Memories of Penang Golden Cinema Showtimes Remain Strong
Many Penangites know the cinema showtimes by rote – as we make a trip down memory lane.
Back in the day, 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 were going for an afternoon matinee after school.
Flims and movies were the highlights and our only entertainment.
Life was more straightforward and cheaper back then.
For a mere forty cents, people could escape into a make-belief world, sitting in 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-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 an available 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, they divided the seating arrangements into first, second, and third classes.
The coveted balcony seats called “upstairs” were the most expensive.
In the REX cinema, which screens English movies theatre-style, there was an interval midway through for a quick bio break.
People could go to 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 food and drinks to the cinema with the favourite being “kuachi” (sunflower seeds).
After each screening, there was a carpet of discarded “kuachi” shell on the aisles.
It was also common for stray cats or even rats to get into the cinemas for 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
Cinemas were privately owned in Penang, with the Shaw Brothers amassing a chain over the years, including the Central, Eastern, Globe, Rex, Sun, Lido, Royal, and Capitol (converted from the Windsor Theatre) and Federal.
Although these old cinemas have ceased operation, they have been rescued and restored with adaptive reuse in place.
History of Penang’s First “Talkies”
The Grand Old Dame is back!
Our collective memory is of the golden era of films and talkies.
The extensively restored and renovated, the Majestic recently open its doors to a modern theatre for performances during the George Town Festival 2016,.
The Majestic showed 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 Theater 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.
The cinema 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 facade with fine features of Art Moderne.
A wonderful 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.
I once knew it as the Lyric Theater, then King’s Theater, Veenai Odeon, and finally Penang Odeon.
The last two metamorphoses had Odeon playing mainstream Hindi and Tamil movies which bought back a trove of memories.
The Odeon has reopened and re-emerges as Odeon–The Heritage Asylum, an interactive art destination.
Memories of the Great Cinema Showtimes
Rex Cinema and the entire residential enclave of Kinta Lane have 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.
Our life stories are a collection of many forms of memory that we remember with fondness.
Chin Chin, 52, who grew up in one of the terrace houses opposite Rex cinema, recalls,
“In those days, there were no shopping malls. The Rex was one of the live centres 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 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, the titbit seller with his treasure trove of sweets, Ken Ken cuttlefish, prawn cracker and sunflower seeds.
That was their occupation in life and it was a time that no one questions; if they could do something better.
Nowadays, whenever I pass by the 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 their glamour and charm,” Chin Chin added.
Live Chinese Opera Performances
The Sun cinema in the heart of Chinatown was used to screen movies and stage shows, including magic performances 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 centre.
The cinema manager and his family lived in the Sun cinema, just behind the silver screen.
Old Cinema Memories…
Margie Chee, 48, a homemaker, recalls fondly the Friday night family movie memories.
She has watched every Shaw Brothers’ Hong Kong Kung Fu style and sword-fighting flicks.
Kung fu heroes like 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 the 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 crowds of Penangites on the weekends with
- spiffy swing dance halls
- movie screenings
- live bangsawan performances
- ronggeng parties
- pinball arcades
- billiard parlors
- bumper cars.
Alas, an era is forgotten now that Wembley has been demolished.
The Wembley Site
Collective Memories of 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 famous food court.
A more extensive amusement arcade had cabaret joints and gambling dens are 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 movie Haathi Mere Saathi (Elephant My Friend) for six months running to the full house.
Haathi Mere Saathi is one of the memories best encased in time capsules.
It is so impactful to a generation of young Malaysian children.
It was a tear-jerker with a simple storyline that cut across all races.
Orphaned Raju was the beloved elephant in the company of four elephants made to perform at street corners to keep alive.
As teary-eyed children growing up in that era, we could not tolerate the harshness towards the lovable elephants and hated that they forced the hero to choose between the elephant he loved and his jealous wife.
We children learned of startling questions that women pose to force men to choose.
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!
I remembered my mother and neighbour brought us children to watch the movie. It became the storehouse of memories that was poignant for me.
Even as a little girl, my favourite actor was Rajesh Khanna.
Fact: In 2015, the Maratha Mandir cinema in Delhi ended its 1,009-week run of the Bollywood blockbuster Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, taking India’s longest-running movie off the big screen after nearly 20 years.
When Churches Take Over
Full Gospel Assembly Penang occupies the former Choong Nam Theatre in the Ayer Puteh neighbourhood, 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 Theater briefly in 1997.
The modern curved glass-clad Federal Cinema along Dato Keramat Road has been transformed into a Chinese restaurant with a karaoke lounge and fitness centre.
Before that, it was once called the Honolulu Club.
The Cathay, formerly known as Queen’s, was owned by the Choong Lye Hock Estates.
They have converted it to a Mydin Wholesale Emporium with its facade now clad in metal and glass.
The Last Mohican
In less than a decade, Lotus Five Star Cinemas (M) Sdn Bhd (LFS Cinemas) has grown to become one of Malaysia’s largest cinema chains with over 13 outlets and 51 screens in both Peninsular and East Malaysia.
LFS Cinemas is dedicated to screening multi-lingual movies of different genres to satisfy its wide range of customers’ interests.
The last of the Mohicans is the LFS BUTTERWORTH.
This stand-alone cinema is still in operation as the only cinema in Butterworth, which only shows Bollywood movies.
Golden Screen Cinemas Showtimes
Malaysia has 164 cinemas operating throughout the country. The only states without cinemas are Perlis and Kelantan.
The largest cinema operators
- Golden Screen Cinemas
- TGV Cinemas
- MBO Cinemas
- Lotus Five Star
And through the years, Smart Dory is just another movie buff who watches enthralled from beginning to end of every film history and movie – lost entirely in the MAGIC in the midst of time!
Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic In The Film Industry 2021 Update On No Cinema Showtimes
In 2020, across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic had severely impacted the film industry and across all arts sectors.
Cinemas and movie theatres have been closed, festivals have been cancelled or postponed.
Film releases have been moved to future dates or delayed indefinitely.
Due to cinemas and movie theatres closing, the global box office has dropped by billions of dollars.
Disney and Netflix have taken over the entertainment industry as streaming became increasingly popular.
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.