New World Development, one of the city’s largest developer, announced last week (Oct 8) to keep the 68-year-old State Theatre after a 5-year-long community-lead campaign successfully made the future of this once forgotten cinema a citywide focus.
The cinema in North Point was first opened in 1952 as the Empire Theatre and renamed as the State Theatre in 1959, 10 years before the City Hall in Central. Under the leadership of Russian Jew Harry Odell, the theatre was not only a cinema and a concert hall, but also an instrumental location in bringing top overseas performances to local audience. World-class artists Benjamin Britten and Isaac Stern performed at the theatre. Teresa Teng, who conquered the hearts of millions of Chinese in the world, met her fans there.
Adrian Cheng, chief executive of the developer, described the theatre as “one of the last standing cultural icons of Hong Kong”. He pledged to conserve and restore the iconic building to its original glamour, reopen it as a theatre and build a cultural oasis that serves the community.” The announced scheme prompted praises from pundits and across social media.
Given the commercial nature of the theatre business and the premium value of arts and culture to property development, Cheng’s decision makes every business sense even though most developers consider keeping an old tile too much of a trouble. The decision should be praised.
But now comes the real test.
Thanks to the overwhelmingly abrasive development model in Hong Kong, the city has had little success in conserving and revitalising cultural landscape.
Gone are the Star Ferry and Queen’s Piers in Central, the Wedding Card Street in Wan Chai, the Wan Chai Ferry Pier and the Ho Tung Gardens in the Peak.
Other heritage buildings are not doing much better. The hundred-year-old Graham Street Market was halved with the famous Wing Woo Grocery Shop amputated. The Pawn in Wan Chai is now part of a bar and only its façade survived from bulldozers. The Marine Police Headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui is now a shopping mall for luxury brand with most of the century-old trees removed. The Tai O Police Station in Lantau is now an upmarket hotel for the wealthy and the Yau Ma Tei Carpark Building is about to be demolished.
Under Hong Kong’s Government’s blatant contempt to the city’s historical landscape, there is no sound mechanism to conserve heritage. Nearly 15 years had passed since the demolition of the landmark Star Ferry Pier that provoked public uproar, heritage conservation remains a subject matter of advocacy from the civil society rather than rules, core values or norms for corporates and officials to follow. When it comes to what and how to conserve, the discussion is mainly about built heritage and its architectural value. The social, historical and cultural values attached to these buildings are always neglected by all technocrats in government offices.
We have done so badly in saving the city’s historical beauty that only the Blue House cluster in Wan Chai is the first and only project that both the buildings and the use are conserved. The revitalised tenement buildings remain homes of ordinary people. The bold move and the effort landed the project a UNESCO award in 2017 for cultural heritage conservation.
New World Development’s decision to conserve the State Theatre, both the hardware and software, is a significant step for heritage conservation. It is the second project of this kind and the first one driven by the private sector.
The question now is what the future holds for State Theatre, such as the programmes to be played at the theatre. Adrian Cheng vowed it would be a cultural oasis. But he has not told us his definition of culture.
Welsh theorist Raymond William, who laid the foundation of cultural studies penned his seminal piece about culture in 1958, in which he suggested, “Culture is ordinary”. What kind of performances, films, exhibitions will be showed in the future State Theatre? How will the future theatre relate to the surrounding North Point community? How will the content relate to present day Hong Kong”? How will it continue the role started by Harry Odell in bringing overseas performances to local audience? Hong Kong in 2020 has a vibrant though always struggling cultural sector because of absence of government support. Will this cultural oasis help promote Hong Kong culture and bring our culture to the international audience?
While it is a private property, given the historical importance of the theatre in promoting performing arts and film, and the community’s collective effort in making the structure a Grade I historic building, State Theatre is an important cultural landscape. It is part of Hongkongers’ collective sentiment. What will be shown in the future theatre is not entirely a private matter.
None of the above questions will be raised if the State Theatre is not conserved. Hong Kong would not have entered the stage to discuss conserving and revitalising the soul of a historic building, and how to engage the community in the process, should New World opted for the convention abrasive development model of slash, burn and build.
*A version of the article is also available on the Hong Kong Free Press <https://hongkongfp.com/2020/10/17/state-theatre-is-saved-but-the-real-test-for-hong-kongs-heritage-conservation-has-yet-to-come/>