In a pocket of old Kuching town sits a forgotten icon of urban life. The old Cathay Cinema nestles rather insalubriously among rusting warehouses and a clutch of crumbling shophouses. It’s currently occupied by a chain store selling bulk souvenirs. An unkempt carpark serves as a kind of forecourt, in which patrons of the noodle shop across the road jostle for space to park their vehicles. It’s an increasingly rare sight in 21st century Kuching - this deserted backlane cityscape, de-Chiricoesque in its deserted melancholy. Into this time-warped eddy, the distant growl of traffic sails in faintly over the rooftops, over the battered, peeling steel letters that still spell out CATHAY, defiant against the ravages of time.
Years ago, Kuching’s cinemas were its secular temples, drawing the faithful of all ages, all races, all backgrounds. If cinema was a religion, it was a truly democratic one. Poor and rich, young and old, all were welcome, regardless of age, occupation or religion; anyone who could afford to part with a fistful of pocket change (and quite a few who didn’t) was given access behind the thick velvet curtains.
From left to right: Built in 1934, the Sylvia Cinema was the first cinema in Kuching. The 1952 photo of Rex Cinema, Art Deco in architecture is today a multi-storey car park and the Star Cinema Complex. The Capitol, Odeon, Miramar and Roxy were given exotic names showing equally exotic films.
From a Kuching visitor on what she remembers of the Cathay Cinema. "My mom and I traveled to Kuching the summer of 1991 and stopped at the Cathay Cinema one evening to see Green Card with Andie MacDowell and Gerard Depardieu. I remember there was a smoking section. My mom and I asked for non-smoking, but it didn't really matter once we got inside. It was still smokey, no matter where we sat. If you looked closely, you could see a painted movie poster just to the left of the front door with an image of Gerard holding Andie off the ground. Back then, movie posters were painted and weren't an exact image of the actors or scenes in the movies." Susan Blumber- Kason of Chicago US
For a schoolchild prior to the 1990s, a trip to the cinema was the ultimate treat. Before the era of plush, hulking cineplexes and hermetically-sealed shopping malls, Kuching’s cinemas provided townspeople with a convenient and affordable escape from daily life. Those who built them gave them exotic names, conjuring up storied images from history – the Odeon, the Capitol, the Rex. They were endowed with equally fantastical architecture, ranging from sumptuous art deco to whimsical Chinese-style confections.
As a young boy, an excursion to the Rex was a carefully calibrated event of ritualistic importance. First came the twinkle in the parent’s eye; out came the newspaper and a searching finger ran down the listings, in miniscule newsprint. Proposals were launched, negotiated, and accepted. Off we went in the car or on foot in the sweltering heat (no morning pictures were the unspoken rule). A glimpse of the Rex never failed to set the heart singing – its art deco lines and spire sweeping upwards like a prayer to a benevolent cinematic god; the throng of patrons and food stalls clustering about the foyer; hand-painted marquees blazing giant images out onto the street. It was simply the most colourful, most wonderful place in town.
Cross the tiled foyer to the ticket counter; a few coins bought you access in the form of a brightly-coloured ticket the consistency of toilet paper; you couldn’t it get wet lest it stained your clothes and sent mum into hysterics. A few more coins, earnestly begged, could buy you a host of supplementary pleasures – steaming hot kacang in newspaper cones, melon seeds, peanuts, and bottled soft drinks in lurid colours that hinted at the cinematic treasures to come. Outside, there were other food stalls - the Rex being a community centre as much as a cinema - selling cucur, hawker treats, and toys in plastic and tin. Cinemas were among the first businesses to recognize young children as a major marketing demographic, and they took full advantage of it. Even as children, we knew when we were being seduced.
The man who stood at the hall door was both guard and co- conspirator. If you were ticketless, he could bar your entry. But if he was in an agreeable mood, and for a suitable price (a hokkien song perhaps?), he might be persuaded to let you in. He drew back the thick, slightly greasy curtains and you entered into the holy of holies in the darkness beyond. Whatever the weather was outside, it was always cool inside the cinema, even in the days before central air-conditioning. You felt your way in the dark, sometimes aided by an attendant with a torch. The older seats were clattering traps of wood and metal, which you found only with a supernatural sense of smell and touch, crunching peanut shells, wrappers and god-knows-what-else underfoot.
But these were peripheral concerns to a young cinema-goer. The sticky seats, the crawling floor, the rickety fans, none of that mattered. What mattered was that rectangle of light at the front that opened up a window to a whole other world. In that world, you could escape to Ming China, ancient Rome, or the American Wild West. That world was populated by a fantastical array of beings - mermaids in glistening pools, intrepid detectives, glamorous women, kungfu masters, and murderous assassins. You travelled with them, sang and danced with them, laughed with them, cried with them. In a culture where ostensible displays of emotion were discouraged, the cinema was a place where these rules were suspended. Fully-grown men wept, children yelled warnings at their onscreen heroes, women shrieked in laughter or fright, and it was all OK. It was the one public place where you could surrender yourself to emotion.
The age of these palaces ended swiftly with the advent of the shopping mall and the cineplex. These behemoths gobbled up the older icons of town life and trapped them inside large windowless boxes. Gone were the hawker stalls, the easy connections to the street, the fantastical architecture. In the new age of mass consumption and the ubiquitous car, there was no longer a place for these familiar touchstones. We exchanged them for convenient parking, air-conditioned corridors, and a choice of popcorn sets.
The Chinese word for film is beautifully apt – dian ying, literally electric shadows. You might well call them electric dreams. To submerge yourself in that darkness was like a return to the womb, to a childlike state of wonder and magic. There in the luminous dark, surreptitious wisps of cigarette smoke wafting from the back rows made visible the shimmering wings of light that stretched overhead from the projection room. This was the true magic of the old cinema halls. For a few coins, we the audience could be transported to a place of wonder. With faces upturned like sunflowers, we basked in the light of electric shadows, we dreamed electric dreams. We were, for a few short hours, denizens of a wondrous pleasure palace, our own communal Xanadu.
Alan is an architect by profession, an opera singer at heart, and a regular KINO contributor. The first movie he watched at Kuching’s old Rex cinema was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which he credits with giving him a love of music and a lifelong suspicion of perfect red apples.