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The grand old lady stirs from slumber
MUCH of the seven- year-old George Town Festival's (GTF) charm lies in its heritage venues in the Unesco World Heritage City, utilised as performance and event spaces for this annual programme. This year, one of its newest venues is The Majestic Penang - a restored 1926 theatre, which is a project by a Singapore property management company.
1919 Global - majority-owned by a Singapore-based family which has its roots in Penang - has restored the British colonial theatre to its original design, based on pictures in the 1930s. "I call her the 'grand old lady' now, as her personality is coming back," says Jonathan Foo, 1919 Global's CEO.
"The roads here were once lit up by the neon lights and lightbulb-rimmed billboards as it was the heart of the entertainment district and featured a vibrant nightlife backed by famous restaurants such as Loke Thye Kee and Boston Café."
Built by a prominent Straits Chinese architect named Chew Eng Eam in 1926, the Majestic was originally a live-theatre building commissioned by businessman and philanthropist Khoo Sian Ewe; the Chinese name inscribed on the building says "Sian Ewe Theatre". It later became the Shanghai Sound Theatre, and its colourful past included hosting live shows such as the steamy Rose Chan cabaret acts.
In the 1970s, the theatre became the first cinema to feature sound, bringing Penang's theatre row (the other cinemas in the vicinity were Rex, Odeon and Capitol) up to international standards. Chinese movies from the likes of Shaw Brothers formed the main staple of The Majestic's screening schedules, and later Hollywood films in the 1980s. After the cinema went bust in the wake of the 1987 Wall Street Crash, the theatre was used as a church until it was finally shuttered in the mid-1990s.
Now, 1919 Global has restored it so that the main hall can seat 800 or accommodate 60 banquet tables. Above the main hall, there is a balcony area called The Circle (formerly the First Class sitting area). There is also a private VIP box, including a holding room (formerly the projector room). Ministry of Design, a Singapore design architect firm, is responsible for the current look and design.
Mr Foo says the company chanced upon the cinema and its adjoining shophouses about 10 years ago - when the whole area was quite a deserted and dilapidated area. "When we first got it, we didn't have big ideas. But three years ago, we decided that it was time to bring it back to life in this 'living heritage' concept," he says.
The main idea was to restore the buildings so that they were functional and relevant again. So in 2012, 1919 Global restored the Loke Thye Kee Restaurant and also turned five adjacent shophouses into Loke Thye Kee Residences, a boutique hotel. The properties are on the key junction of Jalan Penang and Jalan Burmah, marked by a large pedestrian crossing over Jalan Penang known to locals as the "Octopus Bridge".
Loke Thye Kee Residences, the first project with Ministry of Design, saw the hotel dubbed "Malaysia's coolest stay" by e-retailer net-a-porter, and it made it to DestinAsian's "The Luxe List 2015". It was also a finalist for "Best Suite" at the Asia Hotel Design Awards 2016.
Mr Foo says the key was to restore The Majestic Penang's iconic façade with its British colonial and art deco elements - the balustrades and the cup on top of the crown of the building. "We spent a lot on air-conditioning to make sure it's usable for today's functions," he adds.
The company has also reached out to events companies to bring in shows. Mr Foo himself has a film background in Singapore, and has already reached out to the international film industry to market the theatre.
"As an outsider looking in, I can see that Penang has the creative DNA . . . but the brain drain has pushed a lot of people out to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. So it's important that Penang has a suitable stage to feature and showcase Penang's talents," he notes.
Responding to recent rumblings on the ground about Singapore and other foreign companies buying up heritage properties in George Town, kicking out old trades and raising rentals in the process, Mr Foo says this view needs to be balanced with that of real stakeholders who have a passion for the city and who have invested greatly in it.
"What makes George Town the heritage city that it is, is the vibrancy of change and progress through time. Heritage evolves and progresses. What we are seeing today is just the next stage of George Town's heritage evolution," he adds.
The theatre has borne witness to Penang's ebb and flow, and now it's coming back to life, says Mr Foo, as he anxiously supervises the renovation work still going on in the building.
By Saturday, the whole frontage and its main hall will have to be polished and gleaming - ready to host the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow as part of George Town Festival's opening weekend. Next weekend, The Majestic Penang will also host an experimental Samuel Beckett play, All That Fall, by Dublin-based Pan Pan Theatre. And on the closing weekend of the festival, the UK's Gandini Juggling troupe brings Smashed.