A decade at the heart of Hongkong's showbiz

IT IS the heart and soul of Hongkong's entertainment industry. It has seen the sweat, tears and laughter of sporting achievement. The faithful have come to pray there. Graduates have received their honours there. It has proved to be a litmus test for mostof the territory's stars and provided a platform for international artists attempting to conquer Asia.

And this month the Hongkong Coliseum, that bizarre concrete rival to Rome's amphitheatre, is 10 years old.

Completed in 1983 at a cost of $175 million - no less than 20 years after it was first envisaged - the Coliseum has provided a platform for the best in sports, culture and show-business that Hongkong and the world has to offer.

While it may not be as pretty to the eye as Rome's crumbling edifice, there is no denying it is a remarkable feat of architecture and engineering, and a concept that has, so far, stood the test of time.

Since former king of Canto-pop Sam Hui Koon-kit held the first concert in its cavernous hall, a stream of top showbiz stars has trod the boards: from local stars such as Anita Mui Yim-fong, Paula Tsui, Alan Tam Wing-lun and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, to international artists as famous as Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Paul Simon, Simply Red and, most recently, Elton John.

In sports, world class skaters have skated, Japan's sumo kings have sweated, while the venue has also attracted top competitions such as the recent soccer Five-a-Side World Cup.

But it is perhaps the local music concerts that have given the Coliseum its fame - with the length of its concert runs earning it a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

In this role, it has revolutionised the local pop industry, with the stars of 25-night sellout series banking millions more than they earn from sales of their albums.

Simply to play at the Coliseum means you have made it.

Veteran singer Tsui has fond memories: ''I remember being initially scared at the prospect of singing there. I was used to three-sided staging so I felt a deep sense of insecurity when I was first surrounded by an audience.

''I gave the first series of my own concerts at the Coliseum in 1985. That series has revolutionised my performing life.

''I have also developed a deep sentimental attachment towards the venue.

''The Coliseum has become the Mecca for pop singers in Hongkong, and competition to stage shows there is really keen. This competitive environment has contributed to the rapid development of the pop music scene.

''Performing there is really an exciting experience. Every time, after the completion of a concert series, it takes me months to regain the strength dissipated in the shows.'' Tsui is not alone in her admiration for the venue. Some of today's top stars including Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Leon Lai Ming and Sandy Lam Yik-lin say the Coliseum has proved to be their main stepping stone to fame.

''The Coliseum is a very special place for all the singers in Hongkong,'' Lam said. ''It is a very important stepping stone in your career. You have your concert there and it means you have achieved a certain popularity. It is a very important venue for the music industry.

''I have performed there many times, it is a very, very exciting feeling, there are people all around you. The first time I sang there I was terrified. It will always hold a very special memory for me because I held my first solo concert there,'' Lam said. ''After that concert I gained a lot of confidence and experience as a solo artist.'' Pop idol Lai said the venue was responsible for many happy memories not only in his life but in the lives of those who had entered the venue.

''It is an unforgettable experience to perform there, it is a feeling you will probably only experience once in your lifetime, to hear that many people singing your songs and calling out your name. It is wonderful,'' he said.

Fellow pop ''king'' Cheung said: ''It is a definite achievement for a singer to perform there. Anyone who wants to stage a large concert of their own has to play there because it is the only place to go. The venue has brought us singers much closer to our fans.'' Pop promoters have also benefitted enormously from the venue.

''The Coliseum has created many rich singers like Sam Hui, Anita, Alan Tam,'' said Mr William Wong, of Capital Artists. ''When Capital Artists put on the first show, the Sam Hui show, it was the biggest event at that time. No one could have imagined there would be 6,000 or 7,000 people in any one audience. There was the Government Stadium as an alternative but it was subject to weather conditions and the audience was far away from the stage.

''The Coliseum, although vast, is relatively intimate and the sound quality is totally under our control.

''There will always be a role for the Coliseum - the new Hongkong Stadium is, after all, open air. At least for the foreseeable future the Coliseum will remain first choice, at least for the singers it will.'' The conception dates back as far as 1951, when Mr A. de O. Sales, then honorary secretary of the Olympic Committee, wrote to the Government proposing the building of two indoor stadia, one on each side of Victoria Harbour.

At this stage, the proposal foundered because of lack of funds. The project eventually took shape in the '70s, when the Government decided to relocate the railway station to its present site on the Hunghom waterfront.

It was then thought an indoor stadium, which the Urban Council had been pressing for, could be put on the podium.

But what makes the Coliseum remarkable is its construction. It gives the 1,680 square metre arena the maximum column-free space and accords perfectly with the design requirements for grandstand seating.

The inverted pyramid design was not the first blueprint tabled. Various proposals were passed before the sub-committee of the Urban Council, formed in 1964, which completed a report in 1967 recommending the construction of a 7,500-seat cruciform stadium.

Further research raised the feasibility of a column-free multi-purpose indoor stadium with grandstand seating for 12,500 spectators. This proposal was subsequently accepted by the Urban Council in 1972.

The Coliseum's architect, Pau Siu-hung, is proud of his achievement mainly because the minimalist and symmetrical shape embodies his quest for meticulous calculation and considerate design.

''It took a long time to come to fruition. It certainly was not easy. At the time the shape was revolutionary. But the Coliseum has become one of those many buildings in Hongkong that people take pride in so it was worth all the effort.'' Pau's achievement was to create a balanced cantilever, supported by four large hollow concrete pillars, which pierced through the railway platform below into the seabed of reclaimed Hunghom Bay.

More than 10,000 spectators can be seated on the four cantilever sides of the structure - literally floating in the air above the podium concourse - while fixing their eyes on the activities on an arena which is 41 metres across.

''The Coliseum is 10 years old but it has stood the test of time. It has been faithful to many people, including audiences, artists and sportsmen alike. I am convinced that this building, which has served the community so well, has many more years of life left in it yet,'' Pau said.