The Beatles, Cantonese opera, Alien and even Miss Universe … Old Hong Kong’s iconic cinemas saw it all – but which ones are still standing?

Artwork of famous Hong Kong movie characters from the exhibition “Discover The State Theatre In All Of Us”, that ran in April and May 2021 at the State Theatre, one of the few old-style surviving cinemas. Photo: New World Development

It’s a tough time for cinemas. While there are theatres closing down – local cinema chain UA lowered its curtains for the last time earlier this year – there are also new cinemas being launched in movie-loving Hong Kong. There’s the sci-fi themed ACX Cinemas in North Point’s Harbour North shopping mall and the independent four-house Golden Scene in Kennedy Town. It’s also been confirmed that another Emperor Cinema will be coming to Times Square.

Meanwhile characterful movie theatres of the past remain in our memories. Here we take a look back at some of the iconic old cinemas that were once at the forefront of Hong Kong’s entertainment scene.

Princess Theatre (樂宮戲院)

The Princess Theatre, at one end of Kimberley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, 1973. Photo: SCMP

Opened in 1952, the Princess Theatre stood at the junction of Nathan Road and Kimberley Road, where the Mira Hotel is now located.

Called the “Golden Mile” in post-WWII years, Nathan Road was one of the busiest streets in all Hong Kong. Famous cinemas along its length included the Alhambra Theatre (平安戲院) (1934-1958), Astor Theatre (普慶戲院) (1957-1987), London Theatre (倫敦大戲院) (1962-1988), Royal Theatre (麗聲戲院) (1960-1990) and Princess Theatre (樂宮戲院) (1952-1973), to name a few.

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The Princess in particular was famous for showing films adapted from well-known works of literature, such as Ivanhoe in 1952 and Hamlet in 1964. The special discount on Sunday mornings also made it popular with students.

The ticket for The Beatles show at the Princess Theatre in 1964. Photo: Handout

In 1964, the cinema became still more well known when English pop band The Beatles performed two live shows on the theatre’s stage, the only shows they performed during their visit to Hong Kong.

The Princess Theatre was demolished in 1970s and became the Mira Hotel.

Lee Theatre (利舞臺戲院)

An exterior evening view of Lee Theatre in Causeway Bay, 1995. Like the Princess Theatre, it also doubled as a venue for stage performances. Photo: SCMP

Lee Theatre, long a premier venue for live performances, was home to a vast array of entertainment from orchestral galas, musicals, Chinese operas to pop concerts in the 1970s to 1980s.

Located in Causeway Bay and built by the Lee family in 1927, the Beaux-Arts theatre was also the first theatre with a revolving stage and air conditioning in Hong Kong.

Cantonese opera diva Pak Suet Sin presents Princess Alexandra with a jade statuette of the White Snake as a memento of a November 1961 performance at the Lee Theatre. Photo: Information Services Department

Over the years, numerous celebrities visited. In November 1961, British royal Princess Alexandra watched the Cantonese opera The New Legend of the White Snake by Sin Fung Ming Opera Troupe at the Lee Theatre, during her tour of Hong Kong.

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A total of 73 international beauties gathered at the Lee Theatre for the 1976 Miss Universe Pageant. The picture shows them parading in their national costumes at the opening ceremony. Photo: SCMP

From 1973 until the late 1980s, the theatre hosted the annual Miss Hong Kong Pageant, organised by the Television Broadcasts Ltd (TVB). The theatre also hosted the Miss Universe pageant in 1976.

The place was demolished in 1991 and replaced by an office building and shopping centre.

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State Theatre (皇都戲院)

The theatre at 277-291 King’s Road in North Point is one of Hong Kong’s last surviving post-war movie palaces and was classified as a Grade 1 historic building by the city’s Antiquities Advisory Board in 2017. Photo: SCMP

In 2020, the aged State Theatre drew the attention of the public again as New World Development, the majority owner, agreed to preserve the theatre as part of its multibillion-dollar redevelopment plan.

Spearheaded by the late Russian Jewish businessman Harry Oscar Odell and jointly designed by architects S.F. Lew and George W. Grey, the theatre first opened as the Empire Theatre (璇宮戲院) in 1952. It closed five years later and reopened in 1959 as the State Theatre.

The parabolic rooftop of the State Theatre. Photo: SCMP

Stood on the King’s Road in North Point, it’s still possible to see the distinctive curved facade with a relief mural by late contemporary Chinese artist Mei Yutian (梅與天) above the front door. The parabolic exoskeleton truss on the rooftop has been described as being unique in the world by the international conservation organisation Docomomo International.

The theatre closed in 1997. 

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Sunbeam Theatre (新光戲院大劇院)

The lobby of the Sunbeam Theatre. Photo: SCMP

The Sunbeam Theatre, opened in 1972, is another North Point venue and another that showed motion pictures and staged Cantonese operas. In 1989, the theatre was even divided into two auditoriums, with the smaller one converted from the balcony for showing films, while the stalls became a hall for stage performances.

As a landmark theatre for Cantonese opera, it aroused public debate when the landlord announced plans to transform it into a shopping centre in 2003. After years of negotiation, the owner finally agreed to rent it for HK$1 million a month to a mysterious Mr Leung in 2012, ensuring it survives as a theatre for Cantonese opera to the present day. Some rumours have it that the mystery person might even be former Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung Chun-ying.

Palace Theatre (碧麗宮戲院)

The Palace Theatre beside the former Excelsior Hotel in Causeway Bay. Photo: Handout

Now the World Trade Centre, the Palace Theatre opened for business in the mid-1970s and closed down in mid-1990s.

The theatre was originally a luxurious nightclub of the same name, but due to poor business, it was converted into a cinema in the 1970s, though the splendid interior was partially retained.

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The renovated Palace Theatre offered comfy sofa seats and could accommodate more than one thousand people at a time making it, at the time, the most luxurious and comfortable cinema in town.

Converted from a nightclub in the 1970s, the Palace Theatre could seat an audience of more than one thousand people. Photo: Handout

The first movie screened there was the sci-fi blockbuster Alien, while the 1980 Hollywood film Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour had its Hong Kong release at the Palace. The movie was a huge hit across Asia and was shown there for a record period of 223 days and for a full 18 months across the territory.

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  • New World Development plans to renovate the State Theatre, meanwhile is former Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying really supporting the Sunbeam Theatre?
  • Several new Hong Kong cinemas have opened – ACX in Harbour North and Golden Scene in Kennedy Town – while another Emperor Cinema is coming to Times Square