Thursday, September 28

Could Penang lose another heritage building to developers? Spotlight on former Rex Cinema building with Art Deco architecture


The Rex Cinema building on Burmah Road is currently a furniture shop. — Malay Mail photo

GEORGE TOWN (Feb 4): The Penang Heritage Council is hoping to preserve the Art Deco architectural style of the former Rex Cinema on Burmah Road before the city loses the 84-year-old building to development.

The Penang Island City Council (MBPP) had recently come under fire for approving a plan to turn the building which currently houses a furniture shop into a high-rise condominium.

“We will see to what extent they can modify their planning proposal for the condominium project,” Penang Heritage Commissioner Rosli Nor told Malay Mail when contacted this week about efforts to conserve the former Rex Cinema building.

He explained that the old cinema building is located outside the Unesco world heritage site as well as George Town’s buffer zone, and is also not listed as a heritage building.

However, he said he will try to arrange a meeting with both the owner and developer to propose a public-private partnership that will preserve the architectural heritage of the former Rex Cinema, or at least its facade if not the entire building.

“Many buildings outside of the heritage site are not listed and gazetted as heritage buildings, especially if it is privately-owned buildings,” he said.

Rosli explained that the city council could not withdraw the approval given as there would be legal repercussions, which include paying compensation to the developer.

“Of course, the Rex Cinema building is fully intact, its interiors are beautiful, and it is best that the developer retains it, they can restore it and use it as a public space, maybe as a theatre for performing arts,” he suggested.

Rosli said the old cinema buildings in Penang have unique Art Deco architectural styles and another good example is the old Odeon Cinema along Penang Road.

The Odeon theatre, circa late 1940s. — Picture courtesy of Marcus Langdon Collection

“It is a fine example of art deco architecture from the 1920s,” he said.

He gave an assurance that the former Odeon Cinema, currently housing a bar and restaurant, will be protected as a heritage building as it is located within the Unesco heritage site.

The old Wembley Cinema on Noordin Street was another example of a heritage building which had its facade kept after being turned into a high-rise, Rosli said.

The Wembley cinema building on Noordin Street was demolished but its facade was retained as the front of a hotel. — Picture by Opalyn Mok

MBPP Mayor Datuk Yew Tung Seang told Malay Mail that the local council had approved the development plan for the old Rex Cinema as the developer had complied with all statutory and technical requirements.

Besides, he said the project was located far outside of the Unesco buffer and heritage zone.

The cost of heritage conservation

Badan Warisan Malaysia president Lim Wei Ling had castigated MBPP for approving the demolition of the old Rex Cinema for a condominium project, pointing out the 84-year-old building’s architectural, social, cultural and heritage and the loss to future generations.

“Preserving the facade will not be enough. The Rex Cinema was built with significant interior Art Deco features and details, and these should be maintained,” she said in a statement.

Lim also highlighted the recent demolition of another heritage building in Clove Hall, lamenting the irreplaceable loss of a historic piece of architecture on the island.

In response to the criticism, Rosli said the Clove Hall building was not listed or gazetted as a heritage building.

“It is not practical to list all private buildings outside the heritage sites or for the state to acquire these buildings to protect them as heritage buildings,” he said.

He said the state could not be using public funds to acquire heritage buildings just to preserve it without justifying if such a move has economic benefits to the general public.

“Asking the state to take over these buildings will incur a lot of public funds so this is not practical,” he said.

He also noted that there were no good incentives or direct benefits for owners of these buildings to preserve the properties too.

The Capitol theatre on Penang Road, circa 1958. — Picture courtesy of Marcus Langdon Collection

Penang’s old cinemas

Prior to the introduction of the modern cineplexes in the shopping malls of today, the cinemas of old in Penang used to be the only places to watch foreign films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, India and the United States.

Built between the 1920s and 1940s, these cinemas were located mostly within George Town but there were also smaller ones outside of the city.

Many of these cinemas shuttered between the 1980s and the early 2000s with Odeon Cinema lasting the longest before it closed its doors in 2014.

Among the cinemas demolished throughout the years were Capitol (located on Penang Road, now a vacant lot next to Komtar), Paramount, Royal and Eastern.

Some of these former cinema buildings have been restored and maintain their architecture today.

The Cathay cinema on Penang Road was also known as the Choong Lye Hock Theatre, circa late 1940s. — Picture courtesy of Marcus Langdon Collection

Among them are the Majestic Cinema along Phee Choon Road, which is now used as an upscale event space; Federal Cinema on Datuk Keramat Road which is now a restaurant; Cathay Cinema on Penang Road, which was also called the Choong Lye Hock Theatre and is now a supermarket; and the Sun Cinema off Campbell Street, which is now a night entertainment spot.

New World Park, known as the entertainment space of the olden days, used to be the location for the Lido and Globe cinemas and has become a popular hawker centre with only the perimeter walls to mark its past.

The Majestic Cinema building on Phee Choon Road is now an event space. — Picture by Opalyn Mok

What to conserve

Local heritage building conservation advocate Tan Chin Ling said the old Rex Cinema was built in the mid-20th century.

Recently appointed into the Penang Heritage Council as an independent expert in heritage building conservation, he said the state may need to enhance its current by-laws and guidelines regarding heritage buildings outside of the Unesco world heritage site.

“I would suggest that they conserve the Rex building instead of only maintaining the facade as it will only be like a dummy facade and it will take away from the character of the whole building,” he told Malay Mail.

He said heritage property owners should realise that restoring and conserving these buildings could raise the value of their properties.

He said that the public can now nominate properties for heritage gazettement and the Penang Heritage Council evaluate them for suitability. — Malay Mail