A Trip down memory lane –
回憶的道路 – 皇都戲院
Wendy Ng 吳韻怡
As an architectural conservationist, I have been writing a lot of building appraisals, usually in the building’s chronological order. But for the State Theatre, I would love to begin with my own chronological order.
When I was small, my mom had a children’s wear shop in the State Theatre shopping arcade. It was named after me: Wendy Company. I would go there after school almost every day and develop a strong bonding with our neighbours. I would play with the kids from another shop at the dress circle lift lobby, which was a few steps away from Wendy Company. That was how we got along with the lift operator, who liked to pull funny faces at us. Her husband had a stall selling roast chestnuts and sweet potatoes just outside at Hei Wo Street. Sometimes I would get treats from him.
The arcade was like a maze with its corridor networks, where I loved to explore in my spare time. I like the way the building was built along the sloped site, in which the architect designed different levels within the arcade. Wendy Company was located on the King’s Road level, where most of the shops were neighbourhood shops for the kaifongs. The lower part on the Java Road level were mostly storages and workshops. As my mom needed to look after the shop, our family activities mainly took place around it. We would have dinner in the restaurant on the upper floor. And of course, we used to go to the movies at the Theatre from time to time.
It was not until 2015, when there was news about the buyout of the State Theatre which alerted my friend from Walk in Hong Kong. As the State Theatre was a proposed Grade 3 Historic Building back then, the lowest grade in the system, we planned to urge for a higher grade in order to increase the chance to keep it.
The first thing we did was to establish its cultural significance through preparing a building appraisal based on the criteria the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO) adopted for their grading exercise. During our research, we found an advertisement for the grand opening of Empire Theatre, when it was first built as a standalone theatre building in 1952. The advertisement even claimed that its underground car park was unique in the Far East. It was built to have a stage with an orchestra pit. Apart from movies, it was also a place for musical performances. Harry Odell, the Managing Director of Commonwealth Enterprises Corporation Ltd. that built the Empire Theatre, was a well-recognized Hong Kong theatre impresario who was able to invite a lot of world-famous performers to perform at Empire Theatre.
The theatre was further expanded between 1957-1959, where residential blocks were built at the rear of the theatre, the original car park was integrated with the new extension and formed a shopping arcade on the street level. It was renamed the State Theatre thereafter, which gradually became the place where I spent my childhood.
My friend asked how I like the roof structure when we started our research. To be honest, I have never paid attention to it as the main facade was always covered by large advertising boards. When we found an article about the Empire Theatre, it highlighted that the concrete parabolic roof trusses design was of particular interest.¹ As we failed to identify any other building of similar roof structure, we enquired a number of academics about its uniqueness.² That led to the inclusion of the State Theatre on DOCOMOMO International’s ‘Heritage in danger’ list, referring to the uniqueness of having the parabolic roof trusses in particular.³
In April 2016, we submitted our prepared building appraisal to Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB) for their consideration to accord a higher grading status to the State Theatre.⁴ During the 174th AAB meeting, AMO presented that in view of the major alteration works carried out to the interior, relatively lower scores were given in the criteria for integrity and group value. A number of members opined that the State Theatre should be accorded a higher grading status and requested for further information about the interior alteration to facilitate deliberation on the grading. ⁵
The State Theatre had received wide media coverage since then. Inside stories about different shops in the arcade were reported, which aroused the public’s attention. Different groups initiated their own activities in responses, for instance, old photo collection,⁶ sketching on-site,⁷ documentation ⁸ , etc.
Meanwhile, we found drawings when State Theatre was converted into a billiard centre in 2000, which showed that the original theatre structure is still intact with non-destructive additions such as false ceilings and decks over the existing sloping or stepping auditorium. Information was submitted to AAB for their further consideration. In December 2016 during the 176th AAB meeting, after a lively discussion amongst the members, it was voted that a Grade 1 status should be given to the State Theatre and was finally confirmed in 2017.
The conservation of the State Theatre did not just end at this point. In 2018, New World Development (NWD) made an application to the Lands Tribunal for a compulsory sale order in respect of the State Theatre with a view to unifying the ownership of the building for redevelopment purposes.⁹ In 2020, the State Theatre was sold to NWD at auction. NWD subsequently announced a conservation project “to conserve and restore this iconic building to its original glamour and build a cultural oasis that serves the community.”¹⁰ Since 2018, I was invited to be one of the advisors for NWD’s community programs with the aim to increase public understanding of the history of North Point and the State Theatre. Their recent immersive event, “Discover the State Theatre in All of Us” was a huge success in revealing stories of the theatre through visitors’ personal experiences.¹¹
Wendy Ng is an architectural conservationist and director of
Revival Heritage Consultants Limited.
¹ Henry Graye (ed.) “The New Empire Theatre,” The Hongkong and Far East Builder, Vol. 9, No. 2 (July-September 1951) (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Building Service, 1951), 22.
² We enquired: i) Prof. Lee Ho Yin, a co-founder and the longest serving Director of the Architectural Conservation Programmes in Hong Kong. ii) Prof. Ho Puay Peng, the Head of Department of Architecture, School of Design and Environment, National University of Singapore, who holds the UNESCO Chair on Architectural Heritage Conservation and Management in Asia. iii) Dr. Andrea Hamilton, a Senior Lecturer in Structural Engineering Materials at Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. iv) Prof. Dr.-Ing. Jos Tomlow, a member of DOCOMOMO International Specialist Committee – Technology Karl-Liebknecht-Ring 8, D-02763 Zittau, Germany, Hochschule Zittau/Görlitz, (University of applied sciences, Zittau/Görlitz), Theodor-Körner-Allee 16, D-02763 Zittau, Germany.
³ Jos Tomlow, “Report on the preservation of the State Theatre in Hong Kong and its possible nomination on a Heritage list (1952)”, 10 March 2016. Accessed on 06 October 2021, website: https://www.docomomo.hk/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/State-Theatre-1.pdf.
⁴ 活現香港，《舊皇都戲院文物價值評估報告》，29-03-2016。 瀏覽日期：07-10-2021，網址：https://walkin.hk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Heritage_Value_Assessment_Former_State_Theatre.pdf
⁵ Antiquities and Monuments Office, Leisure and Cultural Services Department, “Minutes of the 174th Meeting”, Ref: LCSD/CS/AMO 22-3/1, September 2016. Accessed on 06 October 2021, website: https://www.aab.gov.hk/form/AAB174_minutes_e.pdf.
⁷ 何阿嵐 潘浩欣 鄺曉恩，〈【城市寫生】記錄七一的熱烈與流動 畫家︰每張畫都承載故事〉，香港01，10-07-2016。瀏覽日期：07-10-2021，網址：https://www.hk01.com/藝文/30659/城市寫生-記錄七一的熱烈與流動-畫家-每張畫都承載故事。
⁸ Thomas Leung, “the future of State Theatre”, vimeo, 5 May 2016. Accessed on 06 October 2021, website: https://vimeo.com/165675229.
⁹ New World Development Company Limited, “New World Development applies for compulsory sale of State Theatre Building with a view to conserve”, 22 October 2018. Accessed on 6 October 2021, website: https://www.nwd.com.hk/content/new-world-development-applies-compulsory-sale-state-theatre-building-view-conserve-0.
¹º New World Development Company Limited, “Adrian Cheng Taps WilkinsonEyre, Purcell to Conserve Hong Kong’s Last Surviving Movie Palace, the 68-Year-Old State Theatre”, 8 October 2020. Accessed on 6 October 2021, website: https://www.nwd.com.hk/content/adrian-cheng-taps-wilkinsoneyre-purcell-conserve-hong-kongs-last-surviving-movie-palace-6-0.
¹¹ New World Development Company Limited, “‘Discover the State Theatre in All of Us’ An exceptional immersive event in a Grade I historic site before New World Development begins the restoration of the State Theatre”, 1 April 2021. Accessed on 6 October 2021, website: https://www.nwd.com.hk/content/discover-state-theatre-all-us-exceptional-immersive-event-grade-i-historic-site-new-worl-0.
State Theatre, 2020. (Credit: author)
State Theatre, circa 1961 (Credit: Martin Snelling, flickr)
Empire Theatre, 1952.
Elevation showing residential blocks
First floor plan showing cinema, 1991.
Long section, State Theatre when it was converted into
a billiard centre in 2000. It can be seen that the theatre structure is still intact.
The interior of the shopping arcade on
King’s Road Level. (Credit: The Author)
View of revamped arcade interior for exhibition “Discover the State Theatre in all of us”.