Whenever I go back to my hometown of Sungai Petani (SP), Kedah, I spend some time at my favourite old Chinese coffee shop located in the heart of the town. As I sit quietly while sipping a cup of kopi-O, I cannot help but feel a tinge of melancholy when I view (from inside the coffee shop) old cinema buildings that have died natural deaths at the hand of video tapes and VCDs.
Such reminiscence transports me back to my halcyon childhood days in SP when my late father and I would frequent the cinemas. However, when I reached 10, my outings to the cinema no longer had to be sanctioned by my father. At his insistence, I dared to go to the cinema alone. Since then, almost every weekend I found an escape in the fantasy world of films in order to temporarily stave off real-world miseries (read: school homework pending).
Opposite the coffee shop I see the burnt-out ruins of the Empire – the oldest cinema in SP – destroyed by a massive fire that broke out in the late 1980s. In the 1980s, the Empire still offered the cheapest ticket prices (RM0.65 and RM1.40) due to its status as a "second-run" cinema. Its building and interior space looked dilapidated yet it had character, thereby furnishing the "feel" of the 1950s and 1960s cinema-going experience.
At the Empire, I had the privilege to watch a range of pre-1980s popular films, from James Bond to Mandarin-language wuxia films. It was somewhat momentous when I experienced two P. Ramlee’s films, Penarek Becha (1955) and Tiga Abdul (1964), for the first time on the big screen.
On the other side of the road is an old building i.e., the Kapitol, which used to be the biggest cinema in SP, but today it has been turned into a handicraft store. I recall that the cinema’s underground area was equipped with car parking lots while its ground floor was the cinema lobby. The first floor housed the cheaper first/ second/ third class seats, while the second floor was devoted to the more expensive "reserved class", which were the upstairs "balcony’" seats that overlooked the first floor. Mostly, the Kapitol screened Anglo-American, Hong Kong, Indonesian and Indian (Tamil and Hindi) films.
The other cinema in SP, the Cathay, which was owned by Cathay Organisation is, today, a home appliances store. It was here that I viewed many Malay films which often played to a packed audience. In addition to the Malay films, the cinema screened Anglo-American, Hong Kong, Indonesian and Indian films. However, in the mid-1980s, the business of film exhibition began to dwindle with the advent of the VCR and home-video technology that emerged as a popular form of domestic consumption.
While waiting in the cinema’s lobby after purchasing my ticket, I would spend some time looking at film posters and lobby cards. I remember observing religiously the hand-painted cloth banners strung over the building façade. It was sheer delight to stare at the stars’ portraits of, for example, Fauziah Ahmad Daud and Raja Ema garlanded with their strikingly pink cheeks and cherry-coloured lips.
In the Cathay’s lobby, which was embellished impressively, I loved looking at the printed posters, lobby cards and hand-cut, painted letters used for film titles (made from polystyrene) displayed in glass cases positioned inside the cinema building. Lobby cards, in particular, often grabbed my attention with glimpses of key scenes from particular films.
Before entering the screening hall, I would check out the snack bar to buy the obligatory kuaci (sunflower seeds). Consequently, it came as no surprise that the hall floors were littered with sunflower seed shells. As popcorn had yet to be fashionable, other popular titbits included kacang putih, salted cashew nuts, asam jeruk, fresh fruits, dried cuttlefish, prawn crackers and soft drinks.
When I entered the screening hall before the curtain lifted, pop songs of the time, for example, sung by Sheena Easton or Jamal Abdillah, reverberated throughout the hall. And, should I have entered after the lights went off, there would be ushers with their battery-powered torches to show me to the seat.
I also recall that every time a screening was about to end, a small slide with a handwritten inscription in Malay, English and Chinese was flashed on the screen, reminding the audience not to leave their belongings behind once the show ended.
As it is elsewhere in Malaysia, the now defunct stand-alone cinemas in SP have been displaced by the American-style, more modern cineplexes and multiplexes. Given the fact that SP has become one of the fastest growing cities in the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia, all multiplexes are now located in the shopping malls: Amanjaya Mall, Central Square, and Village Mall.
In those days, my cinematic pleasure and excitement emanated from sitting in the darkened hall and being immersed in the flickering images, strewn with grainy visuals, small dots and marks, lines and scratches. Today, such a distinct aesthetic of film has been lost to an inferior successor – digital.
Additionally, the whir of the film projector, the beam of light being projected onto the big screen, as well as the cheering, laughter and screaming of the audience – all constituted some of my fondest memories of cinema-going back then. I am grateful that the Empire, Kapitol and Cathay in SP were my formative, elementary "film schools" that exposed me to, and provided me with, a smattering of the world of the silver screen.
Norman Yusoff is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Film, Theatre and Animation, Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam.