Once upon a time, the cinemas in Malaysia were like a movie scene. The way the audience reserved their seats could perhaps make you laugh – tying a knot on their seat using a handkerchief. Those were the days before movie tickets were introduced in the 60’s. There was no air-conditioner, just fans and wooden chairs. If you were unlucky, you might come across some rats running around the cinema floor.
I watched my first movie in the cinema in 1976. It was King Kong in Cathay, Penang. The 70’s was considered as the heyday of cinema. It introduced me to Bruce Lee, Chin Han, Lin Ching-Hsia, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Jackie Chan and Roger Moore.
Tickets and Seatings
This was also the time when ticket prices were divided according to the seating arrangement, from first to second and third class. The upstairs tickets were the most expensive. Although cinema tickets were considered expensive during that time, people still flocked to the cinemas in droves and there were even black market ticket sellers who boldly approached the crowd in the queue.
Some smart patrons would first buy third-class tickets and then moved into first class seats amidst the movie screening. That was why ticket inspectors were often seen with torchlight in their hand to ensure patrons didn’t change their seats!
And unlike the cineplexes today, there was an interval during movie screening to allow the patrons to buy drinks or go to the washroom. The “kuaci” girl would also freely walk along the cinema aisle to sell “kuaci” (sunflower seeds), ice-creams or popcorns during the interval!
In fact, there were all kinds of foods like “kacang putih” (peanuts), “bak kua bun” (grilled meat buns) and meat floss buns available and could be brought into the cinema. But today, only foods bought at the counter like drinks and popcorns are allowed.
To promote the particular movie, some cinemas invited celebrities to draw more crowd. My mother once told me famed Hong Kong songstress, Grace Chang came over to Cathay, Penang to promote her movie, “Air Hostess”.
In Johor Bahru, the Capitol cinema took pride in having a stage which hosted live shows of visiting stars performing live an excerpt of the movie, especially huangmei opera (黃梅調). Apart from inviting celebrities, cinema posters and billboards were used to promote the movie. As there was no digital printing back then, these items were hand-drawn. In fact, most of the promotional flyers were in one-colour print and distributed from door to door in the neighbourhood.
Today, those good old cinemas have ceased from movie screening due to the emergence of home videos in the 80’s. Some became home furnishing outlets, hypermarkets, café, restaurant and boutique hotels.
Surprisingly, the Majestic cinema recently reopened its door with new décor and is back to screen old Shaw Brothers movies. For Odean cinema, it is now a popular trick art café and restaurant with beautiful wall murals and architectural marvel. Times have changed. People enjoy ultimate comfort of watching movies in cineplexes. But cineplexes can’t beat the good old cinema experience for me. I miss my bak kua buns and kuaci.
Words & Photos by Francis Yip