Demolition of the Siam Theatre

Pent-up anger fueled the flames of arson when forty days of anti-government protests ended on May 19 with the surrender by protest leaders to the police.  The crowds that had blocked one of Bangkok’s main intersections for more than a month dispersed but before they did, violent elements in the crowd set fire to several buildings around the city in what appeared to be a deliberate and preplanned attack. 

In addition to more than 80 people killed and 2100 injured during the protests, one of the victims of the arson attack was the the 44-year old Siam Theatre, which was one of only two remaining single-screen first run cinemas in Thailand’s capital.

Photo courtesy Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project

Opened in 1966 in Siam Square, one of the first shopping areas in what is now the nexus of Bangkok’s lively Ratchaprasong shopping district, the Siam Theatre along with its sister complex, the Scala, were a reminder of a bygone era.  Tickets were still paper and you chose your seats from a photocopied seating chart, which the ticket cashier then dutifully crossed out with a pen.  The ushers, uncles that seemed to have been working at the theatres since the very opening, dressed in black slacks, white shirts, and yellow jackets.


In the aftermath of the fire, the bulldozers have moved in and started to demolish the burned out shell and surrounding shops.  The property owner, adjacent Chulalongkorn University, has long held a master plan to redevelop this area into a more modern shopping complex as they did just down the block a year ago.  Their good fortune, then, that this damage paved the way for the master plan to be implemented.


One wonders why we need another mall in a neighborhood (and an entire city) that is teeming with them.  Siam Square and the Siam Theatre were unique elements of the city and were especially important to teenage and university life.  As I understand it from my friends who grew up in Bangkok, hanging out in Siam Square was a rite of passage in that period of life where you transition from childhood to adulthood.  Another few blocks of those memories have been razed.

Thankfully, the Scala Theatre and the nearby Lido three-plex, both operated and owned by the same family that owned the Siam Theatre, continue to operate.


Beauty Literally Melts Away

In the aftermath of the May political protests and the two days of rioting and fires that followed, certain parts of the city showed the scars of this violence, despite efforts by business and civic leaders to clean up and put on a fresh face.  One area in particular where these scars still showed was the shops in the eastern section of Siam Square, a popular shopping destination in the heart of Bangkok.  Until just a few weeks ago – more than two months after the protests – this sign from a skin care clinic remained unreplaced.


I saw it while walking from the Siam Skytrain station and found it very evocative of the Buddhist teaching that everything is impermanent, our beauty as well as our bodies.

Just a week or so ago, I passed by again and noticed that the clinic has put a new sign up and is, it seems, back in business.  In this most Buddhist of countries, you can once again test the precepts of your faith and see if beauty can be made permanent.


Biking through the Protest Aftermath

This morning I pulled out my bicycle and, figuring that five days had been enough time to wait, pedaled my way to the various spots that had been affected during the Red Shirts’ protest and the subsequent riots and arson. 

At 8:00 on a Sunday the streets were very quiet although there were others out.  For closed off sections of road, there were a surprising number of sightseers there to absorb the unimaginable.  This raised a question that has crossed my mind many times in the past two months: where were the police?

All in all, there is quite a mess.  The damage is a little less extensive than my wild imagination had feared after seeing selected pictures shown again and again last Wednesday while the city was burning.  But it is still a mess.  Everywhere that the protesters had burned barricades made of tyres, there is a thick layer of burned rubber, a slick that has permeated the asphalt.  Plants and landscaping are destroyed, the same fate suffered by every police box in the area.

Please let me share some photos and video with you.  The commentary may sound a little pro-government, when in fact I don’t align particularly with any side in this conflict.  But after seeing my city heavily damaged, largely by outsiders who claimed to be peaceful, I’m a bit jaded.

My first stop was the Chidlom intersection.  You can see the Chidlom Skytrain station and are looking down Ploenchit Road towards Siam Square.  There was a very large barricade here that was torched.  There are large scorch marks on the underside of the Skytrain station and you can see that the traffic lights melted.  The ground by the looted police box is slick with the residue of burned rubber.

The same intersection from the other side, with Soi Lang Suan running off to the back right of the picture.  This was the largest contingent of troops I saw.  Many soldiers seemed to be assigned to clean-up duty but this bunch was armed and definitely doing security.  The curfew is still day-to-day but the hours are being shortened.  What started at 8 pm – 6 am is now something like 11 pm – 5 am and will hopefully be lifted in the next few days.

The Ratchaprasong intersection.  Ploenchit-Rama I runs left to right through the picture.  Straight ahead is Rajadamri Road heading towards Lumpini Park and Silom.  On the back right of the picture is the police headquarters.  Would you like to ask the obvious question?  How in the world was a protest of tens of thousands of people that lasted 40+ days allowed to happen right in front of the nation’s police headquarters?  Were there no officers around to put a stop to it when it first started?

The answers lies in the complex politics of Thailand’s military and security services: it has been reported that there are many factions within the police, several of which are loyal to the former Prime Minister.

The Skytrain started running today and will be back to a full schedule starting Monday.  The only station not open is Rajadamri due to damage to the station.

Gaysorn Plaza, on the Ratchaprasong corner, appeared to not have sustained much damage.  Louis Vuitton, in particular, seems to have come through unscathed.  Given the number of LV knock-offs sold in Thailand, I can only imagine that the shop was saved only by its immense popularity, even among Red Shirts.

The collapsed section of Central World Plaza, which was still smoldering.  This is in the Atrium section, a part of the mall that was new construction since I moved here.  The right half of the mall is expected to be reopened within six months but this portion and to the left will have to be completely razed and rebuilt.

Doesn’t that look like more damage than would be caused by a couple of Molotov Cocktails?  Sure enough, the authorities report finding at least one compressed gas cylinder amid the debris.  At the nearby Four Seasons hotel, it is reported that several cylinders were found, wired to make a bomb.

Along the Rama I side of Central World, you can see the extensive damage to the Zen department store.  No word as to whether the high-rise portion was affected, but I cannot imagine how the structure could not have sustained damage.

Down the street in Siam Square the damage was also extensive.  Of the six or seven soi (alleys) in Siam Square, it appears that two suffered extensive damage.  This building is on the corner of Rama I and Henri Dunant Roads.

I had originally heard that both the Siam and Scala theatres, the last two independent single-screen cinemas in Bangkok, had burned.  Thankfully the Scala, architecturally the more interesting of the two, survived unscathed.

However, the building housing the Siam, as well as dozens of small, owner operated shops, was destroyed.  This area is immediately below the Siam Skytrain station, directly across from Siam Paragon mall.

Extensive damage to many shops.

There are still some coils of razor wire here and there.  This is at the Payathai – Rama I intersection across from MBK Mall.  These appear to be awaiting clean-up and are not part of any current security operation.

The Metropolitan Electric Authority office in Khlong Toei along Rama IV Road (between the expressway and Asoke-Ratchadapisek Road) was completely destroyed.  There are still sections of this generally poor neighborhood that are without electricity.

The good news is that there was an important sign of the city coming together this morning, a volunteer clean up effort which drew at least 1,000 people to Lumpini Park and the Silom-Saladaeng neighborhood.  The name of the event: Together We Can.

Okay, I’m ready to put this topic aside for now and move on to other things.

The Day After the Fires

Thursday evening, the second night under curfew has started.  The government has announced that these will last through the weekend.  There were very few reported incidents today apart from a brief confrontation between about 100 protesters and a few police officers up near Victory Monument, and an arson attack on another bank branch.  Relatively speaking, things are calm both here in Bangkok and in the provinces.

To be certain, no long-term fix has been found to the political situation.  But for now, at least, things are calmer.

Lines around lunchtime at the local Villa Market were twenty deep as residents of the Thong Lor neighborhood and beyond rushed to stock up on supplies.  With all the malls closed and many of the supermarkets, the Villa Markets in the mid-Sukhumvit area have been some of the few proper supermarkets that are open.  We are stocked up enough to get us through the weekend.

This afternoon, Ajarn Yai, the retired school director pictured below for whom I volunteered as an English teacher a few years ago, called and expressed her concern.  Her worry?  How bad these events will make Thailand and the Thais look in the eyes of the world.  She wants everyone to know that this isn’t Thailand and this is not how Thai people are.  So there you have it, from her lips to your screen.


One of the most useful sources of information in the past 48 hours has been Michael Yon, the freelance American writer, photograph, and former Green Beret.  With loads of war zone experience he has been reporting from Bangkok and has provided a near-continuous stream of information and updates through his Facebook page.  Hundreds of locals have started following and commenting on his feed as he has provided a unique insight both in terms of quantity and also in terms of providing his military knowledge.

Best of all, he has been very generous in giving permission to people to use his photos.  All he asks for is attribution and a link to his page.  Here are some pictures:

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Northeast corner of Rama IV and Ratchadamri looking down Rama IV towards Sathorn.  Lumpini Park in the foreground with Silom subway entrance visible.  The large barricade has been removed and there is a small army of city workers who have been cleaning the park.  Still a lot of debris and damage to the pavement.

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Damage to shops (possible a bank?) at Siam Square.  On the far right of the picture is Siam BTS Skytrain station.  From what I’ve heard, both the Siam and Scala cinemas were destroyed.  Many small shops were also destroyed, ruining the livelihoods of the independent owners of those businesses.

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Michael and a Thai reporter he was traveling with spoke with one of those owners, who went into her shop trying to salvage inventory.  As you can see, things are pretty well destroyed here.  Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) reports that because of the damage, the buildings that house the cinemas and shops (Siam Square Sois 5 and 6) will likely need to be demolished.

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Damage at Central World.  This is the front side, the Zen department store that faces Rama I road.  From what Michael reports, it looks like the damage was limited mostly to the department store and this end of the mall.  The remainder of the mall looks like it might be okay.

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Same building but around the corner looking back towards Rama I Road and Siam Square.  The central structure of the department store collapsed after the fire.  BMA also says that because of the extent of damage, this structure will need to be demolished.  Now, the reports are that the BMA is saying that Central World will have to be demolished, which I would interpret as the entire mall.  However, this doesn’t seem to jive with the firsthand reports from Michael so we’ll have to wait and see what the truth is over the days and weeks to come.

The seven-story Big C superstore and mall across the street from Central World also was destroyed by fire and will need to be torn down.  The first floor or two of that is filled with small, independently-owned shops.  Anger vented at “elites” managed to do more damage to “common people” than anything else.

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Finally, not from Michael’s website but floating around from various Thai bloggers, this picture that compares a clip from Resident Evil 4 to the real skyline of Bangkok yesterday.  The film shows downtown Los Angeles, the other City of Angels, on fire.  Eerie, isn’t it?


Rak Haeng Siam Resonates

poster2am0 I’ve been sitting on this entry for two months, waiting for the right opportunity to write it.  This entry is about the Thai movie Rak Haeng Siam (Love of Siam), a drama/romance/coming of age story that was a bit of a surprise hit here in Thailand back in November and December.  As with all movies here, it came and went quickly and – with the exception of a “Director’s Cut” that has been sold out for weeks in advance exclusively at the House RCA cinema – it is out of the consciousness of most Thai moviegoers.

The movie really struck a chord with some moviegoers, particularly the gay men, as it told a story that we rarely see: that of teenagers who are wrestling with their sexual identities.  After watching the 200-minute director’s version of the film on Monday, I’m ready to write about this movie.  Apologies in advance if this post is lengthy.


Love of Siam is two stories: that of the friendship and budding love of two secondary school boys, and that of the disintegration of one of the boy’s family, the result of the disappearance of his older sister on a family trip to Chiang Mai a few years earlier.

It is a notable film on many counts:

  • As a drama, it is a rarity in Thai cinema, filled as it is with audiences who prefer dumb comedies, ghost stories, and dumb comedic ghost stories. 
  • At two-and-a-half hours in length, the film is almost twice the length of the average Thai film, pushing the attention span of most Thai moviegoers. 
  • As a film that treats the gay characters in the story sympathetically, it stands apart from the frequent depiction of gays in Thai culture as either transsexuals, effeminate queens, or effeminate transsexual queens. 
  • As a depiction of a family of Thai Christians, it is probably the first Thai film ever to have a Christmas nativity scene.
  • Finally, it addresses issues of teenage gays – something that is rarely addressed in the cinema of any country.


The Main Storyline

love of siam 9 There are several subplots but the basic story follows the fortunes of two childhood friends, Mew and Tong, who are neighbors in their primary school years.  Tong and his parents move away after Tong’s sister Tang goes missing on a trip to Chiang Mai, leading his father into an alcoholic depression and his family into disintegration.  Mew and Tong cross paths again during their senior year in secondary school.  This meeting rekindles old feelings and the two are left to sort out what these feelings mean, especially against the conflict of Tong’s family situation.

If you want to read the plot in greater detail, I’ve included it at the bottom of this entry.  Hopefully, you’ll have the opportunity to watch the movie for yourself.  I’m under the impression that the director is actively seeking distribution internationally and I’m sure it will play in at least some film festivals and maybe art cinemas in some of the larger cities.


Impact in Thailand

This film was a modest success – number one opening week, number two the second week, and then falling off from there.  As the director’s third commercial film, and a huge departure from the more mainstream films he did before, it caught everyone by surprise.  The advertising – both the poster and the trailer – didn’t play up the gay aspect of the story, to which the director later admitted that they wanted to get a bigger audience than they would have had they been as up front about the plot.

Here’s the trailer.  Even though it is in Thai, I think you’ll agree after watching it that it leaves the orientation of the main characters’ love in question.

There was a great deal of talk on message boards and elsewhere in Thailand about this film.  Equally loud were those who were moved by the film and those who felt duped by it.

10861439_gal For some of the audience, particularly the gay men, this film spoke to their experiences in a way that nothing else they’ve ever seen has.  One of Kobfa’s friends sobbed through the entire film, his family experience (minus the missing sister) is so close to the one depicted in the movie.  Tawn said afterwards that it was filled with touchstones of his coming-of-age experience: hanging out at Siam Square; sharing an ice cream sundae at Swenson’s with the guy he had a crush on; having chaste affairs in which holding hands for a few moments was as intimate as things would get.

Judging by the crowds at the different screenings I attended, there is a new generation of young gay men in their secondary school and university years, who are growing up with at least this one image of their experience being shown in the media.  Someone who looks like them, some life that looks similar to their own, now is validated in the popular culture.  It exists!  They exist!


The Impact on Me

Of course, the story has greater relevance than just in Thailand.  While I grew up in a completely different culture, the film still resonates deeply with me.  I recall the crushes I had in secondary school, the boys my age for whom I had feelings that I couldn’t find the words for.  “Respect”, “admiration”… these were the impotent ways in which I tried to rationalize what I felt.

I remember taking a field trip with one of the school organizations and in a hotel room with three other students, shared a bed with one of the boys I felt so strongly about.  Lying just a matter of inches away and wanting so badly to reach out to him, but not being able to – that memory jumped back to life when watching this movie, a memory so vivid of an emotion so strong: feeling love but not being able to name it.

To this day, whenever I see young people including my friends’ children and my own two nieces, I wonder if they will be able to grow up feeling confident enough, loved enough, to be whoever they are and to feel love for whomever they do, without feeling afraid and unable to name it.  It is one thing to love someone in an unrequited fashion – a theme addressed in a subplot of the movie – and quite another thing to have a love that may be shared but be unable to speak it, possibly even unable to know the words necessary to describe it to yourself let alone to the person for whom you feel those feelings.

Watching Love of Siam was particularly powerful for me, because I didn’t grow up with any reference points or role models on which to base my feelings.  Despite having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I don’t have any recollection of seeing a gay person or a gay character anywhere, anytime before I graduated from secondary school.  Certainly, by the point when I was beginning to recognize that I was different from most of the boys, I didn’t have the vocabulary available to me to understand those differences.  To that standpoint, I am envious of the gay boys growing up in Khrungthep.  At least now they have Love of Siam to help put words to those feelings, if indeed they were in need of a vocabulary – which I suspect they aren’t.

I know there have been some other films (including a German one, I recall) that addressed gay teens in the storyline.  But surely in a world where many people are underrepresented, gay teens are highest among those, since they cut across both sexes and all religions, races and countries.  Hopefully for more young people who are struggling with who they are, there will be images that positively validate that they are okay.  (I’m sure the fundamentalists will love that.  Glad I’m not running for elective office.)


For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, wanting more details, or realizing that you might never get a chance to see it, I offer you a more detailed plot summary.  Warning: This contains spoilers.

The Plot in Greater Detail – Warning: Spoilers

love of siam 02 Mew (below right) is the child who is picked on at school, his classmates having already identified him as likely being gay even in his primary school years.  Artistic and musically inclined, Mew’s grandmother is his best friend and she teaches him to play a song that his grandfather used to play on the piano for her, and tells him that she hopes that someday he will love someone so much that he writes a song for them.

Tong (below left) and his sister are Mew’s upstairs neighbors.  At first, Mew shies away from them, but then one day at school Tong comes to Mew’s defense when he is cornered in a toilet by tormentors, clubbing the bullies with a plunger pulled from one of the toilet stalls.  As a result, Tong winds up with a black eye and a bloody nose.

love of siam 03  love of siam 06

A friendship develops between the two boys and after Tong’s family goes to Chiang Mai on holiday, Tong returns with a gift for Mew, a wooden Christmas doll composed of several pieces.  Following a family tradition started by his father, Tong hides the different parts giving Mew written clues to find them.  Alas, when they arrive at the location of the last part – the doll’s nose – the tree in which it has been hidden has been pruned and the branches are being carted away.  Nonetheless, the doll takes pride of place on Mew’s desk.

While on the family trip, Tong’s sister Tang receives permission to spend a few extra days in Chiang Mai with her friends.  When the extra days comes and go and there is no word from her, Tong’s parents return north to search for her, not returning in time for Tong’s Catholic school Christmas pageant.  Tong’s  parents ask him to stay at Mew’s for a few nights while they search for Tang.

During these few nights, Tong prays for his sister each night before going to bed, sleeping next to Mew.  His eyes wet with tears, Tong turns to Mew for comfort that everything will be all right.

LOS 14 In the weeks that follow, Mew is Tong’s support as there is still no sign of Tang.  As the months pass, Tong’s family begins to disintegrate as his parents blame each other for allowing Tang to stay with her friends.  Tong’s father begins to drink heavily and ends the ritual of mealtime prayers, having lost his faith.

Finally, Tong’s family moves away from the neighborhood, leaving Mew heartbroken at the loss of his friend.

(As a side note, this is where the opening credit roll.  See – it is a long movie!)


Flash forward about five years.  Both boys are in different secondary school.  Tong’s family situation has continued to get worse, his father now lying about all day, drinking whisky and not eating any food.  Tong looks to be a typical – read, “straight” – teenager with a perfect girlfriend that the other boys envy, but he doesn’t seem much interested in their relationship, to her chagrin.

Across town, Mew’s grandmother has long since passed on.  He has become a gifted musician and is the singer and songwriter for a band of classmates called August (he is third from the left in the lower left-hand picture).  Mew is also the object of an unrequited crush from Ying (below right – with pictures of Mew all over her walls), the girl who now lives in the house where Tong once lived.

LOS 11  10861441_gal

Mew and Tong meet unexpectedly at Siam Square (below – Mew is left and Tong is right), an outdoor shopping area that is ground zero for Khrungthep’s youth culture.  They exchange phone numbers and begin hanging out together, rekindling their childhood friendship and – for Mew – rekindling stronger feelings that inspire him to begin writing new songs.

LOS 17 LOS 12


(Side note – the above scene, along with two or three others in the Director’s Cut, were shot in the box office lobby of the lovely Scala Cinema, a classic 1960s theatre about which I wrote in this entry.)

Mew’s band is assigned a new manager, June, who is the spitting image of Tong’s lost sister, Tang.  Tong and his mother conspire to hire June to play the role of Tang, in an effort to rouse Tong’s father out of his depression.  For a time this seems to work and everyone is happy again.

10862656_gal 10861461_gal

At a party to celebrate Tang’s homecoming, Mew’s band performs a new song – Gan Le Gan (essentially, “You and I Together”) with the opening line sung with Mew looking directly at Tong (a look not unnoticed by June – above right with Tong), “If I’m telling you that this song was written for you, would you believe me?”  After the party, Mew and Tong share a kiss in the backyard that is seen by Tong’s mother.  In the director’ version of this film, there is a shot of a few minutes later when Tong escorts Mew to a waiting taxi.  They are reluctant to say goodnight to each other, in the love-struck sort of way that you would expect from any two people who had just shared their first, oh so innocent kiss.

LOS 13 Worrying about her son, Tong’s mother forbids him from seeing Mew.  But Tong leaves home one night anyhow, leaving his phone and spending the night at Mew’s. 

Unable to get hold of Tong and spending the night driving around searching for him, Tong’s mother is further worried.  The next day she visits Mew and confronts him, explaining that Mew’s lifestyle is not what she has in the cards for Tong.  Mew insists they are just friends, but complies with her wishes.  Mew’s secret admirer Ying overhears this conversation and is heartbroken.

Tong keeps trying to get hold of Mew but Mew won’t answer his calls.  At the same time, Tong’s girlfriend pressures him about his inattentiveness while his family situation turns bad again as his father is diagnosed with severe medical problems brought on by his drinking. 

10862650_gal Ying consoles Tong after his friends ask him whether the reason he isn’t seeing his girlfriend is because he’s gay.  While they are together, he sees another of the Christmas dolls and Ying convinces the toy shop owner to give her only the nose piece, left.

Tong finds himself caught on all sides and in a scene where he and his mother are cheerlessly decorating a Christmas tree, he asks her in not so many words to let him make his own choice, represented by two decorations – one of a woman and the other of a man.  “Just choose one!” she shouts.  “But whatever one I choose, you won’t be happy with me!” he replies.  She tells him that whatever choice he makes is okay.

June makes plans to leave the family, the unfolding story still leaving some question as to whether she might not in fact be the missing daughter.  She leaves a note to Tong’s mother, telling her that they’ll be all right.

Having cut himself off from Tong, Mew finds his well of songwriting inspiration has dried up and his band members are on the verge of mutiny, about to replace him with a backup singer. 

Tong agrees to meet his girlfriend for a date in Siam Square on Christmas Eve.  Mew and his band are performing a concert there and when Tong sees Mew on a video screen and hears him start to sing the song Gan Le Gan, he realizes what he has to do. 

10861437_gal  love of siam 8

He apologizes to his girlfriend and tells her that he can’t be her boyfriend anymore.  Then he runs to the concern, meeting Ying there, to watch.  Mew sees them in the crowd.

After the concert, Tong approaches Mew to give him a Christmas present – the missing nose piece from the wooden doll that Mew still has on his desk.  Tong tells Mew that he can’t be his boyfriend, but that he will always love him.  With that, they part ways.  

The movie ends with Mew at home, putting the final piece onto the doll, crying, wiping his eyes, and saying “thank you” out loud.



The ending was good, if a little disappointing as I was cheering for Mew and Tong to end up together.  Talking with friends, the general consensus was that Tong – despite his mother telling him he could choose for himself – still felt the pressure of family obligations over his feelings for Mew.  Leaving us all to wonder… could there be a Rak Haeng Siam 2?