23 Feb Classic Cinemas In George Town
Penang is a center of movie lovers from all backgrounds, but the ones who remember it fondly were the ones who experienced the magic of cinema in the classic cinema halls, before the TGVs and GSCs ruled the scene due to the outbreak of shopping malls and cinema chains. If you asked a person who lived throughout the 1950s – 1960s era about movie-going in that time, they will reminisce about how they went out with their dates to the Rex for The Sound of Music, or even how gob smacked they were at the chariot race at the end of Ben Hur at the Cathay.
Alas, a lot of these cinema buildings had to be demolished to make way for bigger prospects. The Capitol, Paramount, Royal and Eastern cinema halls were bulldozed aside to make way for the foundation that would become the Komtar building complex. Likewise, a now-popular food court famous to most Penangites replaced the Lido and Globe cinema centers at New World Park on Swatow Lane. The Wembley cinema hall, and the once-thriving amusement park it resided in, is now entirely gone. The Gala cinema on Macalister Road has now transformed into a hotel complex, which once housed the Mandarin then Ming hotel names, and now houses the Red Rock Hotel. The winds of change had come and, in a moment, these places exist now only in memories of the old.
A few vintage cinema buildings still stand, but they no longer provide their original function. The Full Gospel Assembly Penang religious group now occupies the Choong Nam Theater in Air Itam. The Gala cinema hall in Aboo Sittee Lane has been converted into the Amazon nightspot. The Federal Cinema on Dato’ Keramat Road now houses the Starview Restaurant. Likewise for the Rex on Burmah Road and the Cathay on Penang Road, which house a Mekio Furniture outlet and Mydin Department Store, respectively. Odeon, also on Penang Road, lives on as an interactive art museum nicknamed The Heritage Asylum. The Sun on Drury Lane off Campbell Street has lived many lives – first as a cinema and stage hall, which also showcased numerous magic shows and Chinese operas; then being retrofitted into a discothèque under multiple ownerships (Planet Hollywood being a chief example), and now finally settling as an Ultimate Fitness gym. For these survivors, time has not been kind.
However, much as the old cinephiles lament the loss of the classic theaters in Penang, all is not lost. The Majestic, formerly the Shanghai Sound Theater, is George Town’s oldest cinema hall, and currently is the lone vintage theater still functioning in some capacity as it was originally intended. Located off Khoo Sian Ewe Road, it recently celebrated a building restoration effort. In addition to housing gala dinners and stage productions, it also has modern facilities to house film screenings, having recently shown Chinese classics such as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (少林三十六房) and The Love Eterne (梁山伯與祝英台) to raise awareness of the restoration efforts. Judging from the packed reception (mostly comprised of elderly Penangites!), there is still a lot of life left in old-fashioned cinema going.