GEORGE TOWN: Going to Rex Cinema in the 1960s was a family event that sent shivers down the spine for B. Premala when she was a child.
Now a retired schoolteacher at 66, she was less than 10 years old when her father would bring her and three other sisters to watch Tamil movies there.
“We would first have char kuey teow at the coffee shop opposite the cinema.
“Tamil movies were usually shown at midnight and English ones were shown during the day,” she reminisced.
She still remembers how the cinema smelled, because back then, it was not known that tobacco smoking would cause cancer, and people smoked to their hearts’ content in cinemas.
“The smell of tobacco smoke was as the thick velvet curtains,” she said.
Her father used to bring Premala and her sisters to the movies at least twice a month.
And she is saddened by the fact that the last vestige of her childhood movie trips is making way for development.
“Whenever I drive past it, I reminisce about the good old days when things were simpler,” she said.
The Penang Island City Council (MBPP) approved the development of a 27-storey condominium project on the grounds of Rex Cinema at the corner of Kinta Lane and Burmah Road here.
Komtar assemblyman Teh Lai Heng, also the Chief Minister’s political secretary, said if the developer followed MBPP guidelines and the project had been approved, then it should be okay for it to proceed with its building plans.
“All projects must follow guidelines and if the owner is willing to appreciate the structure and heritage aspect and preserve the façade, then it would be great,” he said.
When asked about the narrow roads and the issues that may arise from having a 27-storey building there, Teh said every project would have a traffic impact assessment before it was carried out.
“If the council approves it, it means it has followed the guidelines,” he said.
MBPP mayor Datuk Yew Tung Seang could not be reached for comment.
Nonetheless, heritage conservation activists are up in arms, stressing the fact that Rex Cinema, built in 1939, uses the Art Deco architectural style that originated in France in the 1910s.
George Town Heritage Action Group founder Mark Lay, a New Zealander living in Penang, called for greater conscientiousness in the preservation of heritage buildings in Penang.
Although the Rex Cinema building, currently a furniture store, is not inside George Town’s Unesco World Heritage Site, Lay said: “The local authority should reserve its judgment on the demolition of any site that is thought to have heritage value until it has exhausted all avenues to ensure its survival and not rule in favour of demolition at the first instance.
“Built at a cost of 70,000 Straits Dollars, the cinema was dubbed by newspapers in the region at the time as being one of the best, replete with chairs imported from America and centralised air-conditioning for 1,000 persons.
“This was unheard of at the time.”
Based on a poster of the cinema’s opening on Dec 23, 1939, it boasted 1,072 seats, of which 732 were downstairs and 340 upstairs.
As an economic and cultural hub since colonial days, George Town has had plenty of olden-day cinemas and some were at first theatres for live performances.
Not far from Rex Cinema today are the former Cathay, Odeon and Majestic cinemas.
The former Cathay building has been repurposed into a supermarket, the Odeon building is now a large F&B-cum-entertainment outlet, while Majestic – built in 1926 – is today an events hall.