24 Apr A Trip to Old Hong Kong: Remembering Causeway Bay’s Lost Grand Theatres
Lead image: Lee Theatre and Lee Theatre Plaza (Image: Hysan95)
It may be difficult to imagine that Causeway Bay as we know it today – Hong Kong’s supreme shopping mall and tourist hotspot – was once considered to be an ‘unattractive’ piece of land. When Hong Kong’s ‘Opium King’ Lee Hysan bought ‘East Point Hill’ from trading firm Jardine, Matheson & Co in 1923, he transformed what was an industrial wasteland into a thriving commercial district. The first thing he built was an amusement park on the East Point hill, and in 1925, the area’s very first theatre was a fact. Many would follow. As of today, most of Causeway Bay’s old movie theatres have long been demolished or repurposed, but their memory still lingers on. Keep on reading to follow us back in time to five of the district’s lost grand theatres.
1. Lee Theatre (1925 – 1991)
Hong Kong’s most iconic theatre
The mention of Lee Theatre, the longest-running theatre on this list, theatre on brings back fond memories to many Hong Kong people. What is now Lee Theatre Plaza used to be the city’s most iconic theatre. Concerts, movie premieres, and boxing matches were held here, and the theatre was even the venue for the 1976 Miss Universe finale with Roman Polanski and Aldo Gucci as jury members. This event, which was broadcasted worldwide, was a memorable moment for Hong Kong.
What is now Lee Theatre Plaza, used to be the city’s most iconic theatre (Image: Hysan)
With its beautifully crafted boxes, red carpets, and red velvet seats, the theatre was built in the 1920s as a first-rate performance venue in Asia. Lee Hysan, the patriarch of the Lee family, spared no expense to create the first Beaux-Arts-style theatre, modelled after the architecture of Parisian theatres in the early 20th century. The local newspapers reported that: “More than 200 skilled craftsmen from Shanghai had been specially employed to construct the façade!”
The theatre was originally purpose-built for Cantonese operas for Lee’s mother (Image: Hysan)
The theatre was originally purpose-built for Cantonese operas. Lee’s mother was an avid opera fan, so he wanted to create a world-class venue for her favourite performers near her home. In its early years of operation, the 1200-seat theatre auditorium could only be used for movie screenings and concerts on non-opera days. Lee Theatre was so popular that Hong Kong Tramways ran a special late-night service from the theatre all the way to Shek Tong Tsui.
This was the place for concerts, movie premieres, boxing matches and more (Image: Hysan)
Lee Theatre has been the home to many memorable moments, such as Theresa Teng’s concert series, Anita Mui’s debut in a 1982 talent show, and Roman Tam’s first concert in 1978. Roman also had the honour of being the very last singer to perform at Lee Theatre. His charity concert, named “Farewell to Lee Theatre” was held in 1991, just before the building was demolished after 66 years to develop what had become prime real estate. The memories of this unique venue live on in the hearts of Hongkongers. For the nostalgia-inclined, the Hong Kong Museum of History has a replica of the theatre, and there is a dedicated exhibition to the area’s illustrious past in Lee Gardens I.
99 Percival St
2. Capitol Theatre (1952 – 1977)
A shining lighthouse in Jardine’s Bazaar
1950s Causeway Bay (Image: Gwulo)
The old Capitol Theatre was one of the most prominent cinemas in the city, strategically located at the entrance of the popular open-air Jardine’s Bazaar. An English newspaper advertisement published before its opening on 18 January 1952 proudly claimed the theatre to be the “most de-luxe, comfortable cinema in the colony”.
When Capitol Theatre opened in 1952, local press claimed the theatre to be the “most de-luxe, comfortable cinema in the colony” (Image: AC Studio)
Boasting streamlined round, curved forms in an odd mix of Art Deco and Modern architecture, the building’s design was revolutionary back then. Designed by the famous design partnership of Chau & Lee Architects, who also created the nearby iconic St. Mary’s Church. Its most distinctive feature was the rotunda tower in the centre of the façade. The almost translucent tower, which resembled “a glowing lighthouse” at night, overlooked Jardine’s Bazaar.
When Lin Dai, Hong Kong’s greatest Mandarin film actress, tragically died from an overdose of sleeping pills on 17 July 1964, many cinemas set up memorials to commemorate the starlet. The one at Capitol Theatre was the most popular and well-visited by far: hundreds of bouquets, memorabilia and portraits were left on the steps of the spiral staircase.
Left: The theatre’s most distinctive feature was the rotunda tower in the centre of the façade (Image: Gwulo) Right: Capitol Centre
Capitol Theatre was a real local hotspot – a perfect place for a first date! In the 1950s, it was one of the few cinemas showing first-run Hollywood films, later switching to Japanese and Mandarin films as they became popular in the 1960s. The cinema finally closed down in 1977. It was demolished and replaced by the Capitol Centre, which is one of the most popular commercial buildings in the area today.
5-19 Jardine’s Bazaar
2. Isis Theatre (1966 – 1999)
Cinema-turned-church named after the River Thames
Left: Isis Theatre was the first venture of local cinema tycoon Mr Chan (Image: City Entertainment Magazine) | Right: The building’s sloping façade where movie billboards were hung
Isis Cinema Theatre was the first venture of local cinema tycoon Mr Chan. What started with one theatre in the booming 1960s grew into the Newport cinema circuit, Hong Kong’s premier entertainment brand. In the early days, Mr Chan rented out the theatres to film distributors. At one point in the 1980s, Isis Theatre was even showing pornographic films! Later Newport bought in mainly English films. At its peak in 1992, Chan’s Newport Circuit owned a total of 17 cinemas! Not many people knew that the Isis Theatre was named after the River Thames’ lesser-known nickname – The Isis. When visiting the Cotswolds, Mr Chan fell in love with the tranquil and pristine waters of the Isis and named his new cinema after the river.
Hong Kong Tourist Association’s Official Guidebook in 1980 listed Isis Cinema
Isis was a cinema until 1999 when Mr Chan sold the premises to the evangelical Tung Fook Church. But you can still see many of the theatre’s original details, like the sloping façade where movie billboards were hung, as well as the four-storey tall street signage.
80 Tung Lo Wan Rd
4. Park Theatre (1970-1997)
Remember the giant movie billboards on Causeway Road?
Park Theatre was well-known for showing first-run English films like the Godfather (Image: AppleDaily)
With a capacity of over a thousand seats, Park Theatre was one of Hong Kong’s premier movie houses in the city’s swinging seventies. You’d go here to watch first-run English movies like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T. and the Exorcist.
Park Theatre was the most prominent building at the busy intersection between Causeway Road and Tung Lo Wan Road. Anyone who has taken the tram there in the 1970s and 1980s will definitely remember seeing the giant, hand-painted movie billboards hanging on the façade of the theatre. These billboards were even large enough to be seen from the Victoria Park football fields!
A movie ticket to the last screening at Park Theatre on 31st May 1997 (Image: stampshk)
Mr Chau Qiong (周強), one of the last surviving movie billboards artists in Hong Kong, estimated that there were more than a hundred movie poster painters in the 1970s when single-screen cinemas were popular in Hong Kong. Each billboard took a master painter and two apprentices a few days to complete. Given that theatres changed their films fortnightly, movie painters were kept very busy! Fun fact: The greatest challenge for movie billboard painters was to keep the painted canvas dry during rainy weather. The rain and moisture could smudge the painting and distort the facial expressions of the actors. To withstand the elements a layer of waterproof acrylic was applied.
Left: Park Theatre in the 1970s (Image: Gwulo) | Right: Today, a commercial centre stands in its place
By the time the 1990s rolled around, the introduction of computerised printers and rising labour cost rapidly displaced hand-painted billboards for printed ones. The theatre closed down in June 1997 and since then, both the theatre and its giant billboards have become part of Hong Kongers’ cherished memories.
5. Palace Theatre (1975 – 1994)
Swish theatre built on historic grounds
Local movie-goers rated the theatre as ‘the most luxurious cinema in HK in the 1980s’ (Image: Gwulo)
The land where the Palace Theatre used to stand has lived many lives. For starters, it was the first-ever plot of land sold at auction in Hong Kong. It was Captain William Morgan – in the name of Jardine Matheson & Co. – who won the bid for plot #1 in 1841. The site called ‘East Point Hill’ was sold for the then hefty sum of £565. It was used to build warehouses and go-downs, essential in facilitating its transpacific shipping trade. They were used for over a century until the area was reclaimed in the 1960s.
News about, and a movie ticket to, the last show in Palace Theatre
The old East Point warehouses were demolished to build Excelsior Hotel and a luxurious nightclub named Palace Theatre, which was quick to become a social hotspot. In the 1970s the nightclub was converted into a movie theatre which kept the old name. The Palace Theatre opened to business on November 14, 1979, screening the blockbuster ‘Alien’. Local movie-goers rated the theatre as ‘the most luxurious cinema in Hong Kong in the 1980s’! Fun fact: The 1980 Hollywood film ‘Somewhere in Time’ starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour was shown for a record period of 223 days at Palace Theatre. It also set a record in earnings, more than $9.38 million.
Left: Palace Theatre in the 1980s (Image: Talk Cinema) | Right: World Trade Centre was built in 1994 to replace Palace Theatre
The Palace Theatre became the design prototype for multiplex cinemas in the 1990s. The cinema was in business for 15 years only. It was closed and replaced by the World Trade Centre in 1994.
280 Gloucester Rd
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Words by Ian Tan
Ian Tan is a PhD candidate at the Department of Architecture, University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on iron structures found in British port cities such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Calcutta. He is interested in how new building technologies materialise and manifest socio-economical changes during the late 19th century. Vice versa, he tries to uncover how people’s attitude and behaviour were affected and shaped by these new structures and spaces they inhabit. Ian is also the founder of Forward Heritage, an advisory consultancy offering services in heritage planning, architectural conservation and curatorial interpretation services.
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