Will historic Hong Kong theatre be able to unite heritage and urban development?
I was pleasantly surprised by the report this week that New World Development is looking to conserve parts of State Theatre as the company seeks to buy out the site where the North Point landmark stands (“Hopes rise for Hong Kong’s historic State Theatre with developer New World aiming to save ‘relevant part’ of complex”, October 24).
Heritage conservation in Hong Kong has long been seen to clash with urban redevelopment. The default option for developers is to bulldoze historic buildings when they get in the way of their property projects.
Moreover, the profit imperative is so overwhelming that, even when property developers make attempts at heritage conservation, rank failures tend to stick in the mind. One has to look no further than the mutilated natural landscape of Heritage 1881 in Tsim Sha Tsui or the soulless gentrification of “Wedding Card Street” in Wan Chai to know what the city’s tycoons generally think about vintage architecture or collective memories.
It thus remains to be seen what New World will do to State Theatre. In recent years, the company has been trumpeting an “artisanal movement” brand. However nebulous that idea to blend the arts into retail and residential projects may be, if State Theatre can be kept and revived, it will be quite a groundbreaking mentality shift from a scion of one of Hong Kong's wealthiest families in terms of their respect for the past.
Though something of an architectural peculiarity, the skeleton-like roof structure of State Theatre makes it an inimitable icon of Hong Kong’s cityscape. In an increasingly globalised world, new landmarks of big cities tend to all look the same. The West Kowloon Terminus of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link may feel ultra-modern, but it is bereft of any character or roots – it could have been anywhere in the world.
Old-school movie halls like State Theatre are a rarity these days. Granted, 21st-century movie-watching habits don’t call for thousand-seater cinemas. Yet, movie-going was the font of happiness for generations of people until recently. I still hold very fond memories of going to the gigantic Paris Theatre in San Po Kong with my son in the 1970s and 1980s.
There is a huge shortage of performing venues for young artists in Hong Kong today. If State Theatre can be restored to what it once was, that is, a popular venue for both films and live shows, that would be a terrific celebration of a very special piece of Hong Kong heritage.
S.K. Chan, Sha Tin