Cultural Groups Speak Out to Rescue Theatre in Hong Kong

International organisation issues 'Heritage in Danger' alert
April 29, 2016 Updated: May 1, 2016

HONG KONG—A consortium led by the property company New World Development began a large-scale acquisition of the North Point State Theatre complex last year, leading local conservationists to worry about the fate of the 63-year-old historical building.

The State Theatre formerly known as the Empire Theatre has witnessed the grace of 17-year-old pop singer Teresa Teng and many Hollywood pieces, including “The Sound of Music” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”

The owner of the Princess Optometrists Centre at the complex spoke of how spectacular the old Empire Theatre is, and said with a smile, “The former Empire Theatre is very elegant, and the stage is very beautiful. Many celebrities frequently came to the theatre. ”

The Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) originally proposed rating the State Theatre as Grade 3, the lowest rating for historic buildings. Due to strong appeals from different parties, the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) decided last week to postpone the rating to allow for further detailed study.

Earlier, the cultural heritage groups Walk in Hong Kong, the Conservancy Association, and Docomomo HK (the International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites, and Neighbourhoods of the Modern Movement, Hong Kong Branch) issued a joint statement urging the AAB to give the former State Theatre in North Point no lower than a Grade 1 historic building grading.

In recent years, Hong Kong people have become more aware of the importance of conservation. But a Grade 3 historical building, Tung Tak Pawn, was demolished last year even after strong opposition from the community.

Dr Lee Ho-yin, Head of the Division of Architectural Conservation Programmes (ACP Division) and a former member of the AAB has experience of the Tung Tak Pawn shop demolishment case. He believes that to protect historic buildings, the most important element is social values; that is, whether or not the public’s collective feeling for the building is strong.

He said social values need to be initiated by civil society, and this is the most powerful voice.

He gave the example of Star Ferry Pier. Thousands of people stood up to fight, and from that the collective feelings could be measured, he said.

Another example, he said, is Bruce Lee’s former residence. From the historic or architectural preservation points of view, the building was not to be protected, but there were very strong collective feelings, Dr Lee said. “Thousands of fans around the world wrote to the authorities,” he said. At last the government asked the owners not to sell it to real estate for redevelopment.

Recently, many non-governmental organisations have closely watched the development of the State Theatre, hoping no more historic buildings are destroyed in Hong Kong.

Cultural landmark

The building opened in 1952 as the Empire Theatre and was renamed the State Theatre in 1959 following extensive renovations. It is the oldest stand-alone theatre built after World War II and has been an important landmark of North Point since then.

The theatre’s curved facade connects two exterior walls. A large, long-hidden bas-relief decoration designed by artist Mei Yutian revealed itself after the exterior billboard was recently removed. The theatre still retains the old mosaic tiled billboard and door signs.

The State theatre at North Point, Hong Kong, formerly called the Empire theatre. (Stone Poon/Epoch Times)
The State theatre at North Point, Hong Kong, formerly called the Empire theatre. (Stone Poon/Epoch Times)

The former Empire Theatre was once one of the best and most spacious theatres in Hong Kong. From the 1950s to the 1980s, it staged top Western and Asian operas, films, and dance performances. It has been an important cultural landmark of Hong Kong.

The once-glamorous State Theatre witnessed Hong Kong’s several decades of change. It closed for good in 1997 and was converted into a snooker hall. Also in the 1990s, the theatre was leased out, and many shops moved in. With the recent deterioration of business, the owners have had to reduce the rent by 10 percent in order to help the businesses survive.

Some people claim that the parabolic concrete arches of the State Theatre have a Soviet architectural style. Dr Lee Ho-yin said that is not the case.

He traced back the signature of the original architect on the building plan as George W. Grey, who was a surveyor. Because he did not understand design, he then invited two mainland Chinese graduates to help with the design.

One of the requirements for a luxurious theatre is no internal pillars. The architects used a structure similar to the design of roads and bridges to design the roof.

“So its roof is a bridge, using a bridge design to boost the space below,” Dr Lee explained.

He said the State Theatre is similar to a wrong version of the building, so it is very precious. “It is rare; there will never be another one,” he said.

‘Heritage in Danger’

On March 23 this year, the conservation organisation Docomomo International issued a “Heritage in Danger” alert and urged for the theatre to obtain urgent protection.

Germany Zittau/Grlitz University Professor Jos Tomlow wrote the report and described the “parabola-like” concrete arches as “unique for a theatre in the entire world.”

Experts believe the use of concrete reflects the post-war building ideology of economical and fast construction.

Paul Chan, co-founder and CEO of Walk in Hong Kong, emphasized that the uniqueness of the State Theatre is its high cultural value, which itself is a showcase of the prosperity of the history of North Point.

“In the 1950s, North Point was a small version of Shanghai and was the most popular place. There was so much noble entertainment and so many entertainment parks, performance venues, and karaoke. The State Theatre is a reminder of North Point’s heyday. If it is demolished, the history of that era will be gone,” Chan said.

He said that historic buildings are likely to face the fate of demolition, no matter whether they are Grade 1 or 3, so the local conservation groups need to voice their opinion regarding the importance of the historic buildings. The authorities will refer to the rating before approving any rebuild application in the future.

Tanya Chan, deputy leader of the Civic Party, expressed her view during the AAB meeting on April 18. She said this is the first time Docomomo International has issued a historical building alert for Hong Kong.

She hopes the Board can re-evaluate the grading, rather than hastily setting it to Grade 3.

Large-scale acquisition

Last year it was widely reported that the consortium led by New World Development had made a large-scale acquisition of the State Theatre complex, including a US$8.7 million acquisition of a number of shops in September.

Each shop’s price ranged from US$510,000 to US$1.4 million. The price per square foot of some mini-shops is as high as US$8,300. By the end of November, another 17 transactions were settled, involving US$22 million.

Tanya Chan explained that the local communities are urgently appealing to the authorities to raise the State Theatre’s rating to Grade 1 mainly because of the large acquisition of the 200 residential units and 80 shops from last year. They are worried that a large consortium has been involved in the acquisition.

If 80 percent of the building is acquired by a buyer, then it can be rebuilt.

“If it were rated Grade 1, the owner would need to get approval from the government before any demolishing actions could be taken in the future. If the removal action went ahead without approval, the government could immediately upgrade it to a proposed monument and take relevant action according to the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance, as in the case of the King Yin Lei mansion,” Tanya Chan said.

Rating postponed

After the AMO recommended Grade 3 for the theatre, the AAB was scheduled to make a decision last week. Under the request of international and local conservationists, the AAB did not reach a final decision, but recommended that the Review Committee make further detailed studies, including the most valuable parts of the theatre and the uniqueness of the building.

AAB chairman Lam Siu-lo said that a hasty decision on rating is not a responsible practice, and no time limit has been set for the data collection for the AMO.

Recently, the AAB approved a recommendation from the AMO, rating three old Lei Yue Mun Barracks Grade 1 historical buildings as monuments, and rating Ma On Shan mining buildings as Grade 2 or 3 historic buildings.

Translated by Susan Wang. Edited by Sally Appert.