How Hong Kong neighbourhood became a Mecca for film fans, then saw its cinemas close one by one
Yau Ma Tei’s first cinema opened in 1919 and over the next four decades it became the epicentre of film-going in Hong Kong; fans flocked to the Astor, Majestic, London and others for the latest local and international releases
Today, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui are logical destinations if you want to watch the latest blockbuster. But 50 years ago, film-goers flocked to Yau Ma Tei, the hardscrabble neighbourhood halfway up the Kowloon peninsula. In the 1960s and ’70s, grand cinemas dotted the area with names as expansive as their vast auditoriums: Universal, Majestic, Liberty, London and Astor, to name just a few.
The neighbourhood’s love affair with the silver screen started in 1919 with the opening of the Kwong Chee Theatre on Kansu Street, where the Yau Ma Tei Car Park is now located. It was the first cinema in Kowloon.
A photo taken around 1930 shows a lively scene out front, with hawkers selling goods from baskets and passers-by dressed in flowing Tang suits. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell what film was being screened at the time.
A decade later, the cinema was joined by a others that showed the latest releases. The Tai Yat Theatre opened on Public Square Street in 1926, followed by the Majestic and the Po Hing Theatre on Nathan Road in 1928. The Yau Ma Tei Theatre opened at the corner of Waterloo Road and Reclamation Street in 1930.
The number of cinemas continued to increase after the second world war, reaching a peak of eight in 1960 – more than in any other area of Hong Kong.
Cheung Chi-ying, a shipping clerk born in 1952 who shared his experiences with the HK Memory oral history project, recalls that watching films was his main source of entertainment as a teenager.
“The cinemas targeted different classes of people, so they each offered different kinds of films,” he says. The Universal drew a working-class crowd, with local films starring actors such as Lydia Sum Tin-ha (also known as Lydia Shum) and Josephine Siao Fong-fong.
The Po Hing (also known as the Astor) showed patriotic films from China. The London enjoyed the best reputation, with a roster of Hollywood pictures and films from the Shaw Brothers Studio.
Cheung remembers watching silent Charlie Chaplin films at the Yau Ma Tei Theatre. “They were narrated by a commentator who was sitting in the attic,” he says.
Some of his most vivid memories are of the Kwong Chee Theatre, which showed second-run films. It was notoriously easy to sneak in as film-goers crammed the crowded cinema. Stools were available inside the auditorium, but many people simply spread a newspaper out on the floor.
“As the film reached its climax, parents didn't want to take their children to the toilet, so they peed on the spot and the whole place stank,” Cheung says.
But he liked going there because it was next door to his favourite turtle jelly shop, and he could bring his snack into the cinema.
Yau Ma Tei’s heyday as a hub for cinemas ended in the late ’70s, when more opened in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. One by one, all of its cinemas disappeared, except for the Yau Ma Tei Theatre, which – after a stint as a porn cinema – has been renovated to serve as a Cantonese opera venue.