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Enemies of the State: The fight to save North Point’s iconic State Theatre

Written by
Anna Cummins
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The beguiling State Theatre Building has stood on King’s Road in North Point for almost 64 years. But Hong Kong’s last grand post-war theatre structure is now facing its final curtain. Anna Cummins meets the people fighting to save it from developers. (Originally published December 2015)

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It’s a bleary Monday morning and we’re checking our emails. Do we need PPI? No. Do we want a fat-busting pill? No, ta. The next message opens up. “The State Theatre is going to be demolished – they’ll flatten everything. Hong Kong needs to save it.” For the first time all morning, we pause.

The State Theatre building – a looming, concrete composition, first opened as the glamorous Empire Theatre in 1952. Adverts from the time told of a 56ft-wide cinema screen, a spacious, air conditioned lobby, and a lift up to the dress circle. At first, movies in English and Mandarin were shown, although later on the venue also became popular for Cantonese opera and Mandarin vaudeville. It changed its name to State Theatre in 1959 and was in use until 1997, when it closed for good and was converted into a snooker hall and sauna. The site has lost its ritz in recent years, and is currently shrouded in scaffolding. The complex around the former main theatre still houses at least 200 residential flats, as well as a (decisively dingy) shopping arcade on the ground floor.

The urgent alert about the building being under threat was sent out by local conservation enthusiast and co-founder of walking tour company Walk in Hong Kong, Haider Kikabhoy. “There’s a buyout going on,” he explains. “In the complex surrounding the former theatre there are 200 or so flats. At least 90 of them have been sold to a consortium led by New World Development since July alone. Current planning regulations stipulate that, if a building is over 50 years old, and at least 80 percent of the building is acquired by a buyer, the remaining 20 percent of the site can be acquired by a compulsory sale.”

Now, Hong Kong is well known for its cut ‘n’ thrust approach to development. When the news broke back in August that the iconic, 80-year-old, grade III-listed Tung Tak Pawn Shop in Wan Chai was being demolished, it attracted a groundswell of public attention, with over 2,000 people signing a petition against the decision. But it was too little, too late – a deal to construct a 23-storey tower on the site had been signed back in 2013.

Jonathan Yung, a property agent with Roca Property, based in the building’s arcade, confirms the suspicion. “Someone is buying it all out, yes,” he says. “This place will be demolished in a year or two. It’s so old, what use does it have? There is no air conditioning! It’s messy. The transaction prices have been over $15,000 per square foot, which is high compared to nearby flats. The buyout is happening in phases – the ones who haven’t sold yet are probably holding out for a higher price. The three big landlords already sold up, so the rest will happen very quickly now.”

Estimates, based on transaction records from Centadata, indicate that the consortium could currently be holding up to 60 percent of the complex already. And, if a compulsory sale goes through for the whole site, there’s very little in place to protect the building from redevelopment.

But why are conservationists keen to save the building? At 63 years old it’s not the oldest of Hong Kong’s structures. Yet its the last grand post-war theatre still standing. Its design is eyecatching. Fans of Fruit Chan may have seen the theatre’s iconic beams play a star turn during a scene in his classic 1998 crime film The Longest Summer.

State Theatre in 1968

The State Theatre in 1968

We ask a member of the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB), who is also a registered architect, for his thoughts – although he speaks on condition of anonymity. “This building is very unique in Hong Kong,” he says. “The architecture [by GW Grey and SF Liu] here is very unique. This is the only one in HK with this kind of roof structure – we call it a hanging or tensile structure, which means the roof is held from above, allowing for a pillarless auditorium. It’s certainly the only one of its kind in Hong Kong, possibly in Asia! It was also the first cinema in Hong Kong to have an underground car park, which shows how important it was at the time. I do think it’s worthy of being a monument. It’s very interesting, it’s very complicated. I think the design was quite a modern one for that moment.”

The State Theatre is currently ‘awaiting grading’ by the AAB. Heritage buildings are graded from III to I, with I offering the most protection. Only ‘monument’ status guarantees a building will be preserved. We ask the AAB member whether anything can be done to prompt the grading of the building. “The values the panel uses to see if a building is worth grading include its historical, architectural and social value,” he explains. “In fact, in the recent case of Tung Tak Pawn Shop, I think the public petition could have affected the [decision to demolish it]. But it didn’t come in time. For the government, it’s a matter of mentality. They might not think that the State Theatre building is very prestigious. The interior has also been altered highly. Perhaps if more historians, more well-known people, would come out and say something in the newspapers, I do think that could have an impact.”

“As a lay person, I get frustrated with that mentality,” sighs Kikabhoy in response. “They prefer to pay attention to star names, or they seem to have a narrow understanding of what heritage buildings are. As for the public, I appreciate most people have little time to think about heritage conservation, when they have to contend with white elephants such as the wonky bridge to Macau and the over-budget high speed rail. Plus, unfortunately, most people don’t know what the State Theatre is. It’s in North Point, there’s no attention on this from concern groups. I’m demanding the AAB at least complete the grading assessment so the building’s value is formally documented. If they can’t even do that, it will show how inadequate they are.”

We contact New World Development to ask them for a comment on what their plans are for the site. Their spokesperson tells us simply that ‘the transaction is not confirmed yet, so it would not be appropriate for us to make a comment at this time’.

Kikabhoy is hoping to rally conservationists and the public into action, although he is remaining realistic. “We’re probably not going to keep the State Theatre,” he says flatly. “We need to accept that. It’s going to die. But I’m not going to give up just yet.”

To help save the State Theatre, head to SupportHK.org and sign their petition to have the building listed as a Grade 1 historic building .

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