Saturday, December 17, 2016

A second chance for Hong Kong's State Theatre

It was just about a year ago that I first learned about the plight of the State. Word came in the form of a long, impassioned email from Haider Kikabhoy, co-founder of Walk in Hong Kong, a tour group based in that city. With detailed enthusiasm the author lamented the dire predicament of "the last grand post-war theater building still standing in Hong Kong," as a deep-pocketed property developer made moves to replace it with a generic commercial tower. A story I've come to know all too well.

Hong Kong's State Theatre. A lone low-rise vestige in a forest of concrete giants.

Haider had reached out in the name of some kindred-spirit publicity for The State Theatre. One movie theater-phile's appeal to another to sound the proverbial alarm. At stake was Hong Kong's last brick and mortar link to its legendary cinema heritage.

While I never did get around to writing that post, (until now, that is) I tried my best to impart a few strategic advocacy tactics that I thought might win his cause some support.

His cause, I should mention, is actually Hong Kong's cause. Aside from Haider's deft ability to link The State Theatre with a sustainable future for that great city-state, there's very little direct connection to the building that he and his advocacy team at Walk in Hong Kong have been trying to save. At least no more than the rest of Hong Kong's seven-plus million residents. Therein lies his logic.

While Hong Kong grows richer and more cosmopolitan by the year, its local identity and human scale often gets squeezed out. Countless historic structures and the communities that made use of them have been mowed down to keep up with the ever expanding property market. It's the ultimate Catch 22 facing successful cities in the globalization era. The more desirable a city becomes - the more sophisticated - the more difficult it becomes to maintain those qualities that made it so appealing to begin with. All the more so when the city in question is the the economic masthead of a thriving region.

The parabolic trusses suspending the State Theatre's roof. This unique feature was one of the architectural highlights used to argue the case for why the State needs to be preserved.

Armed with little more than an acute sense of Hong Kong's history and a team of committed activists, Walk in Hong Kong set out to preserve a mid-century masterpiece. Ever the pragmatists, Haider and his cohorts knew from the start that the likelihood of getting the State recognized as a historic asset by the Antiques Advisory Board, Hong Kong's governing body tasked with evaluating architectural heritage, was probably not going to happen. After all, the developer honing in on the State had more or less bought out all the surrounding properties, thus had the advantage of forward momentum. What's more, aside from the most keen of observers, very few people in Hong Kong even knew, let alone cared, about the State's humdrum existence. Out of business since 1997, it's most recent incarnation as a snooker hall didn't attract much attention.

Haider and company were undeterred. Over the coming months they would craft an advocacy campaign that struck deep. The State's signature exposed parabolic roof structure became the formal logo for the campaign, a design feature which, once seen, is hard to forget. A half dozen or so short videos were produced to highlight the cultural and architectural merit of this once-grand building, each narrated by a notable Hong Kong personality.  They lobbied the Antiques Advisory Board, arguing their case with pin-point precision, while continuing to do strategic outreach with both local and international media. It took a a Herculean effort, but over time they managed to build an undeniable case as to the value of the State Theatre, turning an essentially forgotten building slated for the wrecking ball into a bona fide monument.

On Thursday, December the 8th, the Antiques Advisory Board designated the State Theatre a Grade 1 historic structure, ensuring that any attempts to demolish the building would face steep scrutiny. This marks a major victory in favor of reason, and proof that hard work and strategic advocacy can indeed make preservation the logical choice over business as usual.

Vintage night shot of the State Theatre when it was at the peek of its operation

But the work is not done for Haider and Walk in Hong Kong:

"The Save our State campaign is working on a couple of conservation proposals that will balance the interests of any future developer of the site with the exemplary heritage of The State Theatre. At the same time, we will continue to collect and celebrate people's memories of the theatre. Besides the distinctive architectural style of the urban landmark, the stories of people who have used and enjoyed The State Theatre is what makes the building great"

Bangkok, Thailand, do take note. Your Scala is on the line.