Inside the Fight to Save Hong Kong's Last Movie Palace
With the iconic State Theatre facing possible demolition, local activists are battling to preserve a piece of local film history: "If it's demolished, it will be very sad."
As this year's 40th anniversary of the Hong Kong International Film Festival attests, Hong Kong has one of Asia’s richest histories of moviegoing. But even though the Hong Kong film industry’s production prowess lives on — local director Stephen Chow’s latest comedy The Mermaid recently grossed a record-smashing $500 million in mainland China — most of the city's monuments to its cinematic heritage have been erased.
“A lot of the great old cinemas of Hong Kong have been relegated to the dustbin of history,” says Haider Kikabhoy, an architectural history researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Just one post-war movie theater still stands, the State Theatre in the neighborhood of North Point — and this once majestic movie palace is now threatened by private developers.
“This is a place that evokes a lot of fond memories for people of Hong Kong,” says Kikabhoy. “If it’s demolished, it will be very sad — in a way, it’s the last vestige of Hong Kong entertainment history from the midcentury.”
In 1950s Hong Kong, cinema was king. Television had yet to colonize living rooms, and nearly every neighborhood in the city had its own stand-alone movie theater. Hong Kong was emerging from the privations of the World War II era, and the city was starting to boom again. Competition in the narrow entertainment market was particularly fierce, leading local impresarios to build ever grander theaters to attract ticket buyers. “It speaks to the optimism of the era,” says Kikabhoy.
Into this milieu appeared Harry Odell, a legendary Hong Kong character who was born to Russian-Jewish parents in Cairo and spent a colorful youth as a professional tap dancer in Nagasaki, Japan, later fighting for the U.S. in World War I in France before ultimately settling in Hong Kong, where he married a wealthy socialite and launched a local film distribution business. In a 1952 business expansion effort, Odell unveiled the Empire Theatre in North Point.
Local coverage and advertisements at the time describe the theater as “gigantic,” with a 56-foot cinema screen, a ceiling “cut in the shape of a diamond,” gold velvet curtains and walls that are “floodlit in blue, red and green.” Surveying the completed project on the eve of its opening — which featured the gala premiere of Paramount’s latest musical, Just for You, starring Bing Crosby and Jane Wyman — Odell told the South China Morning Post, “I emphasize that this is not just another theater.”
The theater’s name was later changed to the State Theatre in 1959, and it continued to operate up until 1997, hosting local film premieres and stage shows by international performers, including the late British tenor Peter Pears, the Katherine Dunham Company and the late Taiwanese pop superstar Teresa Teng.
Since its projectors went dark, the cinema has fallen into semi-disrepair. The complex now contains a shabby shopping mall, a snooker club and over 200 small residential flats. Over the past year, local developer New World Development has begun buying up the apartments, leading local conservationists to suspect that the company plans to take over and demolish the building to make way for one of the office towers it is known for erecting throughout the city.
According to records from the Antiquities Advisory Board, the government body that assesses and grades historic buildings for preservation status, the State Theatre has been on the board’s list of buildings in need of review since September. Kikabhoy and his colleagues are urging the board to take immediate action.
“There’s an official acknowledgement that the building may be valuable, but there is no indication of when they will make a decision,” he says. “That means the building has no status. If someone acquires it now, they can tear it down without issue.”
Through a heritage walking tours company he co-founded in 2013 called Walk in Hong Kong, Kikabhoy and his allies produced an independent analysis of the theater’s architectural, social and cultural value. Architecturally, the building is believed to be valuable because of the striking concrete parabolic trusses on its roof, which were a midcentury innovation used to suspend the ceiling from above, allowing for an expansive, pillar-less auditorium space.
“There is no other building in Hong Kong that has adopted reinforced concrete external parabolic trusses,” says Dr. Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong’s architectural conservation program, one of six experts consulted for the report. “As far as I know, it is very likely to be one of a kind in Asia.”
The local activists’ ultimate vision for the State Theatre is preservation, followed by a revival. The conservationists envision a mixed-use venue showing a program of new independent film and local genre classics, along with making the space available for stage and musical performances, as it once was.
“One of Hong Kong’s leading distributors has expressed interest to me privately in running the theater again, if it can be revived,” says Kikabhoy. “If the theater can get Grade 1 conservation status, reviving it would make a lot of sense. It could be a spectacularly cool landmark, catering to the cultural interests and needs of our community.”