Iconic Rex Cinema building in Penang to be torn down

GEORGE TOWN: The iconic Rex Cinema at the corner of Kinta Lane and Burma Road here is set to be torn down to give way to a 27-storey condominium project.

The building is considered a heritage of Penang’s heydays as it was a state-of-the-art cinema when it opened its doors some 85 years ago.

According to plans submitted to the Penang Island City Council (MBPP), aside from putting up the condominium, the developer has also applied to preserve and maintain a row of 24 heritage shophouses on the adjacent Kinta Lane.

The city council approved the project on Oct 19 last year. A developer’s representative told FMT that it would endeavour to maintain the facade of the cinema.

George Town Heritage Action’s Mark Lay said it has become a damning track record, as countless heritage buildings in the country have been demolished for the sake of profit through real estate development.

“In light of today’s experience, knowledge and aspirations, it should not always be a foregone conclusion that when there is a choice between heritage conservation and real estate development, development is favoured, especially when it generates income for the city council.

Lay said, given Penang’s history and George Town’s Unesco World Heritage Site status, the authorities should act to protect the state’s common legacies for future generations and rule in favour of protecting its non-renewable cultural assets.

“The council should reserve its judgement 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 when the proposition is presented to it for consideration. Penang needs to learn from its past demolition disasters,” he told FMT.

Built at a cost of 70,000 Straits dollars in 1938, 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.

The Pinang Gazette and Straits Chronicle in 1939 had reported it to be the largest cinema of its kind in Malaya, and “a first-class cinema and theatre combined”.

The cinema is said to have been operating until the early 2000s before it was taken over by a furniture shop.

Records show the building was designed by Charles Boucher, the man behind the Zahir Mosque in Alor Setar and the Kedah House on Northam Road.

Businessman Gary Nair recalls watching the Charlton Heston movie, “Ben-Hur”, at the Rex Cinema at a cost of 40 cents in the early 60s.

“There is a great kopitiam shop next to the cinema too, where we would eat to our heart’s content with friends. The Rex Cinema is a Penang icon and it is a pity to see a piece of Penang’s heritage chiselled away,” he said.

A worker at the kopitiam, in his late 70s, said the Kinta Lane area was once bustling, but things died down after the cinema closed its doors in the 1970s.

“Rex was the centre of everything. Everything was nearby. People used to walk from all over town here to catch midnight shows. It was the place to be. The hall was so cold we had to wear sweaters,” said the man, who identified himself as Hooi.

A representative of the developer, when contacted for comment, said it would preserve the facade of the cinema building.

FMT has reached out to the MBPP and George Town mayor Yew Tung Seang for comment.

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