Khmer architecture of old: The great cinemas of Cambodia

Nara Cheng / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Eden cinema pictured in 1961, left, became a bank. Supplied

Cambodia’s former cinema buildings were indicative of the country’s famous architecture before the civil war.

However, at the present time, most of the young generation is not aware of these buildings. This is the main reason “Amazing Cambodia” started to collect all existing old cinema photos – to allow Khmer people, both old and young, to be aware of the great architecture that existed in the past. Amazing Cambodia is a Facebook page whose purpose is to collect Cambodian historical images, music, films and other things of cultural importance and share them to everyone domestically and internationally.

In an interview with realestate.com.kh, Srin Sokmean, the founder of Amazing Cambodia, described the way and why he compiles all the old cinema building photos.

Why do you compile all these old cinema building photos?

The reason I have been collecting those vintage images of Cambodia’s former cinema buildings is because they are one of my most favourite research topics. I am passionate about Cambodia’s pre-1975 era of glorious arts and culture, and those numerous cinemas – especially the over 30 cinemas based in Phnom Penh that truly reflect the remarkable period.

On the other hand, I heard the names of some of those cinemas in my childhood during the early 2000s, such as Angkor cinema and Kirirom cinema, so this made me curious to find out where they were now and what these buildings looked like.

Khemara cinema in the 1950s, left, became a school. Supplied

When did you start compiling all the photos?

First, I saw some magazine articles with several photos of old cinemas in Phnom Penh while I was reading one local magazine, “The Popular”, around 2004-2005. I was a big fan of that magazine and I learned a lot from the articles about the transformation of those buildings at that time.

Then I started to collect the magazine for further personal research. In 2010, I began using the internet and since then it has become my greatest tool for research on the topic.

Which is your favourite old cinema building photo and why?

My most preferred images are the ones from the 1960s and early 1970s that depict the great architectural structures of the buildings and big crowds of audiences waiting to buy tickets because those images illustrate the connection between the buildings and the successful film screenings in Cambodia back then.

One of them is a vintage image of the front of Proum Bayon Cinema with a French movie poster extracted from “Cambodge d’Aujourd’hui” newspaper published in December, 1958.

A Phnom Penh cinema in the early 1960s. Supplied

Could you describe all the old cinemas?

Based on my research data, there used to be approximately 36 cinemas in Phnom Penh and some others in the provincial towns throughout the country. These cinemas are divided into four timeline groups: (1) Pre-1950 such as Ciné Star, Lux, Eden, Casino, Majestic, Kim Phong, Kim Son, Trung Quoc and others mainly based in Phsar Kandal and Phsar Chas colonial zone.

(2) 1950s such as Phnom Penh, Phnom Pich, Vimean Soursdey and Proum Bayon.

(3) 1960s such as Hemakcheat, Kirirom, Mkot Pich, Sar Proum Meas and 1970s such as Vimean Tip, Santepheap and Monoroth (unfinished).

How do you feel about the demolition of the old cinemas to be replaced with new ones?

Honestly speaking, I really feel sorry for such big losses. Though we cannot prevent the city from rapid modernisation, we could have renovated those heritage buildings and converted them into new facilities, such as museums, art galleries or performing arts theatres, in appropriate ways.

For instance, we could have just repainted and repaired the most dilapidated areas. Meanwhile, the special architectural features should have been preserved – regardless of the new function that the building was to serve.

What is the benefit of compiling all these old cinema building photos?

Personally, I think that these kinds of historical photo archives are beneficial to the Khmer nation. First of all, as most of the cinemas have gone, this collection functions as a mirror reflecting the number of cinemas we used to have in the past and how powerful our local film industry was before the Khmer Rouge.

Second, it also indicates the timeline of the building’s functions over the decades. Third, it can be seen as a useful source for both local and international architectural students and cultural researchers.

Proum Bayon cinema pictured in 1958, left, became Banteay Srey Spa in 2012. Supplied

Do you have any special plans for the old cinema building photos? Do you have anything to tell the younger generation?

I am starting to cooperate with the Roung Kon Project, a group of architecture students from RUFA, to work on a research project on five former cinema buildings in Phnom Penh for a book publication, but we are just at the beginning.

I have also established a photo exhibition in which some of the photo collection have been displayed. At the end, I want all of Cambodia’s young generation to learn the historical value of those priceless buildings.

Once they have gone, nothing can get them back, so the one thing we can do is to recall the past stories through our photographic evidence as well as our knowledge.

Nara Cheng is a content manager @ Realestate.com.kh

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