Singing the praises of a landlord with a heart

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 2005, 12:00am

Landlords are supposed to have hearts of stone; yet one has shown that there is humanity still among Hong Kong's property owners. By sparing North Point's Sunbeam Theatre a doubling of rent, Toyo Mall has let Cantonese opera live on at its only permanent venue in the city.

The company's executive director, Francis Law, has rightly been hailed as a saviour for making what has been called a 'rare sacrifice' by freezing the rent on the two-storey property at $208,000 until 2009. Unable to pay the originally asked-for $400,000, the operators of the 33-year-old theatre would have had to close its doors at the end of the month to make way for a planned shopping centre.

With the theatre would have gone the last permanent venue for Cantonese opera in the city, seemingly providing more proof that we are disinterested in our cultural heritage and lack a desire for history.

Those who have been to the Sunbeam or had to push through the crowds milling outside before or after one of the 250 yearly opera performances know otherwise. Lovers of the centuries-old art form would have felt Hong Kong was losing its heart if their beloved theatre had had to close.

Other venerable Hong Kong institutions, such as the Tai Cheong Bakery in Central, have fallen prey to the latest property boom. The latest casualties of cash-hungry landlords are Causeway Bay department stores Seibu and Mitsukoshi.

Renting property is a business and landlords are entitled to ask for whatever the market can bear. If they believe they can do better by converting premises into shops - or department stores into a mall of small shops - it is their right, providing planning regulations are met.

That was the view of Mr Law until he was lobbied by opera lovers and performers. Their outcry prompted Home Secretary Patrick Ho Chi-ping to get involved in the rent negotiations.

Those talks ended on Wednesday with the landlord showing compassion rarely witnessed by tenants. Mr Law did suggest, though, that the government should be more heavily involved in finding a long-term home for Cantonese opera.

Chinese opera is a matter of taste. Because songs can sometimes last for half an hour or more, it is not for the impatient - which may explain why patrons at performances are generally from the older generation. The elaborate, bygone-era costumes, artistic scenery and songs telling of historic events are far removed from the skimpy clothing, flashing lights and fast moves of pop concerts.

It is the latter that wins out when it comes to the government providing purpose-built venues for cultural performances. For the sake of Hong Kong's tradition and sense of history, it should also follow Mr Law's advice.

He has done Hong Kong a favour by letting the city's Cantonese opera lovers keep their theatre for a few more years, but when the lease runs out, it is time for the government to step in and let him get back to doing what landlords are supposed to do - make whatever money they legitimately can.