Penang cinema halls erased, memory remains

 |Sep 23, 2016
Dutch architect Berthel Michael designed and built the Capitol cinema hall in George Town. The building has since been torn down to make way for Komtar.
Dutch architect Berthel Michael designed and built the Capitol cinema hall in George Town. The building has since been torn down to make way for Komtar.

Catching a blockbuster movie was a real treat in the 1960s, 70s right up to the 80s in Penang, especially in George Town City.

Movies perhaps were the best and affordable entertainment treat then for families, couples, and even school pupils, who would catch up an afternoon matinee after school.

Life was simpler and cheaper back then.

For a mere 40sen, we could escape into a make believe world, sitting front rows; with the screen literally in our faces.

As students, we could only afford the cheap tickets; and would steal to the empty seats in the first class rows about 20 minutes into the show.

That’s when the torch light wielding uncles (cinema hall attendants) go for their short breaks.

Back then, there were separate queues for men and women to purchase tickets.

Tickets were drawn from perforated booklets and a tailor’s dual colour pencil was used to mark out seats sold on a sheet of the cinema’s floor plan.

Blue ticks for men and red for women!

If you’re a single woman watching a movie alone, have no fear, the ticket seller would allocate a single seat just for you.

There were two such seats between the pillar and the aisle in then the Cathay cinema hall.

Such was an era for modesty.

Of course the seating arrangements were divided into first, second and third classes.

The coveted balcony seats simply called “upstairs” were the most expensive seats.

The Federal cinema went through several metamorphosis from cinema, to a club before Chinese restaurant Starview relocated here in late 2015.
The Federal cinema went through several metamorphosis from cinema, to a club before Chinese restaurant Starview relocated here in late 2015.

In the Rex cinema hall, which screened mostly English movies, there was an interval midway through for a quick bio break.

The hall had a cinema bar at the mezzanine level which sold colas and milkshakes for the rich ones.

But no worries, the best part is you could also bring your own food and drinks into the cinema with the favourite being “kuachi” (sunflower seeds).

After each screening there was literally a carpet of discarded “kuachi” shell on the aisles.

It was also common for stray cats or even rats to get into the cinemas due to the discarded food.

Of course back then, you could also smoke to your heart’s content in the darkened halls.

When shopping malls opens and new cineplex chains spouted, the old cinemas soon became obsolete and closed down one by one in the 1990s.

The Cathay cinema owned by Choong Lye Hock Estates in its hey days before current metamorphosis into a Mydin Wholesale Emporium in 1998.
The Cathay cinema owned by Choong Lye Hock Estates in its hey days before current metamorphosis into a Mydin Wholesale Emporium in 1998.

Privately owned

Cinemas were privately owned in Penang, with the Shaw Brothers operating the Central, Eastern, Globe, Rex, Sun, Lido, Royal and Capitol (converted from the Windsor) and Federal as part of the company chain of cinema halls.

The other major cinema operator, the Cathay Organisation was running the Cathay and Odeon, both in George Town and Butterworth, Gala and Paramount.

There were also other privately owned and operated cinema halls such as the Wembley, Metro and Star.

Although all of these cinemas have ceased operation they have been rescued and restored with adaptive reuse in place.

George Town's oldest cinema hall, Majestic has been refurbished to a modern theatre  for stage performances.
George Town’s oldest cinema hall, Majestic has been refurbished to a modern theatre for stage performances.

Penang first ‘talkies’

The Grand Old Dame is back!

The extensively restored and renovated, the Majestic recently open its doors to a modern theatre for performances during the George Town Festival 2016 showing a mixture of circus and theatre with live juggling and a black comedy in the uniquely atmospheric, theatrically-tuned listening theatre.

Penang’s philanthropist Khoo Sian Ewe’s most memorable bequeath to the movie starved Penangites in 1926 was the Majestic Theatre which he built attached to 12 adjoining shop-houses.

Formerly known at the Shanghai Sound Theatre, it was the first “talkies” and live performance in northern Malaya that was designed by one of the earliest known Straits-Chinese architects, Chew Eng Eam.

Odean cinema which played Tamil movies was a hit with the local Indian community in the 1980s and 90s, until late 2014 before it closed down to be revitalised into an interactive museum.
Odean cinema which played Tamil movies was a hit with the local Indian community in the 1980s and 90s, until late 2014 before it closed down to be revitalised into an interactive museum.

Art deco style

There are two free standing landmark art deco style cinemas with a fantastic façade with fine features of art moderne, a type of art deco architectural style that emphasised curving forms, long horizontal lines that emerged in the 1930s.

The Odeon cinema hall had the most name changes, with each new operator.

It was once known as the Rasaati, Lyric Theatre, then King’s Theatre, Veenai Odeon and finally Penang Odeon.

Rasaati and the last two metamorphoses had Odeon playing mainstream Tamil and Hindi movies.

The Odeon now has reopened and re-emerged as Odeon – The Heritage Asylum an interactive art destination.

Rex and the entire residential enclave of Kinta Lane have now turned into a business area with the row of heritage terrace houses turned into a furnishing city and Rex relegated to being a furniture store.

Chin Chin, 52, who grew up in one of the terrace houses opposite Rex recalled: “In those days, there were no shopping malls and the Rex was one of the live centres that provided a livelihood for the stalls operators in front of the cinema.”

Once a popular cinema hall for Hollywood movies, Rex building is now a furniture store.
Once a popular cinema hall for Hollywood movies, Rex building is now a furniture store.

When Rex closed down, all the supporting small business dwindled.

Sadly the coffee shops, Hwa Leong Kopitiam and Embassy too closed down eventually.

Locals would remember the skilful fruit seller with his assortment of fresh cut fruit in his glass display case; the aroma of bak kwa grilling over hot coals; the kacang putih seller and; the tit bit seller with his treasure trove of sweets, cuttle fish, prawn cracker and sun flower seeds.

“Nowadays whenever I pass by Rex, I feel a certain awkwardness that it has turned into a furniture shop. The social economics and demographics of Penang have changed with time. The old areas in town seem to have lost its glamour and charm,” Chin Chin said.

Sitting in Drury Lane between Lebuh Campbell and Jalan Kuala Kangsar, the Sun cinema hall in the heart of Chinatown was not only used to screen movies.

It had also staged shows including magic performance and even Chinese opera during the festivals.

The first of the cinema halls to be refurbished, the Sun became one of Penang’s oldest nightspots with techno music – the ‘Rock World’, and its current metamorphosis is a fitness centre.

The cinema manager and his family used to live in the Sun cinema, just behind the silver screen.

Margie Chee, 48, a housewife recalls fondly of the Friday family movie nights where she has watched every Hong Kong’s kung fu and sword-fighting flicks.

Kung fu heroes with the likes David Chiang Da-wei, Wang Yu, Ti Lung, Chen Kuan Tai, Lo Lieh, Fu Sheng and Bruce Lee movies were legendary and played to full house as everyone loved to watch fighting movies.

“I remember meeting the beautiful and regal movie star Li Li Hua who was the darling of Hong Kong movie world then. I remember thinking she must be an angel as she stepped out of a sports car. She was so beautiful!”

From top left to right - Sun, Eastern, Wembley and Gala, which was once part of the Mandarin then Ming hotel complex and now Red Rock Hotel. Gala is now a restaurant.
From top left to right – Sun, Eastern, Wembley and Gala, which was once part of the Mandarin then Ming hotel complex and now Red Rock Hotel. Gala is now a restaurant.

Gone and erased

In the 1950s and 60s, the Wembley cinema hall and Wembley in Lebuh Noordin was an amusement park that attracted throngs of Penangites on the weekends with spiffy swing dance halls, movie screenings, live ‘bangsawan’ performances, ‘ronggeng’ parties, pinball arcades, billiard parlours and even bumper cars.

Alas an era is forgotten now that the Wembley has been demolished.

Both the Lido and the Globe cinema centres, the latter being a semi-open cinema at the New World Park, Swatow Lane, had been demolished and replaced with a food court.

There was a larger amusement arcades with cabaret joints and gambling dens and was known as the Great World Park before Prangin Mall was built.

The Capitol, Paramount, Royal and Eastern cinema halls had all been demolished to make way for Komtar.

Both Royal and Paramount used to play Tamil, Hindi and Malay movies.

In 1972, Royal screened the Hindi blockbuster ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ (Elephant My Friend) for six months running to full house.

Till now a family , ‘Haathi Mere Saathi’ the only box office hit with a silver jubilee run of 175 days in Penang.

As teary-eyed children growing up in that era we could not tolerate the harshness towards the lovable elephants and hated the fact that the hero was forced to choose between the elephant he loved and his jealous wife.

To this day, many Malaysians could continue fondly the movie’s lead song when the tune is played and sing, “Chal chal mere haathi…” by rote without knowing a single Hindi word!

Full Gospel Assembly Penang occupies the former Choong Nam theatre in the Air Itam neighbourhood, which the church bought over in 1997.

FGA Penang also occupied two other theatre buildings, the former Gala cinema hall, now the Amazon nightspot, in Lorong Aboo Sittee from 1989 until 1997, and the Majestic briefly in 1997.

The modern curved glass clad Federal cinema in Jalan Dato Keramat has been transformed into a Chinese restaurant with karaoke lounge and fitness centre.

Prior to that it was once called the Honolulu Club.

The Cathay formerly known as Queen’s was owned by the Choong Lye Hock Estates and has been converted to a Mydin Emporium with its façade now clad in metal and glass.

Lotus Five Star is a local cinema chain which began its operations in Malaysia in 2004 and the cinemas owned by the Lotus Group screens predominantly Indian movies.
Lotus Five Star is a local cinema chain which began its operations in Malaysia in 2004 and the cinemas owned by the Lotus Group screens predominantly Indian movies.

While all cinema halls in George Town had closed down and converted, the Lotus Five Star (LFS) Cinema is the only one in an old cinema building still in operational, but in Butterworth across the mainland Seberang Perai.

The LFS Cineplex now occupies the old Cathay cinema hall and has several small cine halls screening Indian and Malay movies.

Butterworth’s other cinema halls like Rex and Odeon have all been converted for commercial use.

The metamorphosis of cinema halls in Penang has erased part of the state’s entertainment and lifestyle nostalgic history but the pure entertainment of going to the movies remain strong with movie buffs.

Whether it’s a movie date, a family outing or even a mid-week chill out with colleagues, the promise of relaxation and best form of escapism remain with the price of a movie ticket.

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Doris Lim is a Malaysia Outlook contributor with a keen eye for details developed form her background in architecture and design. Her affable personality and passion to celebrate life is captured in her stories of the community. Doris’ love for all things beautiful and quirky is tempered by her love for writing, photography, food, art and travel.