How the quest to protect vintage movie palaces could make Myanmar cities more livable


Myanmar’s vintage, standalone cinemas are the subject of a documentary project by photographer Philip Jablon and a renovation campaign by Mingalar Cinemas. These efforts may hold the key to preserving the country’s walkable urban cores.

For almost a decade, Philadelphia-native Philip Jablon has been taking photos of vintage, standalone cinemas around Myanmar, hoping to popularize the notion that these old buildings are national treasures. His quest has been a bit like that of Nicholas Cage’s character in the 2004 movie “National Treasure” in that his personal obsession with a long-gone moment in history is unearthing truths he hadn’t previously imagined.

In some ways, they value of old cinemas is obvious: They’re architecturally dramatic, they’re increasingly rare, and they represent a time when Myanmar’s future looked brighter than ever.

Most of Myanmar’s surviving standalone cinemas (Jablon estimates there are around 60) were built within the short window of democracy between independence in 1948 and General Ne Win’s coup in 1962. During that window, privately-owned, uniquely designed cinemas connected Myanmar people to each other and to the rest of the world, with both Hollywood hits and homegrown productions laying common ground for viewers of all ages.

San Pya Cinema in Magwe.

“There’s no building that has a greater historic, cultural, nostalgic allure than these old movie theaters,” Jablon told Coconuts just before he embarked on his most recent documentation trip last month. “These are the main meeting places for communities. You want to talk about globalization? The cinema in the 20th century is the epicenter of globalization because the movies that people are seeing around the world are inspiring ideas and concepts that would never have been introduced otherwise, or at least not on such a mass scale.”

After Ne Win’s quasi-socialist, isolationist government nationalized most cinemas and imposed censorship on films in the late 1960s, the film industry declined, but the buildings themselves were protected. Only when Myanmar’s economy was re-exposed to the whims of the market, starting in 2011, did its vintage cinemas come under threat. Nearly two dozen have been destroyed to make way for hotels, office buildings, and shopping malls in the years since.

Jablon launched his Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project to protect these historic structures for their own sake. What he did not predict was that the effort would also become a crusade to liberate Myanmar’s cities and towns from the shackles of car dependency, sprawl, and capital’s relentless hunt for outlets.

Tun Thiri Cinema in Pyay, Bago Region.

Before Myanmar’s economy opened up, he said, “you had these old towns that kept their own traditional commercial cores, and those included cinemas. There wasn’t a huge rise in private automobile use for many years, which is one of the main factors that causes these towns to change. So, a lot of that old infrastructure and architecture was left intact.

“But now that the country has opened up, and cars are coming in, selling like hot cakes around the country, people’s lifestyles have started to change, cities have started to sprawl outward, and a lot of these old commercial zones are under threat.”

The 38-year-old photographer describes the decline of walkable urban cores as a “largely overlooked fact in the decline of the grand movie palace.” If hundreds of people are driving to the cinema, they need to be able to find parking before their movie is scheduled to start. This forces car-dependent cities to favor theaters embedded in shopping malls with giant parking structures over the vintage, standalone variety. Once built, these shopping malls perpetuate the city’s car-dependency, diminishing every other quality of urban life.

San Pya Cinema, Yangon.

“Studying cinemas has led me to the conclusion that cars and car use are really the enemy of urban sustainability,” he said. “If everything is done in cars, the expenditure of resources and the accompanying reshaping of downtowns to accommodate people driving everywhere – it’s more than just a loss of a certain kind of charm. It’s a loss of community. And it’s just not sustainable.”

This is the case not just in the towns across Myanmar where Jablon has documented old theaters, but in Yangon as well.

“Ten years ago, in Yangon, there were a fraction of the cars we have now, the sidewalks were double the width they are now. I was absent from the city for about six years, and I came back and was like, holy shit, this sucks,” he said.

Luckily, in the years he had been absent, other people caught on to the importance of standalone cinemas to a city’s livability. Among them are the owners of Mingalar Cinemas, which has recently embarked on a campaign to buy up and renovate standalone movie theaters across the country. When Jablon told them about his documentation project, they agreed to sponsor his most recent trip, during which he documented 24 theaters.

Beyin Cinema in Mawlamyine, Mon State.

“They’re buying them, sinking money into them, putting digital projection into them. Ripping out the ancient, charming, but not very comfortable teak wood seats and replacing them with modern movie theater seats. Kind of just making them into modern movie theaters, but as much as possible, respecting the integrity of the original architecture,” Jablon said about the company. “They do it not just because they think it’s good business but because they really have an affinity for these buildings. They understand the social importance of them.”

(We reached out to the general manager of Mingalar Cinemas to let him describe the project in his own words, but he did not respond.)

Jablon believes the renovations will revitalize towns all over Myanmar, encourage planning that keeps urban cores dense, and give residents something to be proud of.

“For people to see investment in these iconic buildings that have been around for generations will reinvigorate people’s local identities and sense of place, rather than just bending to the logic of sprawl and the car and the shopping mall, which is pretty homogenous around the world,” he said.

Beyin Cinema in Mawlamyine, Mon State.

As for him, he hopes to continue raising awareness about the value of vintage buildings and the lessons they bear for modern life.

“My dream, my fantasy, is to have some sort of travel TV show where, instead of just going to typical historic sites, I unearth unique, old architecture that’s under threat – that might not be very well-known,” he said. He recently launched an online fundraiser for a documentary film he plans to produce about his years of chasing standalone theaters in Southeast Asia.

With three weeks to go, the fundraiser is nearly halfway toward achieving its THB250,00 (US$8,000) goal. Most of the donors have been Western or Thai, but, arguably, Myanmar would be the most realistic beneficiary of the awareness the documentary would generate.

“Myanmar’s towns are still very dense in the core. Sprawl is not such a problem. There’s a ton of individual, local entrepreneurship,” Jablon said. “In much of the developed world now, there’s a strong push toward bringing these urban circumstances back into existence – getting rid of your car, supporting local businesses, preserving antique architecture rather than building these megastructures. So, in a sense, Myanmar has a unique advantage if it realizes what it has.”

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One thought on “How the quest to protect vintage movie palaces could make Myanmar cities more livable

  1. Fantastic article. I’ve been following Phil’s project for a while, and recently contributed to his campaign on Asiola. I hope others do also, so this documentary can become a reality!

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