Not Just A Cinema
The recent furore over the proposed closure of the two classic cinemas located in Siam Square has gotten me thinking about what those places mean to me. Having just written that, I’ve realized that a good number of readers will have no idea what
I am talking about.
In brief, there are two wonderfully retro cinemas located in Siam Square, directly across from Siam Paragon. A few weeks ago it was announced that there were potential plans afoot to knock down them down and replace them with that rarest of Bangkok beasts, a mall. When I heard this news, my heart sank.
I’ve been a frequent visitor to both of these locations over the last few years. Although I go to the Lido when something that I particularly want to see is on, it is the Scala that holds a place in my heart. There is so much to appreciate at that venue that it would be a crying shame if it were to be pulled down in order to make way for yet another mall. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the plush luxury of the cinemas at the Emporium and Paragon as much as anyone else. It is just that you get a bit of character at those two old relics.
What do I appreciate about this place? First of all, the architecture. It is so gloriously late 60s that you want to turn up dressed like a Beatle. That remarkable chandelier almost deserves to have a listed status all by itself. The sweeping staircase up to the main floor is like something out of a Busby Berkeley movie, and the lobby, being open-air, is uncompromisingly free of air-conditioning. I like the fact that the ticket sellers cross out your seat on a paper chart, something I have never seen anywhere else. I relish the grumpiness of the stewards, elderly men decked out in jackets and bow-ties (they remind me of the staff at another location, but that’ll be for a different posting). No doubt many of the staff members have been there man and boy. The chairs have seen better days, and it’s probably for the best that you can’t see too much in the dark. I appreciate that they show films in the middle of Bangkok that are not just the usual multiplex fodder. In short, the Scala is an embassy representing old school charm in a city that greatly values the new and modern. Where else would be the only place that I have met one of the few people that I consider to be a true Bangkok personality?
I was hanging around in the lobby, waiting for the stewards to open the door for my screening. It was the evening movie on Saturday night. Standing against the railing was a small old man, his trousers hiked up high around his waist. Around his neck he wore a distinctive gold medallion of some type. Although he gets less well known with every passing year, many of you will still recognize this description as being of the Nite Owl, Bernard Trink. I was just deciding whether I should go over and say hello when two Vietnam veteran type Americans spotted him and beat me to it, making me lose my nerve. When the doors opened I trudged in, bashing myself for being bashful. After the movie ended I made my usual trip to the toilet, and made for the exit. Standing alone in the corner, looking at the movie posters, was Trink. I plucked up the courage to go up to him to enquire if he really was the man. In reply, he simply smiled and patted me on the shoulder. I told him that I had enjoyed his columns when he was writing them and quickly left him alone. A very small encounter, but I’m pleased that I managed it. The only time I’ve ever seen the Nite Owl in more than 10 years of going to Thailand.
I have to say, however, that I’ve been waiting for the hammer to fall in this particular regard ever since I started going there. The land is just in too prime a location for it to have been ignored forever. I always got the impression that the owners were just biding their time, as there was no way that they were maximizing their earning potential with a few dozen 100 baht tickets sold for the prime time performance. I was told that the cinemas were owned by a wealthy Thai family, and this is true. It emerged, however, that it was actually Chulalongkorn University that was in the driving seat, as it owns Siam Square in its entirety. This is actually a beneficial point in the perhaps imminent campaign to save the cinemas. The powers that be certainly wouldn’t listen to the pleas of farangs when deciding what to do with it. Your average Thai wouldn’t give a toss what they do with them, as they’ll never have been there. Why would they, given that they only show farang films, and often arty ones at that? The only constituent group that the University may listen to is that of the urbane, worldly Thai. Despite the down-market appearance of the cinemas, they appear to have become something of a destination for the more cultured citizen. It is gratifying to see them finally object to something, judging by the chatter I see on the internet. Many of this lot may be graduates of Chulalongkorn, and hopefully they will have enough muscle to flex to make sure that the development doesn’t go ahead. Another thing that may help is an increased attendance. If you’ve never heard of these cinemas before, I urge you to take your teeruk along there for a change, however much she may kick and scream about it. Let her imbibe some culture for once! It’s for her own good, as you may be helping to save some buildings that are a tiny but essential part of Bangkok culture.
I am in 110% total agreement with everything you say! Boy oh boy, does this strike a chord!
These two cinemas, but especially Scala, are a piece of Bangkok history in a city where so much of the history is of a religious matter, not in the entertainment industry. These cinemas have been much loved by 3 generations of Thais and really are the crown jewel in Siam Square. From the lobby of Scala with its chandeliers, staircases and Thai murals, to the yellow jackets the ushers wear to the toilet entry and lighting, it all takes us back to a different era, a time when the world was a very different place. When it comes to nostalgia in Bangkok, it's Scala that I think of!
I used to watch movies exclusively at these two cinemas in my first 5 years in Bangkok as I lived walking distance away. Even today I prefer to go there over modern multiplexes even if it means traipsing across town to get there.
My first job, while still at school, was in a classic old cinema built 60 years earlier that was a national heritage protected building, one of the finest cinemas of its type in the world. As such, I developed an interest in older cinemas which are, sadly, a dying breed today.
I truly hope that these cinemas stay on. They really are a big part of Bangkok history, and amongst my very favourite places in all of Bangkok.
Oh yeah, Trink can be seen there often. The first time I ever saw him was also there….and like you, I didn't have the courage to introduce myself!