Saturday, July 18, 2009
Many thanks to Dornkaew, my wonderful girlfriend and a native of Phonsavan, whose invaluable help and patience made my research in Laos possible.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
It was back in 1966 that the Rachinee Theater (also known as the New Queen) first opened to the public, under the stewardship of the Sisalermsak family. When they built the Rachinee it was the second brick and concrete theater in town, and an instant competitor of the Siang Savan Theater (see two posts prior for more details). The Sisalermsaks owned two wooden theaters in town prior to the Rachinee, but they are both long gone.
On my last day in Luang Prabang I met Mr. Nophavong Sisalermsak, the son of the original owners. He helped his parents run the Rachinee for years and had a wealth of knowledge about the Laotian movie theater industry. He explained how prior to 1975 the different theaters throughout the country formed film distribution partnerships, sharing film reels within their own group. The Rachinee, for instance, had a partnership with the Vieng Samay and Odeon theaters in Vientiane, while the Siang Savan was allied with the Bua Savan and Seng Lao theaters, also in the capital.
Nophavong Sisalermsak praised the quality and reliability of the American-made Century Projectors (two above photos) that he used before the communist takeover in 1975. When diplomatic relations between Laos and America were severed, the only available projectors were USSR-made models. Nophavong lambasted these inferior machines, claiming that “they consistently burned through film and couldn’t play older movies.”
Behind a stack of bricks, the old crown in the sign leans against the Sisalermsak house. The crown stood between the words “New” and “Queen” on the top of the theater. Nophavong Sisalermsak wants to restore the old crown and return it to its original place. It would add a nice touch to the building and alert tourists to its erstwhile function.
The Rachinee stopped showing films back in 1993, after which it was transformed into a karaoke bar for a period. After UNESCO proclaimed Luang Prabang a World Heritage Site, however, the karaoke bar was deemed out of character with the French colonial/montaine Southeast Asian kingdom themes. It was ordered to shut down. The old Rachinee Theater’s most recent incarnation is as the Le Tam Tam Garden Guesthouse and Restaurant.
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Like all Laotian movie theaters, the Siang Savan was partially nationalized after 1975, under the direction of the Ministry of Culture. While the cinema of Thailand, France and America was banned from Lao silver screens, replacements were brought in from communist ally countries like Vietnam, Russia and India. Films from communist China were surprisingly absent from the film fare due to stunted relations between the two countries. The Laotian communists had been under the tutelage of the Vietnamese, who had shifted political allegiances from China to the Soviet Union – hence the lack of Chinese movies, among other things, in Laos. To be sure, Lao and Chinese relations are quite warm these days, thanks to expanded trade and often environmentally unsound infrastructure projects.
I wasn’t able to get any precise details, though rumor has it that the Siang Savan has been closed since the early 1990′s. For a brief period it was rehabbed and turned into a restaurant, trying to capitalize on the influx of tourists that Luang Prabang has received since it gained UNESCO World Heritage City status. Luang Prabang is a pretty and well-preserved town, but there is little to do once all the tourist sites have been seen. Everybody likes the movies. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a cinematic future in store for this old gem?
Siang Savan translates to heavenly sounds. Sounds heavenly to me!
Friday, July 3, 2009
The Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship was an instant personal favorite. I’ve come across numerous and sometimes architecturally attractive movie theaters while doing this research here in Southeast Asia. A handful of the old stand-alones that I’ve encountered have some pretty fascinating histories and interesting circumstances behind their inception. But this one was on another level. What makes the Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship such a noteworthy movie theater for me? Simple: it was a gift from the communist Vietnamese government to their Lao comrades in the city of Oudomxay. Much like the French giving the Statue of Liberty to the Americans, this was an act of political diplomacy, only in movie theater form. Could their possibly be a kinder act of friendship?
This testament to late Soviet era functionalist design was built in 1981, 6 years after the triumph of the Lao communists over the American-backed royalist government. Had the latter turned out the victors, Hollywood films would have rolled through Lao projectors. Instead, Russian propaganda dubbed in Lao, along with Indian and occasionally Vietnamese films were the primary features in the Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship. All theaters across the country followed this standard.
Long Live the Lao People’s Democratic Republic!Glory to the People’s Revolutionary Party Forever!
The town of Oudomxay is currently undergoing a sort of commercial and industrial renaissance thanks to an influx of mainland Chinese entrepreneurs. More than any place in peninsular Southeast Asia I’ve been to (besides a few towns on the Chinese border), Oudomxay feels like China, not the Theravada domains typical of this part of the world. The lush mountains surrounding it, dotted with ethnic Khmu and Hmong villages, tower over this gritty little city, bustling with new denizens and new life. Sadly, however, the town’s sole remaining movie theater has been dormant since 1988. The Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship now hosts a youth activities center, run by the Ministry of Culture.
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
Most of the inhabitants of Luang Namtha are Sino-Tibetan speaking peoples such as the Hmong, Akka, Lisu, Haw Chinese, as well as a sizable Tai Lue population. For centuries, these bucolic highlands have been perched well above much of mainland Southeast Asia; remote, relatively independent and very rural. It wasn’t incorporated into Laos until the French consolidated the colonial territory of Indochina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Being so remote and insular as it was for many years, you can imagine what an impact the coming of film had on the local population. Enter the Tung Savang VDO Theater.
The Tung Savang VDO was built in the early 1980′s, replacing an older wooden theater dating from some time during the French colonial period. Like all theaters in Laos, after the Communist Party came to power in 1975 the Tung Savang VDO was partially nationalized under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture.
…so much so that the ticket window had to be remodeled to protect the ticket person from the onslaught of movie-crazed crowds hoping to get seats. A builder doing some renovation work on the Tung Savang VDO recalled that as a kid movie-goers were so ecstatic to buy tickets that the ticket window would be bombarded with people throwing money, willy-nilly, in the face of the ticket seller. To create some order, two little holes, just big enough for one hand at a time to pass through were punched in the wall.
In the above photo, contractors are recalling the life and death of the Tung Savang VDO from its foyer. How it came to be called VDO is not clear, as it showed film movies while it was operating, not video. The original building was wood, so I imagine when it was rebuilt from brick and concrete in the early 1980′s it got the name VDO to keep with the most current theme.
Tung Savang was likely the family name of the original owner, but the theater now belongs to the Lao Ministry of Culture.
The Tung Savang VDO Theater has been closed since 1996, shortly after Laos began allowing slightly freer trade and the importing of TV’s.