Dramatic plans for rescued Sunbeam

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2012, 12:00am


The playwright who saved the Sunbeam Theatre from closure at the last minute will turn the North Point landmark into a privately run cultural centre promoting the art of Cantonese opera - and much more.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Li Kui-ming said he hoped that when the theatre reopened in less than two months, it would stage a much wider range of performing arts than before. Performances would include not only various forms of Chinese opera by local and mainland troupes, but also drama, magic and even acrobatic shows.

'We hope to bring something new to the theatre,' said Li, who is also a fung shui practitioner and philanthropist. 'When the theatre reopens, it's going to play an important role as a cultural centre before the West Kowloon Cultural District is built.'

Hong Kong's only privately run theatre has served as a mecca for Cantonese opera since its founding in 1972. Its operator, United Arts Entertainment, however, has blamed big losses on rising rents and decided not to renew its lease on the building when it expires later this month.

The Sunbeam's show last Sunday was to be its last. But Li signed a four-year lease on Saturday after chief executive hopeful Leung Chun-ying put him in contact with its landlord, Francis Law Sau-fai.

Li, whose has reinvented himself as a Cantonese opera playwright in recent years, is paying HK$1 million per month under the new lease, nearly 30 per cent more than the HK$698,000 paid by United Arts.

His Prime Splendor Theatrical Troupe will manage the theatre and rehire staff who previously ran the Sunbeam. Li estimates the operation would cost HK$1.5 million per month - and fully expects to it to be a loss-making endeavour. The HK$35,000 nightly rental charge simply will not cover the bills.

'I'm prepared to lose money,' said Li, who holds a degree in communications from Baptist University and has worked in the media and wrote film scripts while making his fortune in fung shui.

Reluctant to put up rental charges for already stretched opera companies or increase ticket prices, Li is vague about how he will minimise his losses. He said that 'the only way to reduce the loss is to run more shows'.

The government allocated HK$3.6 million through the Arts Development Council in 2009 for opera troupes to stage performances at the Sunbeam. It has so far approved 40 applications and provided HK$3 million to support 259 performances.

But the rental subsidy scheme ends with the old lease and the government says it wants to support publicly owned venues, rather than private ones.

The theatre has two venues - the main theatre, with 1,033 seats, and a cinema, with 536 seats. In the main house, the focus would still be on Cantonese opera, which would make up 80 per cent of the performances.

Li rejected claims that few local troupes would perform at the venue in the coming year, despite warnings from professional troupes on Saturday that they had already locked in deals with government-owned venues, which must be booked up to a year in advance.

'Many of them want to return to Sunbeam now and give up on government venues,' Li said. 'We will also open the doors to mainland troupes.'

Li hopes the cinema would emerge as a venue for more intimate shows by pop singers and drama groups. He has been in talks with several local theatre companies, including Chung Ying Theatre.

'They can do experimental theatre,' he said.

Chung Ying's artistic director Ko Tin-lung said he has been in talks with Li on projects allowing Cantonese opera and drama to cross over with each other. Ko, who's also the chairman of the Arts Development Council's promotion committee, said Sunbeam would be an ideal place to educate young people.

Li expected renovation work to be kept to a minimum, although new carpets would be fitted on all floors and one male toilet would be converted into a female toilet.

'We want to preserve things as they are, as part of Hong Kong's collective memory,' he said.

But Li wants the Sunbeam to be more than just a theatre. He hopes to develop exhibition spaces nearby to showcase the history of Cantonese opera. He has also been seeking props and costumes that he can someday exhibit.

'I'd rather do it privately,' Li said. 'If we can't rely on the government, we can rely on ourselves. Hong Kong people have lots of potential.'