If there is one thing that successive governments in Hong Kong have been good at, it’s destroying the city’s past. In the 30+ years that I’ve been living here, the harbour has shrunk in size and whole mountains have disappeared (those two are interrelated), and a more than a few of the city’s iconic buildings have fallen victim to bulldozers and other demolition equipment. But the policy of “Out with the old and in with the new” was set long before the city returned to the embrace of the Motherland in 1997. Under the British colonial government, the Victorian-era red brick General Post Office came down to make way for our subway system, the Hong Kong Club Building was replaced by an uninspired but much taller, and therefore revenue-generating, tower, and the gloriously tacky Tiger Balm Gardens was replaced by a luxury apartment complex. Fortunately, the powers-that-be have had a slight change of heart in recent years when it comes to saving our historic buildings, and places like the former police station on Hollywood Road and prison on the adjacent Old Bailey Street, have been transformed into exciting entertainment venues that both the public and visitors to our city love and use.
The same could not be said for the State Theatre in North Point, which saw better days. Built in 1952 and named the Empire Theatre, it began its life as a cinema. After years of renovations which ultimately saw part of it turned into a billiards hall, the renamed State Theatre shuttered in 1997. Since that time, a local property developer had been buying it up, piece by piece, with the intention of knocking it down and replacing it with something large, shiny and, of course, profit-making. That’s when local tour guide and history buff Haider Kikabhoy got involved. He took it upon himself to bring the matter to the public’s attention, saying that this piece of our collective memory needed to be saved. In doing research on the theatre, he learned that it was originally owned by a Jewish man named Harry Odell. Odell, was Hong Kong’s first impresario, bringing international acts like clarinetist Benny Goodman, bandleader Xavier Cugat, sitarist Ravi Shankar and others to the city. He also brought The Beatles here in 1964 (though not to the Empire), and he is noted as saying that he was the only promoter to have ever lost money on the Far Four. (That’s a whole story in itself.) Perhaps Odell’s greatest contribution to Hong Kong, though, is that he was the driving force behind the construction of City Hall, a performance venue that is still in use today.
Kikabhoy and fellow filmmaker Dora Choi look back on the history of the State Theatre and on the life of Harry Odell in their documentary, TO BE CONTINUED. The film’s Chinese name, 尚未完場, means “Not yet finished” and it is the term that cinema operators here use to inform incoming patrons to wait for the movie screening to finish before they can enter the house. The name also implies that, even with this film, the history of the State Theatre has not yet been fully written. Indeed, while the State Theatre has now been listed as a Grade I historic building, its future as a performance venue is only slightly assured.
Kikabhoy and Choi deftly combine historical and contemporary images with talking head interviews of people who knew Odell and were often helped in their careers by him. They have created a film that is not just educational; it’s also upbeat, amusing and heartfelt at the same time. The pair scored a coup when they arranged with Odell’s daughter-in-law, Molly, to visit Hong Kong with her children and grandchildren while they were filming. In the film, they visit Odell’s grave in Happy Valley and go to Odell’s former residence, The Alberose, which was named after his in-laws, Albert and Rosie Weill, who were prominent jewellers in Hong Kong. (Both Rosie and Harry’s sister-in-law, Susie Weill, are mentioned quite extensively in Emily Hahn’s 1946 memoir, “Hong Kong Holiday”.) Today, The Alberose is owned by the University of Hong Kong and the school leases the house on two-year terms under very strict conditions. Its current tenant is Cantopop singer Hins Cheung/張敬軒, who warmly welcomes the Odell clan into his home and shares with them how he has honoured Odell’s memory.
Quite sadly, Hong Kong students don’t learn about the city’s history and characters like Harry Odell are, by and large, unknown to them. Fortunately, the interest to learn is there, and Kikabhoy and others like him are around to teach new generations not just about the contributions people like Odell made to the city but also why heritage conservation is so important.
TO BE CONTINUED premiered in April at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and is now playing sporadically at the Golden Scene Cinema in Kennedy Town. It’s also making its way around the world to cities where there is a large Hong Kong diaspora. To see where and when it’s screening next, visit their Facebook page.
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