Hong Kong’s faded Empire Theatre back in the spotlight with vote to give it historic status

Heritage experts say the 64-year-old building in North Point should be protected, but does it still have a role to play in a city hungry for land?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2017, 7:29pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 January, 2017, 9:47pm

A dark corridor meanders through a lane of tailor and shoe shops. Occasionally a dog barks or a cat meows. Who would imagine this was once the carpeted stairway leading to a glamorous theatre where world-class artists performed for high society?

“It was the best in Hong Kong at the time. Stylish inner design, comfortable seats, just sheer top-class enjoyment to be in there,” recalled cultural impresario Darwin Chen Tat-man of the Empire Theatre when it opened in 1952.

Renamed the State Theatre in 1959, the 1,400-seat venue, with its large dress circle and underground car park in the heart of North Point, was virtually the city’s cultural hub in its early years, bringing in a league of top international musicians that put post-war Hong Kong on the world map of classical music.

With the opening of the City Hall in 1962, its role was eclipsed and focused primarily on the cinema business for which it was built. With Hong Kong’s economic take-off in the 1970s, the rising affluent middle-class gradually turned to other forms of entertainment that marked the demise of many post-war cinemas and theatres, including the famous Lee Theatre in Causeway Bay, which gave way to redevelopment.

After a fire in 1995, the State Theatre closed on February 28, 1997, and in 1999 it suffered the indignity of being turned into a snooker parlour.

The original furnishings such as seats and lighting have long gone, but the building’s structure, including the auditorium, has remained intact. Small vendors and businesses now occupy the shopping arcade. It was a sleeping hub until the Antiquities Advisory Board voted last month by a large margin to propose it as a grade one historic building.

“The State Theatre is now the only post-war standalone theatre, a rarity that probably prompted members of the board to vote for the proposed grade one status,” Andrew Lam Siu-lo, the board’s chairman, said.

A one-month period of public consultation ensued and ended on Monday.

“It’s not a voting process and we consider the rationale from the public’s input, not whether they like it or not,” Lam said.

Grade one status is awarded to buildings “of outstanding merit, which every effort should be made to preserve if possible”. So far there are 1,444 buildings in that category in Hong Kong.

“Those are mostly pre-war buildings and their styles tend to be more uniform than the post-war architecture that features more variety,” Lam, a retired town planning professional, said.

According to the historic building appraisal prepared by the board, the State Theatre was the work of two architects – George Grey and S. F. Lew, the former being the architect for the Peninsula Hotel in 1928. They used a reinforced concrete external arch-beam system that allows for a pillar-less auditorium.

“Some believe that it is the only one of its kind known to exist in Southeast Asia and possibly the whole world,” the appraisal said, citing an international source.

For the city’s veteran performing artists and impresarios, the Empire Theatre, the name they referred to, stands for more than a building, grade one or otherwise.

“Hong Kong was a cultural desert at the time, and Empire Theatre was a flower blooming out of a desert,” recalled Chen, who attended concerts and films there as a young man.

Barbara Fei Ming-yi fondly remembered performing there as a young soprano.

“My debut at Empire Theatre was a milestone of my career as a professional artist,” Fei, who died last week, recalled of her concert in April 1956, before which she had performed mostly in schools and churches.

“Everything was professionally designed to the best effects. The stalls, I remember, were in different colours like a rainbow, and the microphone was designed in a way that it would not block my face. I owed it to Harry Odell, who made it all happen,” she said.

Generally considered Hong Kong’s first impresario, Odell was a legendary figure whose vision was to bring the best to the city he called home.

“I only associate myself with the finest of artists,” he told the Post in 1954, the year he brought in pianists Cor de Groot and Jan Smeterlin and cellist Pierre Fournier.

With his international network, top ranking musicians added Hong Kong as a stop on their tours, and the Empire Theatre was where they performed.

“I emphasise here that this is not just another theatre, but the result of combined efforts to genuinely meet the needs of the community for healthy entertainment,” he told the Post just before its launch on December 11, 1952.

Darwin Chen, who later became Odell’s close associate in cultural presentations, recalled subtle contributions the theatre and its visionary manager had made for the opening of City Hall in 1962, where he was a senior manager.

“The top performing artists Odell brought in nurtured a generation of audiences who experienced the joy of live performance in a theatre,” he said. “Marketing and the ticketing mechanism, too, were very much down to him.”

George Shen, a retired chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal, recalled how he came to be a music contributor while lining up for tickets.

“It was in Central that I queued up for a ticket to a French ballet and I asked for details of the choreography, a request that threw the staff off guard but drew immediate interest from the man with silver hair and a big cigar – and that’s Harry Odell. He offered me a pair of complementary tickets on condition that I write the house programme for him, and I did,” Shen, aged 88, recalled from his San Francisco home.

Long, tedious process ahead to save historical State Theatre, Hong Kong heritage chief says

Former legislator Edward Ho Sing-tin, an architect by profession and a violinist by interest, fondly recalled a recital by renowned Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky at the Empire Theatre in 1956 that stirred his lifelong interest in music.

“The sound in a live performance by a legendary cellist is unforgettable, and it has remained in my memory,” Ho, an amateur cellist, said.

Chen applauded Odell’s effort in supporting classical music by showing films without a penny of support from the government.

“It was a good business model that worked at the time and Odell did it through four screenings a day plus charity and fundraising shows at the theatre,” he said.

In a commercial move in 1958, Odell and his Commonwealth Enterprises Corporation sold the plot of land where the Empire Theatre stood to Hong Kong Enterprises, which owned Queen’s Theatre in Central.

The HK$1.5 million deal was a handsome return from the original land sale of HK$319,500 in 1951. Redevelopment was pending for high-rise residential buildings. For some reason the theatre was saved as the State Theatre and a less ambitious residential building was built on the adjacent lot.

“The board is looking only at the theatre lot, and not the residential lot next to it. But the shopping arcades that link the two lots together could be complicated due to numerous stakeholders and occupiers who may have a say,” Lam said.

Pressing case for a heritage body to help preserve Hong Kong’s past

During his six years as member and four years as chairman of the board, a successful grade-one decision has never been disregarded by the Antiquities Authority, which will proceed after the board’s decision.

“We will go ahead with the Empire Theatre case according to procedure but I am not optimistic,” Lam said.

“Hong Kong is a city that gives importance to land economics, in the private and public sectors alike, and we have the unfortunate case of Ho Tung Gardens at The Peak that was declared grade one but the owner demolished it. But then we have the fortunate case of King Yin Lei in Mid-Levels, which was saved in the end,” he said.

“In my experience with antiquities assessment, the more recent the building, the more controversies will arise due to the general public, who with their familiarity ascribe different social values to it, and the Empire Theatre is one such.”

Empire Theatre is the very origin of Hong Kong’s entry to the world of high arts, and that historical role has to be protected
Barbara Fei, late soprano

Veterans from cultural circles, however, look at the 64-year old venue as a potential landmark on Island East that possesses a historic value that cannot be matched by the arts developments in the HK$21.6 billion West Kowloon Cultural District.

“Empire Theatre is the very origin of Hong Kong’s entry to the world of high arts, and that historical role has to be protected,” Fei, the soprano, said.

“Without it, there would not be a City Hall 10 years later, and without City Hall there would be none of the performing arts we know of today.”

The vast space, the soprano said, would be best used as a museum of local performing artists from different genres, including ballet, Cantonese opera and Western classical music, whose memorabilia, such as costumes and posters, could be displayed.

“Nowhere is more fitting to feature local artists than a place that has their footprints and a wealth of history in itself. You just have to be there to feel it – something that West Kowloon could never deliver,” Fei said.

Chen, with 32 years in civil service including, among other posts, director of cultural services, looked at the site from a cultural ecology perspective. He believed the theatre could be resurrected.

“There is a shortage of performing venues in Hong Kong at the moment, and the situation in North Point is especially dire as there is virtually none other than the Sunbeam Theatre,” he said.

The 1,033-seat Sunbeam, he added, was no match for the Empire Theatre in terms of space and ambience, and its owner was constantly threatening to withdraw the lease. The Sunbeam specialises in Cantonese opera.

Given the North Point neighbourhood, a theatre would have great potential in presenting Chinese performing arts
Darwin Chen, retired cultural impresario

“Sunbeam over the years has nurtured a group of regular concert-goers, so the future Empire Theatre would have no problem in its box office,” Chen said.

But Empire Theatre would “need a new lease of life” in order to function.

“Given the North Point neighbourhood, a theatre would have great potential in presenting Chinese performing arts, whereas Western and avant-garde art forms are well served at other major venues,” he said.

The prime location, with abundant hotel facilities in the vicinity for visiting troupes, plus the large facade for publicity on the front that is conspicuous from a distance, is what makes Empire Theatre a perfect hub that would shine.

“We need to find an operational model, like Odell’s in the 1950s, that would put the theatre to work to its full potential,” Chen said.

The government, he added, could play a role, depending on the ownership of the site.

“It could partner with the developer that owns the lot, pretty much like the public-private partnership scheme in the early phase of the West Kowloon initiative, with the developer paying for renovation and the government running the theatre through the Leisure and Cultural Services Department,” he said.

“And if the government takes over the site, it could partner with the Hong Kong Jockey Club in funding a facelift, which would be a lot less than HK$3.5 billion,” he added, referring to the Jockey Club’s funding of Hong Kong’s version of Beijing’s Palace Museum in the West Kowloon hub.

The Empire Theatre, Chen continued, would complement the Sunbeam Theatre and replace it when the day came that its lease was not extended.

Fei, who died last week aged 85, agreed that a partnership model between the government and a developer could work.

“But I think it would require a Harry Odell-type of person to lead the theatre with vision and ability,” she said.

“I just hope one day I can sing on the stage at the Empire Theatre again. I would go for it even when all my teeth are gone,” she laughed, just three days before her death.

Fei emphasised the importance of preserving the city’s heritage, as epitomised by the Empire Theatre.

“It takes only one or two days to demolish a theatre that preserves the early history of the city’s performing arts, and if Hong Kong goes on bulldozing historic memories like that, we will have nothing to remember.”