A century of cinemas in Hong Kong: 1900-2000
Photos, maps and memories of Hong Kong's cinema century!
Back to the beginning, here's a map showing Hong Kong's cinemas at the end of the first decade:
[Subscribers: if you can't see the map, please view the website version of this page.]
There had been a few cinema shows in Hong Kong before 1900, eg:
The exhibition of the Cinematograph commenced at the City Hall to-day. This wonderful invention is well worth seeing, were it for nothing else but the pictorial representations projected upon the screen by M. Charvet.
Page 2, The China Mail, 1897-04-28
But the first purpose-built cinematographic theatres (ie cinemas) were built in the early 1900s. By 1910, the handful of cinemas shown above were in operation, all concentrated along the north shore of Hong Kong island between Shek Tong Tsui and Central.
The newest cinema in 1910 was The Coronet, remembered in Betty Steel's memoirs:
When we were very young it was a great treat to go to the cinema at the Coronet Theatre. We were allowed to go alone; what a thrill it was to buy our tickets at the box office, and enter the long hall packed with rows of seats, the orchestra in the pit playing stirring marches while waiting for the show to begin. We were impatient for the lights to go out. The films were silent in those days, captions would appear on the screen, and the orchestra played appropriate music throughout. We ate potato chips from the Bluebird Cafe, or sweets, out of paper bags, while watching our favourite film stars: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd; or Pearl White in an episode of "The Lightning Raider".
Early growth was slow. Although several cinemas opened in the 1910s, others closed so that by 1920 the total remained about the same.
The total number may have stayed the same, but one obvious difference is that cinema had crossed the harbour. The Kwong Chee Theatre opened on Kansu Street in Yau Ma Tei, and would become one of Hong Kong's longest-lived cinemas.
For memories of cinema-going in the 1920s, we turn to Barbara Anslow:
A musical family, the Groves, lived near us, with a violinist brother Mr Dark. They played music in the Queen's Theatre at the silent movies, and once memorably got us seats in a box to see 'Rose Marie' with Joan Crawford. Other films we saw were Jackie Coogan, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin ones.
Sometimes we were taken to the little Star Theatre off Mody Road in Kowloon to see Mary Pickford films and Our Gang shorts. Other evenings our parents took us to films (silent of course) on HMS 'Tamar', an old wooden-topped Naval vessel permanently tied up in the Dockyard and used as Fleet Accommodation Barracks. I can feel now the breeze from the overhead punkas, the mid-darkness, and the grownup films which didn't interest us children. Here Mabel once asked Mum 'Why does that man keep smelling the lady's hand?'
By 1930 cinemas had opened in many more locations, spreading east along the island, and north up the Kowloon peninsula. That growth continued over the following ten years. Here are some of the new cinemas from the 1930s:
By 1940, the first cinema opened outside the Kowloon / Hong Kong island urban areas. Before you scroll down to the map, can you guess where it was?
Today it is considered a small, quiet town, but back in 1940 it was one of the few sizeable towns outside of Kowloon / Hong Kong island.
That Cheung Chau cinema was still standing (just!) when I took this photo in 2015:
At that time there was construction work underway at the site. Has anyone visited recently and can tell us how it looks now?
The 1940s were the war years for Hong Kong. Barbara Anslow's diaries cover that time, and often mention visits to the cinema:
- 16 Nov 1941: Arthur and Sid arrived about noon, and we went to King's - 'Buck Privates'.
- 6 Dec 1941: I left work at 7pm, then Arthur and I to Peninsula for tea, then to King's 'My Life with Caroline.'
War was declared on the 8th of December, so that was Barbara's last film for a very long time - with one exception. On the 17th of February 1942, the Japanese put on a film show for the internees in Stanley Camp. Barbara wrote:
- Concert at St Stephens. Wasn't much. First we had to have a picture show by our hosts - Singapore has apparently surrendered. ((Film show was supposed to be in celebration, mainly a kind of Jap documentary. A few shots of bottles of beer going along the assembly line - there were nostalgic cheers from the men in the audience at the sight.))
Then that really was the last film Barbara saw until liberation in 1945. Her diary shows she was soon catching up again:
- 6 Sep 1945: Mum, Mabel & I went to P.O. Club where men of 'Kempenfelt' ((HMS Kempenfelt, one of the ships that came in with the Fleet)) gave a cinema show - 'Shine on Harvest Moon' - our first films since December 1941 (apart from a short Jap propaganda one in 1942)
- 7 Sep 1945: In evening with Nan Grady and others to cinema show at Hong Kong Hotel - 'Three Comrades' - a terrible choice. We thought everyone in film looked too fat.
- 8 Sep 1945: Barbara B. & I to hotel, met Mum and Olive, then to King's Theatre, free show. Saw 'The Lodger' and new Gaumont British News, retaking of Rangoon etc; had a glimpse of Princess Elizabeth.
In a letter dated 11 Sep 1945, Barbara explained to a friend why they were so keen to see films:
- Last night we saw our first fairly up-to-date film; it was 'When Irish Eyes are Smiling', and our only regret was that it wasn't in modern costume; of all the films we have been shown this past week not one has been a modern one. We are dying to see what the world of today looks like, fashions, etc. At present we feel like country cousins; you should have seen us all stare and exclaim the other night when one of the relieving forces produced a perfectly ordinary cigarette lighter!
Another person getting re-introduced to cinema was Michael Wright, recently released from POW camp in Kowloon. He was struck at how run-down Hong Kong was, and as an example he noted "in cinemas there were rats running along the seats in front of you"!
Hong Kong got back on its feet in a surprisingly short time. By 1950, new cinemas had opened including several in the New Territories. Again, it's worth a moment to pause and think where those NT cinemas might have been.
The markers in the top left corner show two cinemas in Yuen Long. In recent years Yuen Long has been overshadowed by the development of larger new towns, but in the early years of the New Territories it was the main market town.
The maps of the cinemas shown in this article build on the work of Peter Yee. You'll see most of the cinemas documented here were added to the site by "OldTimer", Peter's username on Gwulo. I asked Peter what he remembered of Hong Kong cinemas from his childhood in the 1950s:
The first movie I watched was Peter Pan (小飛俠), a fantasy-adventure film by Disney made in 1953. In those days, going to the movies and beaches were much a part of family outing. The movie was colourful, interesting and captured my imagination. It was the start of my cinema experience in Hong Kong.
We would later watch several other movies, one a black-and-white science fiction 飛人大鬧月球國 (literal translation: Flying Man Causing Big Disturbance in the Lunar Kingdom). In it, the good guy puts on his helmet, straps a rocket on his back, and flies to the sky after making a run from the back of his pick up truck. The science and cinema technology were crude by today's standard, but they were the frontier of this boy's imagination.
Then I got adventurous, and started to go to theatres alone. For as little as 20 cents, one could watch re-run Western movies at 5:30 pm. They called it workers off-work entertainment. The much earlier movies were starring Randolph Scott, and more recent re-runs with Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster; and silent movies too (some later with sounds) starring Charlie Chaplin. My uncle took me along a few times, and we always could enter on one ticket and we shared the seat. It was common in the early 1950s and rules were lax in our neighbourhood theatres - Great World, Ming Sing and Good World.
In those early years, English movies did not come with Chinese caption. To help viewers follow the story, a second operator used a projector to place a one-liner update on the bottom of the screen. These updates were first hand-written on small glass plates which were stored in a small wooden box, and he would place each plate in the projector at the right moment.
Other favourites were Cantonese operas as they typically contained beautiful songs and duets. As time went by, interest changed and I would search for more movies. Chinese martial arts movies starring Kwan Tak-hing / 關德興 playing the role of Wong Fei-hung / 黃飛鴻 were entertaining. The wording in the movie's title could sound violent. But in those days, foul language was never used, and killing and death were very rare in his movies. They typically ended with reasoning, repentance and forgiveness.
This was also the time I read Romance of the Three Kingdoms / 三國演義 so any movie related to that period of time would get my attention. Kwan Tak-hing starred in a dramatization of an apparent event 關公月下赦貂蝉 (literal translation: Under moonlit night General Guan Yu Spares Diaochan). So obsessed with the drama and the novel, I would go back the next day to the theatre's lobby to listen to the dialogue through the entrance's curtain.
I watched some horror movies, like the one House of Wax (1953) Museum starring Vincent Price which was the early 3-D movie and you needed to wear a "3-D" glass. The Blob (1958) was a bit more scary and it made me sweat in the middle of the night thinking there was a stranger standing next to my bed. Offsetting these nightmares were comedy movies starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, the latter always started to sing when he got into the mood.
To buy a ticket, one would show up at the lobby where a clerk operated in a tiny office. Through a small window, you point to the seat(s) you like and he would cross it off and place the seat row and number on your ticket. We could reserve a seat up to three days in advance, or so I thought - I showed my ticket to my classmates in school saying I was going to watch the movie the coming weekend. One sharp-eye looked at it and uttered "It's for today!" That afternoon, I skipped class and took a ferry to Hong Kong Central.
I ventured near and far to catch the famous movies listed in newspapers, among them Sayonara, Guns of Navarone, The Longest Day, and some arranged by the school I attended.
Such are my memories of the Hong Kong theatres. In them, I found interesting stories, spectacular scenery, my idols and heroes. Above all, they were the places where us children and parents spent time together away from home.
New cinemas continued to open, to meet the demands of a young and growing population. Space at home was tight and families were large, making the cinema a popular place to escape to.
I guess readers will recognise many of these cinemas which opened in the 1960s:
To hear about cinema-going in the 1970s, we turn to the radio. I'd asked listeners to the Hong Kong Heritage radio programme to get in touch with any memories, and "R.O." kindly replied:
I remember that every cinema used to show films at the same times - 12.30, 2.30, 5.30, 7.30, and 9.30 - and foreign films were cut, sometimes drastically, to fit this schedule.
When you bought your ticket, the seat number would be scrawled on it in thick pencil. It was only legible if you already knew what it said.
The cinema's toilets would be closed a few minutes before the end of the show so that no-one could hang about.
You couldn't leave through the front of the cinema as it would be filling up with people for the next show. You were hustled out through the side and back doors. You generally found yourself in a noisome alley, and people would look about in confusion, wondering which way to go.
There was sometimes almost a party atmosphere in the cinema. Every seat would be filled in a large auditorium with stalls and a circle (called a loge), and a lot of people would take in something to eat and drink, bought from hawkers in front of the cinema. One reason why they wanted the audience out so quickly was that there was sometimes so much litter to clear up.
"How deep is your love?" I remember the audience singing along in Saturday Night Fever.
I remember the first full frontal female nudity in a HK film. The audience gave a great shout!
The maps show these decades were the heyday for Hong Kong's cinemas. Currently we've got approximately 110 cinemas shown on the 1970 and 1990 maps, with a brief dip in numbers in 1980.
I first arrived in Hong Kong in 1989, staying for several months, so my memories of Hong Kong cinemas begin around this time. I was working in Star House, TST, just around the corner from Ocean Theatre. It was still the original, larger cinema with separate balcony and stalls at that time.
Buying tickets meant a visit to the cinema's box office, and the procedure sounds the same as R.O. remembered from the 1970s: The person at the counter had a stack of large sheets of paper, one per show. You'd tell them the film, date and time, then once they'd found the right sheet you'd point to the seats you wanted. They'd cross out those seats with a thick crayon, scribble the seat numbers on your tickets, and away you'd go.
After around 18 months away, I returned to live in Hong Kong in 1992, and found a job in Wanchai. Then the nearest cinema was in Pacific Place, and they introduced booking over the telephone. It cut out the queueng time, but I missed being able to see where the seats were, and how busy the theatre was. That was solved when online booking via the web became available, and of course now we can book tickets from our smartphones.
While technology was making it easier to book tickets, it was also making it easier to skip the cinema altogether. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I was surprised to see how popular Laser Discs were. They were a rarity in the UK where video cassette tapes ruled. One reason for Laser Discs' popularity was the prevalence of karaoke at the time - hopping between songs was almost instant with Laser Discs compared with trying to fast forward or rewind a tape. It was a natural progression from Laser Discs to VCDs, which were smaller and cheaper, and again they were much more popular here than in the UK. Illegal copies of a wide range of films soon appeared on VCDs, and for a while were widely available in shops around Hong Kong.
The competition took its toll and by the end of the century, cinemas were on the decline. Our last map shows just 50 cinemas in operation, less than half the number at their peak.
I hope you've enjoyed this look back at Hong Kong's cinemas, and that it brings back happy memories. If you'd like to see more information about any of the cinemas on the maps above, please click the marker to see its name, then click the name to visit a page with a description of the cinema and any photos we have for it.
Documenting Hong Kong's cinemas is a work-in-progress, so we'd welcome your help:
- You can see a list of all the cinemas we've got so far. If you spot any mistakes or omissions, please let us know in the comments.
- If you can tell us any stories about Hong Kong's cinemas, please also let us know in the comments below.
- Any photos of cinemas or related memorabilia would also be great to see - here's how to upload a photo to the site.
Finally thanks to everyone who has contributed the information shown here. Special thanks to Peter for all his hard work, and thanks also to the contributors at the Cinema Treasures website, who have been the source for a lot of the dates and addresses for the cinemas. The photos shown come from a variety of sources - you can click on any photo to see its source.
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