Sala Chalermkrung and the History of Early Thai Cinema

The iconic Art Deco style Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre in Bangkok, is a well known landmark built by King Prajadhipok (Rama VII). But the story of early cinema in Thailand and how it was that Thailand’s king came to build a popular theatre is now largely forgotten.

Bangkok’s Early Cinemas

Cinema history is generally regarded as beginning on 28th December 1895 when the Lumière brothers publicly screened ten very short movies (About 40 to 50 seconds duration each) in Paris. Just 18 months after this historic event, on 10th June 1897, a travelling showman S.G. Marchovsky screened two films at a Bangkok playhouse owned by Prince Alangkan near modern day Sam Yod junction on Chaloemkrung Road. About 600 people paid to watch these movies, one about a deep sea diver, the other of a boxing match. Movies had arrived in Thailand.

metal plaque
A plaque today commemorates the location of the first film screenings in Bangkok
(photo by jackonflickr)

Despite this promising start nothing much then happened until October 1904 when a Japanese businessman Watanabe Tomoyori arrived in Bangkok. Over the next few months he screened movie shows in a large tent holding up to 1000 people. His films mainly comprised a mix of films about the Japanese army’s recent successes or views of Japanese cultural life. The screenings were such a success that he returned a year later and built a timber barn like structure where his tent had previously stood near Sam Yot Gate. Bangkok had its first cinema.

old wooden cinema
The Japanese Cinematograph, Bangkok’s first permanent cinema opened by Watanabe Tomoyori, November 1905

Watanabe now began to screen popular French films such as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The cinema was a huge commercial success and other entrepreneurs soon began opening cinemas in both Bangkok and the provinces to cash in on this new phenomenon. Most notable was Pathanakorn Film Company, established by Sino-Thai merchants and managed by Siaw S’onguan Sibunr’ung, which later merged with its main rival to become the Siam Cinema Company.

The 1902 production of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was one of the earliest movies screened in Bangkok by the Japanese Cinema

The new cinemas created a whole new social space in Thailand and broke down previously rigid social rules. The elite classes sat near the working classes. Women mingled with men. The European movies showed modes of dress, interaction between the sexes and other social behaviours that spread new perceptions of what it meant to be “modern”.

Egalitarian as this new social space may have been, a visit to the cinema was not always for the faint-hearted. Many cinemas were notorious for their chaos and squalor. Cinema owners saw no reason to limit ticket sales to the number of seats available and scuffles would ensue as standing patrons blocked the view of those seated. Harassment of women by men was commonplace. Beggars, pick-pockets and prostitutes all found this new environment a profitable space to ply their trades. Rats and other vermin were abundant whilst toilets were not considered a necessity so the stench of urine (or worse) in the aisles was a frequent complaint.

And yet despite all this Thais flocked to the cinema in their thousands. By 1924 a British adviser to the government could comment that “every town or village of any size of importance can boast of its ‘film palace’, usually a precarious erection of cheap planking and corrugated iron.”

old cinema building
The Sala Chaloem Thani theatre, shown here undergoing long need renovation in 2019, is one of the last remaining examples of Bangkok’s hugely popular early cinemas

Royal Interest

King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) had long taken an interest in photography and during his trip to Europe in 1897 he was introduced to the new technology of motion pictures. He in fact became the first Thai to ever be recorded on film during his visit to Berne, Switzerland, on 25th May 1897. The king purchased his own cine equipment and by 1900 was making his own movies, some of which were shown in 1903 at a screening at the Oriental Hotel.

But it is the king’s younger brother Prince Sanphasat Suphakit who is credited with producing the first ever Thai film in 1900 which documented the king’s activities. Several of King Chulalongkorn’s sons also took an active interest in film, notably Prince Purachatra and Prince Prajadhipok (Later to become King Rama VII, r.1925 – 35). By the 1920’s 16mm film had become available which both princes used prolifically for home movies.

Prince Purachatra’s role as head of the railways department led to the creation of the Royal Siamese Railways Film Unit in 1922 which over the following ten years produced newsreel type films using mobile units on the railways. Many of those trained in this film unit later became key people in the emerging private film companies.

A State Railways of Thailand documentary about the northern railway line
(After opening credits dating from c.1960 the film cuts to much older footage from c.1930’s)

Prajadhipok built himself a private cinema and film processing lab within Sukhothai Palace. He owned more than ten different cine cameras and as king he established the Amateur Film Makers Association of Siam which had about over hundred members from Bangkok’s upper society. One of his most notable films was The Magic Ring shot in 1929 in Koh Phang-ngan. This is now the earliest complete Thai film known to exist.

The Magic Ring filmed by King Rama VII is the earliest complete Thai film to still survive

King Prajadhipok unwittingly promoted the birth of a native film industry when at the start of his reign he responded to economic recession by retrenching some ten thousand government officials. One group of these officials went on to establish the Thai Film Company to “produce Siamese films with Siamese actors and actresses in Siamese stories”. In response the Siam Cinema Company established a competing Bangkok Film Company who in fact won the race to premier the first Thai produced commercial movie, a romance called “Double Chance” in July 1927.

Surviving scenes of the first fully Thai produced movie “Double Chance”

The king took his interest beyond just a hobby and in the early 1930’s established the United Cinema Company which imported and distributed mainly American movies. His timing for this venture took advantage of the opportunity created by new “talkie” movies coming from America which required expensive investment in new equipment by the existing cinema companies, some of which failed to survive the transition.

It was in this period of intense interest in film by all sectors of society that King Prajadhipok decided on two projects to commemorate the 150th anniversary celebrations of the founding of both Bangkok and the Chakri dynasty; construction of Memorial Bridge and construction of Sala Chalermkrung cinema, its name meaning “Pavilion to celebrate the Capital”.

Sala Chalermkrung

Sala Chalermkrung was designed to be both a symbol of modernity and the finest cinema in Asia, which reputedly the king financed with 9,000,000 baht of his own money[1]. This was a huge amount of money; for comparison the budget for Memorial Bridge was just 2,880,000 baht. In this new era the Renaissance architectural style, which had been so popular during King Chulalongkorn’s reshaping of urban Bangkok, was left behind. A young Thai architect Mom Chao Samaichaloem Kridakorn was appointed who designed the cinema in modernist Art Deco style.

building under construction
Sala Chalerm Theatre under construction in the early 1930’s

Construction began on 1st July 1930 at the corner of Charoenkrung Road and Tripet Road, then the heart of Bangkok’s busiest commercial district. A Thai engineer Phraya Prakopyantrakit (Yon Yaiprayun) designed the lighting and sound system, for this cinema was designed from the start to bring the new technology of “talkie” movies to Bangkok audiences. The neon lights displaying the name Chalermkrung on top of the theatre were the largest in Asia. Air-conditioning was installed, another first for an Asian cinema. The main auditorium could seat 1,500 in comfort whilst a second smaller auditorium could seat 350. There were also VIP screening rooms which could be reached directly by lift from a private entrance on the southern side.

sala chalermkrung opening day
Huge crowds gathered at the grand opening of Sala Chalermkrung in 1933

The cinema opened on 2nd July 1933, attracting a crowd so huge that trams along Charoenkrung Road were stopped. This opening took place a year after the revolution that had ended the era of absolute monarchy and King Prajadhipok, the cinema’s sponsor, did not attend the opening. The debut movie on that first day was Below the Sea, a B-Grade Hollywood movie which was probably only saved from sinking without trace by its lead actress Faye Wray who starred that same year in King Kong.

original movie poster
The opening movie at Sala Chalermkrung was an under-sea adventure starring Faye Wray

Sala Chalermkrung Today

Sala Chalermkrung set a new standard for Thailand’s cinema’s and ushered in the new era of talkie movies. After World War II modern air-conditioned cinemas sprung up throughout the rapidly expanding city of Bangkok as well as throughout Thailand’s provinces. These were the golden years for Thai cinema but Sala Chalermkrung itself fell into decline. But in 1992 major renovations were carried out and the stage was upgraded and expanded, reduced seating to 600. Reopened as Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre the regular program today focuses on performances of traditional Thai khon masked dance for tourists.

sala chalermkrung main stage
The main stage at Sala Chalermkrung today has been expanded and now traditional khon masked dance performances are shown daily

For some visitors however, the chance to see inside this iconic Art Deco building is as exciting as the stage show itself.

Where to Go

When to Go

Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre is located at 66 Charoen Krung Rd just a 250m walk from Sam Yot MRT station.

The theatre is open daily from 10.00am to 6.00pm with five khon performances each day. Tickets can be purchased in advanced by calling 02-224-4499.

Notes

[1] This figure of 9,000,000 baht of the king’s personal wealth is frequently quoted. It is mentioned on the website of Sala Chalermkrung and also in A.J.Klemm’s thesis (Ref 2 and 4 below). In contrast Scot Barmé states that “[the king] set aside 300,000 baht of state funds for construction of a modern state-of-the-art theater” (Ref 1 below). This seems like a much more reasonable amount to build a cinema. I am unclear on the reason for these widely divergent sums even when allowing for the possible confusion between state and royal monies at this time.

References

  1. “Woman, Man, Bangkok”. Scot Barmé, Silkworm books 2002
  2. “Modernisation of Building: The Transplantation of the Concept of Architecture from Europe to Thailand, 1930s–1950s”. Chomchon Fusinpaiboon. PhD Thesis, University of Sheffield, UK, 2014.
  3. “The Beginnings of European Filmmaking in Siam”. Alexander J. Klemm. Webster University Thailand, Bangkok. 2019.
  4. http://www.salachalermkrung.com/
  5. Thai Film Archive http://www.fapot.org/en/home.php

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