Deal keeps Sunbeam Theatre open
Helene Franchineau and Vivienne Chow
The show will go on at the Sunbeam Theatre, at least for the next four years.
A last-minute deal between the landlord and a new tenant saved the landmark theatre from destruction. And chief executive candidate Leung Chun-ying played a key role in brokering the deal.
Cantonese Opera playwright Li Kui-ming signed a contract yesterday to rent the 40-year-old venue in North Point from landlord Francis Law Sau-fai at HK$1 million per month. 'Cantonese Opera is something worth fighting for,' Li said. Leung said he was 'pleased' the matter was settled but insisted he made just a 'small contribution'. As a consultant for the Chinese Artists Association, 'he wanted to do something for Cantonese Opera'.
The theatre will close for a month after a performance tonight for renovation work. The reopening date has not been decided yet. The carpet will be changed, the sound system upgraded and new toilet facilities will be installed. 'We want to make sure that when people step into the Sunbeam Theatre, they feel this is a better place,' Li said. He received a phone call from Leung on Tuesday night after the politician had dinner with Law, a good friend, the night before and suggested both parties should talk directly. Li and Law spoke on the phone for the first time on Wednesday for two hours but could not reach an agreement. But on Thursday, Law's assistant called Li to say a draft document was ready. The lease was signed yesterday morning. Li and his Prime Splendor Theatrical Troupe have to pay six months rent upfront.
This is not the first time Sunbeam Theatre has won a temporary reprieve. In 2009, the year Cantonese Opera was included on the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage, previous tenant United Arts Entertainment saw rent increase by HK$490,000 to HK$698,000 when it renewed its lease for three years. The government stepped in and offered HK$3.6 million in subsidies. In 2005, the theatre came close to the same drama. Law agreed to freeze the rent, then at HK$208,000, until 2009.
Li said the government stayed out this time. 'From beginning to end, the government has not stepped in to offer any help,' Li said, making a 'zero' with his thumb and index finger.
A spokesman for the Home Affairs Bureau said the government welcomed the lease renewal, but stressed it would focus more on public venues for the art form rather than on privately run ones.
Prime Splendor's director Yuen Hoi said he was relieved about the outcome. 'This is not just about keeping the Sunbeam Theatre; this is also about revitalising the place so Chinese culture in Hong Kong can prosper.'
However, many local troupes appear to have already made alternative arrangements.
Marilyn To Wai Sau-ming, chairwoman of the Cantonese Opera Chamber of Commerce, said the news came too suddenly and artists were not informed. She said the industry would welcome the lease renewal but expected many of the shows at Sunbeam Theatre in the coming year to be staged by Li's troupe and mainland groups.
'I would say about 90 per cent of the local professional troupes have already booked their dates with government venues in the coming year,' To said. 'These troupes have to make a living and they need to make plans in advance.'
Li said he would seek to renew the lease when it expires in four years, co-incidentally when the new West Kowloon's Xiqu centre is due to open.
Li said that given the rent increase, he was prepared for losses, but he did not rule out an increase in ticket prices.
Visit vimeo.com/37014796 to watch the Zhaoqing Cantonese Opera Troupe prepare for its show at Sunbeam Theatre last Friday.