A vintage-style ticket, hand-drawn posters of old movies and a neon light model of the parabolic truss. A recent immersive exhibition of Hong Kong’s iconic theater brought back May Ma’s memories of decades ago.
Ma, 74, had worked as an usher and ticket seller in the State Theater for 19 years since 1978.
In the exhibition last month, the original glamour of the theater that closed in 1997 was restored in front of Ma and many other visitors. Over 100 artifacts, including movie handbills and staff uniforms, were on display to show the theater’s cultural landscape of the old days.
“It’s the golden age for Hong Kong movies,” says Ma. “When Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon was released, the line (of people waiting to buy a ticket) stretched all the way to the street.”
Ma recalls that going to the theater or watching movies was the first choice of entertainment for young people at that time. She and her husband once watched five films a day.
The theater was founded in 1952 by entrepreneur Harry Oscar Odell under the name of Empire Theater. The name, State Theater, was adopted in 1959 when the theater was sold and reopened. North Point, an area in the northern part of Hong Kong Island where the theater is located, was known for its energetic nightlife, dubbed as “Little Shanghai” in the 1950s.
A symbolic building in Hong Kong, the theater featured performances by international artists and witnessed the booming period of the film industry.
“It was a time of postwar recovery and the State Theater, as a performance venue, was quite unique under the background,” architectural conservationist Wendy Ng says.
In June 1956, an art ensemble from the Chinese mainland arrived in Hong Kong and gave spectacular performances in the theater, marking the first such event after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The performances were of enormous popularity in Hong Kong.
“In the history of Hong Kong’s performing arts, the State Theater had an irreplaceable position and great cultural value. It had all the makings of a ‘cultural landmark’ at that time,” Ng says.
Its glory faded through time. The building of the theater was gradually used for other purposes, including a snooker hall and neighborhood shopping center. The theater closed in 1997, two years after a fire accident.
But the iconic theater remains in people’s minds.
Ng has many joyful memories in her mother’s store in the shopping center of the theater building when she was a preschooler back in the 1980s. She still kept a ticket for the last film shown in the theater before its closure. “It was Mr. Nice Guy starring Jackie Chan. I watched it with my mother and older brother.”
The good News is the theater will hopefully come into life in the future.
The theater structure was listed as a Grade I historic building of Hong Kong in March 2017 and its current owner, Hong Kong-based conglomerate New World Development, will begin a conservation project after the exhibition, with the goal of restoring it as the landmark for culture and arts by 2026.
“Its history may have faded through time, but its story is far from over,” says Adrian Cheng, chief executive officer of New World Development.
Ma has treasured for 24 years a Newspaper clipping about the theater’s closure. She is looking forward to the day the theater comes back as beautiful and prosperous as ever.