Living heritage of Hong Kong

Hong Kong conservationists urge rule change to save historic theatre

Call comes on the 65th anniversary of the opening of Empire Theatre, which is now used as a snooker hall

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 9:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 December, 2017, 9:33am

Conservationists on Sunday renewed their fight to save a historic theatre in North Point from demolition by calling for renovation rules to be relaxed as a lengthy acquisition of the property is expected to be completed soon.

The appeal was made on the eve of the 65th anniversary of the opening of the Empire Theatre, on December 11, 1952. The 1,400-seat complex, now called the State Theatre but used as a snooker parlour, is one of the last post-war stand-alone theatre structures in the city and the only building with an iconic flying buttress.

Concerns have been raised over its fate since news about its acquisition broke in 2015, prompting conservationists to press the Antiquities Advisory Board a year later to upgrade the block from a Category 3 historic building to Category 1.

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This raised status requires the owner to make “every effort” to preserve it, but it is still one rank below a declared monument, meaning the owner is free to tear it down.

The co-founder of heritage tour agency Walk In Hong Kong and leader of the preservation campaign, Paul Chan Chi-yuen, said they believed 75 per cent of the 450 property rights in the building complex – 50 of the theatre, 181 of the shops and 219 of flats atop the theatre – had been acquired through three or four agencies.

“This means the critical moment will arrive soon,” Chan said, referring to the rule that as soon as a buyer has acquired 80 per cent of total property rights, the whole building could be redeveloped.

There were rumours, never confirmed, that New World Development was the major buyer.

The group urged the government to relax the requirement on ventilation space in the complex as an incentive for the buyer to preserve the theatre, as the current rules bar the developer from building anything higher than 27 metres in part of the plot that comprised the theatre and a residential tower.

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Chan had invited four architectural firms to come up with redevelopment plans for the theatre. Their designs and ideas – ranging from an indoor sports centre to a “human library” – will be exhibited to the public from today until December 26 in an art space near the theatre.

“The exhibition is named Next Stop: State Theatre because we want the theatre to become a landmark so closely related to the public that ordinary people will call its name to alight from a bus,” Chan said.