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The Happy Light Bioscope Theatre & other stories - Part I

February 13, 2010

(A little Losar divertissement for the reader.
While on the subject of films a heartfelt thank
you to Tenzin Sonam la and Ritu la for their
powerful and uplifting documentary, The Sun
Behind the Clouds: Tibet’s Struggle for Freedom,
coming as it did, in such a timely and tonic
fashion, at the end of this depressing,
depressing year. And most of all to Dhondup
Wangchen la, filmmaker of unyielding integrity
and truly awesome courage, thank you.)
Shadow Tibet
February 11, 2010


In old Hollywood films of intrepid white
explorers encountering savages in darkest
Africa  (or tribals in benighted Afghanistan)
there is usually a decisive moment in the story
when the bwanas (or sahibs) are captured and it
appears they are done for. The situation is
resolved by the explorers demonstrating white-man
magic like predicting a convenient solar eclipse
(King Solomon’s Mines) and overawing the natives.
Less dramatically but with similar results the
sahib might crank up an old Victrola and "soothe
savage breasts" with the voice of the great
Caruso. Then of course there is the scenario
where a film projector is used to illuminate the
side of a temple or a cliff face with moving
images that terrifies the natives into submission.

It is nice to note that this Hollywood cliché was
stood on its head when the first (invited)
British mission reached Lhasa in 1920. Charles
Bell, the head of the mission, tells us that the
commander-in-chief of the Tibetan army (Tsarong
Dasang Dadul) entertained him and his party with
some film shows in his private screening room.
Bell notes that Tsarong operated the projector
himself quite competently. Bell was probably not
expecting to watch a movie in "Forbidden" Tibet,
and it is to his credit that he tells us the
story. Travellers to Tibet -- even now in the
2000s -- tend to play up everything that is
strange and esoteric, and gloss over any
indication of modern amenities that might perhaps
detract from the hardship aspects of their accounts.

Of course, the cinema was a novelty in Tibet in
1920 and probably Tsarong’s was the only
projector in Lhasa, though the Dalai Lama would
most probably have owned one. For all other
Tibetans the closest thing to the movies, or at
least to a show that used lights and special
effects, was the Sang-Thag theatre of the Lower
Tantric college (Gyumey) in Lhasa. I saw a show
in 1971 or thereabouts in Dharamshala, in the
post New Year Monlam festival. As the name
"secret string" indicates it was a puppet show.
It was not limited to string puppets but utilised
a variety of techniques for its effects. The
Sang-Thag was not a show in the sense of
entertainment but actually an offering (choepa)
part of "Offering of the Fifteenth" (Choenga
Choepa), the main feature of which were the
amazing butter sculptures crafted by the Upper
Tantric College (Gyutoe).  In spite of its votive
purpose the puppet show was nonetheless hugely entertaining.

The puppets performed in a small proscenium stage
lit by an electric bulb. In old Tibet it would
have been butter lamps, but electric lights might
have been used after 1927 when the first
hydroelectric plant was built in Lhasa. The
Sang-Thag theater did not have a plot or a story
line but consisted of a series of beautifully
staged tableaux. A tiny monk appeared on the roof
of monastery and beat a gong to wake up the
monastery. A congregation of monks filed into the
assembly hall. This was done with a row of
figures on hidden springs, all rocking back and
forth in a convincing manner. An oracle went into
a trance and beat his secretary with a stick --
and so on. At the end of the show the curtains
were closed and children cried out "cheonga
choepa lao sangthag chik thenrok nang"
or  "Offering of the Fifteenth," please pull a
secret string" till another show started.

The earliest reference we have in Tibetan to an
optical entertainment device from the West is in
the sage Jigme Lingpa’s, Discourses on India
written in 1789, Jigme Lingpa discusses the
British, the Ottoman and the Moghul empires, and
specifically describes England and its various
manufactured exports: telescopes and modern
weapons etc... He describes in some detail
contemporary novelties as a barrel-organ. But
then he also mentions that "On top of this box
within a raised glass door the foreign countries
are revealed, the images of these countries being
laid down and made clear upon a mirror inside,
and so by magical means the details of the great
countries are beautifully drawn; and the design
of the countries of the world which are executed
upon various little panels appear enormous inside
the glass door." I am not certain if Jigme Lingpa
was describing a zograscope, a peep-show or an
optical viewing box of another kind.

John Claude White, the British resident in
Sikkim, gave magic lantern shows in Bhutan,
Sikkim and probably in the Chumbi area of Tibet
in the early nineteen hundreds. The Victorian
magic lantern was the precursor to the modern
slide projector (and the PowerPoint computer
program). The transparent photographic images, on
glass slides, were projected onto a large cloth,
which when wetted, enabled viewing by large
audiences on both sides of the fabric screen.
However the use of the magic lantern was not
without its hazards. The type of fuel used by
White to ignite the limelight that illuminated
his slides, acetylene, produced a brilliant white
light that was extremely hazardous. At one
lantern show at Paro Dzong in Bhutan, an
"accumulator" blew up scorching White’s face and
badly singing his eyebrow, eyelashes and moustache.


Following the Bell mission of 1920 subsequent
British missions to Lhasa appear to have used
cinema as "a little mild propaganda" and a means
of creating a friendly and informal atmosphere in
their dealings with the Tibetans. F.M Bailey
showed films in Lhasa in 1924, one being a
newsreel of the English king opening Parliament.
In 1933 Frederick Williamson entertained the
Thirteenth Dalai Lama with Charlie Chaplin. In
her memoir Mrs. Williamson writes "In the
popularity ratings Charlie Chaplin invariably had
the edge on Fritz the cat. This was the same
wherever we showed the films. In Lhasa, Charlie
Chaplin was the great favourite; we had one of
his films called The Adventurer, in which he
played an escaped convict. The Tibetans renamed
this film ‘Kuma’ (The Thief) and everyone wanted
to see, including His Holiness, who laughed
heartily throughout the performance."

Dr. Pemba in his book "Young Days" in Tibet
writes "The first motion picture I ever saw
starred Charlie Chaplin. There were many reels
with him as the hero, sometimes a criminal one,
as in Easy Street. He had a terrific following in
Dekyi Lingka (the British Mission), and people
always yelled for the kuma (thief)."

Like the rest of the world, Tibetans (at least
those with access to the cinema) were captivated
by Charlie Chaplin. In much the way the French
made him their own as "Charlot," Tibetans hailed
the little tramp as Charlie "Chumping," or
Charlie the Champion. The English word
"champion," with a slight change in the
pronunciation, but used in the correct sense, had
been incorporated into popular Tibetan lexicon since the twenties and thirties.

In the Williamson’s second visit to Lhasa they
also showed newsreels of King George V’s Silver
Jubilee Celebrations and of the Hendon Air
Display, as well as other short films of
educational value. Mrs Williamson mentions that
when showing films in place like Paro in Bhutan
her husband had a projector that worked with
batteries that could only be charged in
Lhasa,  and she goes on to describe the
electricity system in Lhasa. "The current was
conducted over a distance of about four miles by
high-tension cable from the power house beyond
Trapchi to a sub-station in the city situated
just below Ringang’s own house." Ringang being
the engineer who built the power plant. She also
mentions that Ringang’s brother had a
private-theater in his house. I have not heard
anything to confirm this, but it does appear that
interest in the cinema was growing in Lhasa.

For instance, Heinrich Harrer mentions that
Tsarong received the following letter (in
English) from his son who was then in school in
Darjeeling: "Is there any talking picture in
Lhasa? I heard there is talking picture in Lhasa,
and every gentlemen doesn’t work, but go to see
picture every night. I have nothing more to say."

The Gould Mission of 1936 not only brought with
them a number of early Charlie Chaplin
one-reelers but also Rin-Tin-Tin in The Night Cry
(1926), which became a big hit in Lhasa. I heard
from an old aristocrat who had attended Frank
Ludlow’s school at Gyangtse, that he had seen
Lassie Come Home, at Dekyi Linga, and that it was
very popular with Tibetans. According to Gould,
newsreels of military parades and royal pageants
seem to have gone down well with the local
audience and “…it gives the right impression of
British power and purpose." Later during the war
such Pathé news reviews as Victory in the Desert, became big favourites.

One Tibetan informant, who attended a film show
at a Dekyi Linga Christmas Party as a child,
described his experience to me. He had never seen
a movie before and had no idea of what to expect,
but was looking forward to it, nonetheless. He
initially thought that one of the long shiny
Christmas decorations that hung from the ceiling
and twisted and turned, was the cinema. He stared
at it till an older person told him gently
"Ganden-la, what are you staring at? Look there;
that is the “beskop”. He vaguely recalled a
confusing scene of old cars chasing each other. A
silent film, perhaps a Mack Sennet comedy.

Tibetans first called the cinema beskop, from
"bioscope" one of the early terms for movies (as
kinema, vitascope, etc.) and now apparently used
only by South Africans, Nepalese and Tibetans.
These days Tibetans (both in Tibet and in exile)
use the term lok-nyen, a direct translation of the Chinese dian-ying.

The movie shows at the British Mission were very
popular and nearly every account by mission
personnel mentions uninvited but enthusiastic
monks trying to push their way in. Basil Gould
was clear about what the Tibetan clergy thought
of the cinema. “Monks were amongst the most
ardent of our cinema clientele. There is nothing
which Tibetans like better than to see themselves
and their acquaintances in a frame or on the screen."

 From its inception in Tibet, the cinema does not
seem to have been regarded as anything magical or
taboo, but merely excellent entertainment. In one
case its educational value appears to have been
noted. Gould wrote that “A senior monk official
recently suggested that it would cause much
satisfaction in Lhasa if arrangements could be
made to take a cinema record of holy places in
Burma, India and Ceylon and to shown in Lhasa."

The Chinese academic Ma Lihua in her book Old
Lhasa, writes of Tibetan superstitions about
photography, and mentions that Tibetans feared
that the camera "captured the soul." According to
Harrer and Kingdon-Ward, far from being afraid,
curious Tibetan bystanders could be quite a
nuisance, peering into the lens from the other
side of the camera,  or a theodolite in Harrer’s case.

Robert Ford who lived for some years in Tibet and
worked for the Lhasa government as a radio
operator, expresses a wariness of condescending
faux-ethnological observations by European
travelers of native credulity and superstition.
In his book Captured in Tibet, he writes, “I
arranged for her (the district governor’s wife)
to speak by radio to her parents in Lhasa, and
she was grateful but too preoccupied to be
impressed by my little conjuring tricks although
she had never seen a radio before. I had the same
experience throughout the journey. People were
intrigued, and looked for the man in the box, but
I was never credited with any magical powers.
This made me sceptical about those travelers’
tales of Europeans who were acclaimed as white
magicians or even gods when they demonstrated a
few scientific toys to remote peoples with religions of their own."

Tibetans just used the loanword "beskop" for the
cinema, as I mentioned earlier, and there is no
other descriptive term for it hinting at anything
supernatural or magical. Incidentally, the early
Chinese term for movies was shen-ying “magic
shadow”, or “Shadow Magic” as the Chinese
director Ann Hu has titled her interesting
feature film (of 2000) that depicts the
introduction of the movies to China at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Monks and other ultra-conservative elements in
Tibet may have bitterly resisted the creation of
a modern military force, the English schools at
Gyangtse and Lhasa, and football (soccer)
matches, but somehow they never got around to
opposing the cinema. Instead, they shoved their
way into movie shows, as they were doing at
video-parlours in McLeod Ganj in the nineties. No
clerical objection or outcry was raised at the
opening of a commercial cinema hall in the holy
city. In fact the last cinema hall built before
‘59 was co-owned by a monk official.

The first commercial cinema hall in Lhasa was
established by two Ladakhi Muslims, the Radhus,
whom the Tibetans called the "Tsakhur" brothers,
after the name of their house in the city.
Muhammad Ashgar and Sirajuddin got their start in
the movie business by projecting picture slides
on a cloth screen using a bicycle “magneto” which
they worked by pedalling. According to Abdul
Wahid, who had married the Radhu’s daughter “The
profits from this allowed them to import a real
cinema projector from India which they proposed
to use in Lhasa." Official permission to open the
cinema came from the high official, Kuchar
Kunphel-la, for whom the Radhu brothers first
arranged a special film show. If we accept
Wahid’s account, then the first cinema hall in
Lhasa was established before 1934 -- prior to
Kunphel-la’s fall from power. But this is not
certain. Their oldest Radhu brother Khwaja Abdul
Aziz regarded the enterprise with unease as he
was not too certain whether the profits earned
from exhibiting animated images were legal from
the point of Islamic law. But in his in his
memoir, Tibetan Caravans, Wahid writes that the
cinema "would bring them considerable revenue."

One informant told me that the cinema was located
near Shatra mansion, in an old converted
residential building, just south of the Jokhang
near the Lingkor. Another informant agreed about
it being south of the Jokhang and near the
Lingkor, but insisted that it was closer to the
house of Bumthang Drunyig Chenmo and not the
Shatra mansion. This informant told me that the
hall seated about a hundred people, perhaps less.
There was a balcony section which seated twenty
to thirty people, but my informant had never been
up on it as each seat there cost twenty srang. It
was cheaper downstairs in the stalls.

The balcony section had a useful facility in the
way of a Muslim translator who narrated the story
of the film to the Tibetan audience. One might
perhaps see in this a reflection of the tradition
of benshi narrators in the days of silent films
in Japan. Kurosawa’s older brother was such an
artist. The young Muslim was a city lad with a
free and easy way about him, and on one occasion,
when describing a love scene, he seemed to have
overstepped the boundary of decent speech.
Tibetans are generally open to racy talk, but can
get quite prim and prudish when relatives and
parents are around. Someone got up and slapped
the young narrator hard on the face.

This was the theater where the famous Anarkali,
the great Moghul romance, was screened. The
tragic story of a beautiful slave girl buried
alive as punishment for her love of the prince
Salim (son of the Emperor Akbar), this film holds
a place in the hearts of many older citizens of
Lhasa, the same way as Gone with the Wind might
with some older Americans. When the same title
played too long in Lhasa and audience numbers
dropped, the Radhus would move their projector to
Shigatse, and hold outdoor shows there. One
informant remembered such an outdoor screening
and hearing the rumble of the generator outside.

The late Ngawang Dhakpa la from the Chithiling
neighbourhood of Lhasa, told me that he saw
Tarzan and Jungle Jim films in this theater. He
recalled one Jungle Jim film, where about half
the side of the projected image was blurred. It
appears that when the films were being
transported across the Kyichu by coracle, the
boat capsized and some film containers fell into
the river. Though they were recovered the films
were partially damaged. Lowell Thomas Jr. also
mentions that Tarzan and Marx Brothers films were popular in Lhasa.

Alo Chonze, the pioneer political activist and
controversial entrepreneur, launched a venture to
build a cinema hall complex in the Songra
locality, immediately north-east of the Jokhang,
sometime in the mid-fifties. Chonze had big ideas
and intended to put up a modern building,
dispensing with the many pillars required in
traditional Tibetan constructions. He planned to
import steel girders from India and have a big
open auditorium with no obstructions to the
audience’s view of the screen. He also planned to
construct rows of shop-fronts along the outside
length of the building, for rent or sale. But
somehow the whole project fell through. I was
told he managed to get some investors, but
perhaps there were not enough of them, or this
all happened around the time when he was arrested
for being one of the leaders of the underground
"Mimang" organization that put up posters around
the city denouncing the Chinese occupation force.

The Diki Wolnang or the Happy Light movie theatre
was built in 1958, and was the joint venture of
the monk official Liushar Thupten Tharpa and the
Muslim businessman Ramzan. The building was a
concrete and steel structure and could hold a
thousand people, according to the journalist Noel
Barber. It was located west of the Jokhang
towards the Yuthog bridge. To alert the Lhasa
public to their shows the cinema management would
play 78 records of Hindi songs over loudspeakers,
about a hour before each screening and could be
heard for a considerable distance throughout the
city. This annoying practice carried over into
exile where the Tibetan Drama Party (now TIPA)
would aim blaring loudspeakers at the town of
McLeod Ganj. During the ’59 Uprising, the Happy
Light cinema was held by Chinese troops.
According to Noel Barber who wrote a book on the
conflict (From the Land of Lost Content) Tibetan
forces defending the Jokhang bombarded the cinema
hall with mortar fire, and then stormed it. One
group of Tibetan fighters made their way to the
back of the building and climbed up into the
projection-room. Then coming out on the balcony
they fired down into the main hall where many Chinese soldiers were sleeping.

Lhasa was not the only city where Tibetans saw
their first movies. In the 40s and 50s the
Novelty Bioscope Hall in Kalimpong, a corrugated
tin structure below the football (or mela)
ground, provided entertainment not only to the
citizens of the town, but also to visitors from
Tibet. Since many of these were rough-tough
muleteers and caravan personnel, looking to
unwind after their long and dangerous journey
across the Tibetan highlands, the Novelty Theater
employed Tibetan ushers who were as adept with
knives as with their flashlights.

For many Khampas, the Chinese owned movie hall at
Dhartsedo was probably their first introduction
to the cinema. We unfortunately have little
information about this institution, other than
that the local Christian missionaries disapproved
of it as a corrupting influence on the native
population, especially the “unsophisticated”
Tibetans. One Khampa told me he saw an inji
beskop about an endearing (sha-tsamo) little
girl. Shirley Temple films were popular in China
during Guomindang times. With the arrival of the
Red Army at the end of 1949, the cinema was shut
down, and the hall used for political meetings
and denunciation rallies. The cinema hall owner
probably committed suicide by jumping into the
foaming Dharchu river, as did so many other
members of the city’s business community, Tibetan and Chinese.

The Chinese occupation force in Lhasa initially
screened their propaganda films, in the evenings,
at the horse-market square of Wontoe Shinga. A
large white cotton screen was hung on the back
wall of the Trimon house on the east side of the
square. My informant told me that some of the
houses around the square had step-like raised
abutments, where you could sit, if you got there
early enough. It could get quite cold in the
square in winter, and my informant remembers him
and his friends inviting girls in the audience to sit on their laps.

The films screened were the usual documentaries
and newsreels about tractor plants, dams, farming
communes, factory openings, the Korean War, and
the life of Joseph Stalin (after his death). The
one feature film that all Tibetans seemed to have
genuinely enjoyed was Bai Mao Nu (1950) or The
White Haired Girl, directed by Wang Bin & Shui
Hua. The film tells the story of a courageous
peasant girl who hides for years in the wild
mountains of Hebei from a despotic landlord and
his henchmen, but is eventually saved by her
sweetheart, a Communist soldier in the Eighth
Route Army fighting the Japanese. The film was
remade as a revolutionary ballet during the
Cultural Revolution, under the “artistic” guidance of Madam Mao.

The Chinese also screened Indian films produced
and directed by Indian Communist and Socialist
filmmakers. One was Bimal Roy’s award winning
(the Prix Internationale at Cannes) portrayal of
the suffering of the Indian peasantry, Do Bhiga
Zamin (Two Acres of Land). Another very popular
Bombay film in Tibet (and also in China and the
Soviet Union) was Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (The Tramp
or the Wanderer). The story of petty criminal,
corrupted by society, but redeemed by the love of
Rita, his childhood friend. The Chinese language
version, Liu Lang Zhe, even had the song "Awara
Hun" I am a wanderer, adapted and sung in Chinese.

By the mid-eighties the Chinese had built indoor
auditoriums at the Chinese Military Headquarters,
and the Tibet Autonomous Region complex, where
they showed movies and staged cultural
performances. From the mid-fifties the occupation
authorities issued a ruling that all films
imported into Tibet had to be censored. Perhaps
this development contributed to the decision of
the Radhu family to close their cinema hall and leave Lhasa for good.

Part II will be released on the third day of
Losar (tsepa sum). Have a great Losar. TASHI DELEK PHUSUM TSOK!

NOTE: Besides the textual sources, most of the
information for this piece came from
conversations I had (over the years) with the
late Nornang Ganden la, Lingtsang Thupten Tsering
la, the late Chitiling Ngawang Dhakpa la, the
late Gyen Lutsa la, Gyen Norbu Tsering la, Tashi
Tsering la (of AMI), Tsering Wangchuk
la,  Jamyang Dorjee la, my uncle TC Tethong, my
late grand uncle Tesur Palden Gyaltsen, my late
mother, and many other friends and relatives. I
must also thank Sonam Dhargyal la for sending me CD copies of films from Tibet.
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