The very origin of Hong Kong’s entry to the world of high arts
State Theatre, originally named Empire Theatre, was opened in 1952. According to interviews with veterans from cultural circles, the Theatre was the “very origin of Hong Kong’s entry to the world of high arts” (South China Morning Post, Jan 11, 2017). It was Hong Kong’s cultural hub and only to be eclipsed by the City Hall that opened four years later in 1962. Located in North Point on Hong Kong Island, it was founded by a Russian-Jewish impresario Harry Odell, a legendary giant in the history of Hong Kong entertainment. Odell had started a film distribution company ‘Harry Oscar Odell’s Commonwealth Enterprises Corporation Ltd.’ in the post-war years and arranged for internationally acclaimed artists to perform in Hong Kong and in the theatre, including the late Taiwanese famous pop singer Teresa Teng, the late British tenor Peter Pears and Katherine Dunham’s Broadway dance company (South China Morning Post, March 2, 2016).
The Theatre was also a popular venue for live shows such as Chinese drama, opera and musical performances. The roof of the auditorium is suspended from external parabolic concrete roof trusses, which are exposed to the public and serves as a prominent feature and trademark of the building. This ingenious design also freed the auditorium from pillars and allowed for flexible internal arrangements. Designed by a Chinese architect S.F. Liu, the Theatre is moreover fronted by a large decorative relief panel with the artwork by renowned Lingnan artist Mui Yu-tin featuring the ancient Chinese tale of ‘The imperial warlord Dong Zhuo and the legendary beauty Diao Chan’. Together with the framed squared architraves and banded windows harmoniously fronting the elevation of the Theatre, there is a distinct Modernist and Art Deco quality to the whole building.
In 1959, it was renamed State Theatre, and due to practical reasons the building has since then been converted into a theatre-cum-shopping complex, and a multi-storey block with shops, residential flats and a night club was opened in the adjacent site. The Theatre finally ceased to operate in 1997, and has today changed its use to a billiard centre with removable partitions sealing off the upper deck of the auditorium. The rest of the complex currently consists of a rundown shopping mall, still in function, and small residential flats.
In July 2015, a local property developer started to purchase various property rights within the State Theatre complex, and rumours of demolition and redevelopment of the site started to spread. Eventually, after substantial consolidated public efforts towards the Theatre, it was finally given a Grade 1 historic building status in March 2017. The State Theatre, narrowly escaping demolition, is only the third building after the Bank of China (built 1952) and the City Hall (built 1962) listed as a Grade 1 historic building in Hong Kong that is built after 1950, indicating a flaw in local heritage policy to value modern built heritage.
published January 2020