named the operator. They will develop the site into one of their “community malls.” Significant architectural elements of the Scala will be preserved, apparently.
The Chirativat family has plenty of capital. They rank No. 4 on Forbes’ 2021 list of Thailand’s richest. Instead of making hollow gestures of appeasement by preserving a bit of Scala’s architecture, they should further bolster their own cultural capital. They can do that by properly restoring the Scala as a film/arts center. Yes, it might have been gutted beyond recognition, but the entire structure still stands intact. What has been lost in ornamentation can and should be recreated. Improved upon, even. Moreover, there is plenty of surrounding retail space in the Scala complex that can function as the community mall component. But the primary community that Scala should be serving is Bangkok’s film community.
What ever happened to the notion of tycoons also being philanthropists, arts patrons and cultural benefactors to the cities they reside in? In Bangkok, this facet of high society seems to be woefully absent.
Philip Jablon is a freelance writer and photographer. He is the author of Thailand’s Movie Theatre: Relics, Ruins and the Romance of Escape.