Memories of Penang’s Olden Cinema Halls Remain Strong
In Penang catching a blockbuster movie was a real treat in the 60s, 70s right up to the 80s for family outings, young couples on a movie date night and even high school children going for an afternoon matinee after school. That was the highlight and our only entertainment.
Life was simpler and cheaper back then. For a mere forty cents, we could escape into a make-belief 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 twenty minutes into the show. That’s when the torchlight wielding Uncles go for their ciggie breaks!
Modesty Lines, seriously!
Seriously back then, there were separate queues for men and women to purchase tickets. Tickets were drawn from perforated booklets and a tailor’s dual color 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 the Cathay cinema. 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. In REX cinema which screens English movies theatre style; there was an interval midway through for a quick bio break and 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 favorite 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 open and new cinema chains spouted, the old cinemas soon became obsolete and closed down one by one in the 1990s.
Privately Owned & Housed
Cinemas were privately owned in Penang, with the Shaw Brothers amassing a chain over the years which included the Central, Eastern, Globe, Rex, Sun, Lido, Royal and Capitol (converted from the Windsor Theatre) and Federal.
Although all of these old cinemas have ceased operation they have been rescued and restored with adaptive reuse in place.
Penang’s 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 shophouses
Formerly known as 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.
Art Deco Style Cinemas
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 emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines that emerged in the 1930s.
The Odeon Cinema had the most name changes, with each new operator. It was once known as the Lyric Theatre then King’s Theatre, Veenai Odeon and finally Penang Odeon. The last two metamorphoses had Odeon playing mainstream Hindi and Tamil movies.
The Odeon has reopened and re-emerges as Odeon – The Heritage Asylum an interactive art destination.
Rex Cinema and the entire residential enclave of Kinta Lane has turned into a business area with the row of heritage terrace houses turned into a furnishing city and Rex, the King relegated to being a furniture store.
Chin Chin, 52 who grew up in one of the terrace houses opposite Rex cinema recalls, “In those days, there were no shopping malls and the Rex was one of the live centers that provided a livelihood for the stalls operators in front of the cinema.
Rex used to screen English movies and the James Bond movies would draw full houses every time. When Rex closed down, all the supporting small business dwindled. Sadly the coffee shops, Hwa Leong Kopitiam and Embassy too closed down eventually.
“I remember the skillful 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, the titbit seller with his treasure trove of sweets, Ken Ken cuttlefish, prawn cracker and sunflower seeds.
Nowadays whenever I pass by Rex Cinema 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 added.
Live Chinese Opera Performances
The Sun cinema in the heart of Chinatown was not only used to screen movies but also for stage shows including magic performance and even Chinese opera during the festivals!
The first of the cinemas to be refurbished, the Sun became one of Penang’s oldest nightspots with techno music, Rock World, and its current metamorphosis is a fitness center.
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 Shaw Brothers’ Hong Kong Kung Fu style 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 a full house as everyone loved to watch fighting moves.
“I remember meeting the beautiful and regal movie star Li Li Hua who was the darling of Asian movie world then. I remember thinking she must be an angel as she stepped out of a sports car. She was so beautiful!”
Cinemas in Amusement Parks; Gone and Erased
In the 50s and 60s the Wembley Cinema and Wembley Park (famously known by locals as Choon Man Hui) on Noordin Street 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.
The Wembley Site
Hindi blockbuster Haathi Mere Saathi
Both the Lido and the Globe, the latter being a semi-open cinema at the New World Park, Swatow Lane have been demolished and the grounds are now a popular food court.
There was a larger amusement arcade had cabaret joints and gambling dens and was known as the Great World Park before Prangin Mall was built.
The Capitol, Paramount, Royal, and Eastern have all been demolished to make way for Komtar. The site of Royal and Paramount is the current Komtar Walk. The former site of Cathay is vacant and used as a temporary car park.
Both Royal and Paramount used to play Hindi and Tamil movies. In 1971, Royal screened the Hindi blockbuster Haathi Mere Saathi (Elephant My Friend) for 6 months running to the full house. It was a tear jerker with a simple storyline that cut across all races. Life was beautiful then.
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 when the tune is played and sing, “Chal chal mere haathi…” by rote without knowing a single Hindi word!
Even as a little girl, my favorite actor was Rajesh Khanna.
When Churches Take Over
Full Gospel Assembly Penang occupies the former Choong Nam Theatre in the Ayer Puteh neighborhood which the church bought over in 1997.
FGA Penang also occupied two other theatre buildings, the former Gala Theatre off Aboo Sittee Lane from 1989 until 1997 and the former Majestic Theatre briefly in 1997.
The modern curved glass-clad Federal Cinema along Dato Kramat Road has been transformed into a Chinese restaurant with karaoke lounge and fitness center. 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. It has been converted to a Mydin Wholesale Emporium with its façade now clad in metal and glass.
The Last Mohican
The last of the Mohicans is the LFS Cinema (Lotus Five Star). It still in operation as the only cinema in Butterworth which only shows Bollywood movies.
Golden Screen Cinemas
Malaysia has 164 cinemas operating throughout the country. The only states without cinemas are Perlis and Kelantan. The largest cinema operator is Golden Screen Cinemas. There are other large operators; TGV Cinemas, MBO Cinemas, mmCineplexes and Lotus Five Star. – Wikipedia
This story was published in the defunct Malaysia Outlook and is reproduced here as a memory piece. The old photos are sourced from R.S. Murthi’s website. Most of the images are scans of old postcards with photos licensed from European and Asian amateur and professional photographers. R.S. Murthi “cleaned up” and “posterized” these memory pieces.
And through the years, SmartDory is just another movie buff who watches enthralled from beginning to the end. Lost entirely in the MAGIC!