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    The home of CINEMA
Xiao Changyan
2005-12-30 09:25

Last Thursday, the oldest cinema in the world, Daguanlou Cinema reopened after months of renovation.

Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Chinese cinema, the picture house, running 102 years since it opened in 1903, has just been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest operating movie theatre.

With an investment of 5 million yuan (US$620,000) from the government and the support of China Ancient Architecture Research Centre, the cinema has regained its original look from the 1900s.

It is like travelling between the past and present as visitors step into the century-old cinema. Though there is still that "new smell" in the new renovated theatre, people can easily find themselves lost down memory lane. Yellow glazed glass, black and white posters, long gowned ushers and richly ornamented corridors all take people back to the times of a century ago.

"We just want to rekindle people's interest in the old cinema," said Wang Zhanyou, the 12th manager in the long history of the cinema: "Because in the last few years Da Guanlou has sustained losses," he sighed.

The facelift began in June and was partly intended for the centennial celebration of Chinese cinema, but mainly to get people back through the doors. The ticket price is still the lowest in Beijing, at 50 yuan (US$6.1) for the blockbuster "The Promise" while in others charge 60 yuan (US$7.4) for the same movie.

"Maybe the renovation will bring back the good times," hoped Wang.

Located in Qianmen Street in downtown Beijing, the picture house, the very birth place of Chinese cinema, has witnessed the development of the Chinese film industry and experienced numerous ups and downs as well.

At the end of the 19th century, film was introduced to China for the first time, arousing great interest in a curious public. Ren Qingtai, a cutting-edge photographer who studied in Japan, established the Feng Tai photo studio and the Da Guanlou Theatre in 1903, catering to the public demand whilst making a handsome profit at the same time.

But after several years Ren found that foreign short films had gradually lost their original attraction. The versatile manager then decided to shoot a Chinese movie by himself. The pioneering cameraman bought a camera and forty reels of film from a German company, and invited Tan Xinpei, the then "King of Beijing Opera," to perform part of the opera Ding Jun Mounta, recording it in his Fengtai Photo Studio in July 1905. This silent film was only about 10 minutes long but turned out to be a great success. When the film was screened, "The whole town turned out to see the film" according to records.

Thereafter Ren produced documentary films of segments of many Peking Operas, like Leopard, Green Rocky Hill, The Sunny Mansion, At the White Beach, and Capture Cuanshen. They were all big hits and Ren became known as the pioneer and founder of Chinese cinema.

At that time the cinema was more like a traditional Chinese teahouse, with a table before every seat for the audience to rest their tea. During the intervals waiters would go around making tea and selling snacks.

In the early 20th century films became more popular in China. To control the "exotic art," the Qing dynasty government then issued a lot of regulations. In June 1911, the central government released a regulation governing cinema operation, stipulating that "License application is required for cinema operation. Men and women must sit separately. No pornographic films are allowed. Closing hours for cinemas are no later than 12 o' clock in the evening."

In 1930, the Daguanlou cinema broke the ban and allowed men and women to sit together to watch movies, which arousing heated social debate at the time.

But these are not the only areas of ground that Daguanlou broke. Once the most advanced cinema in China for decades, Daguanlou has made numerous records in China's cinematic history.

In November 1960, Daguanlou opened Beijing's first three-dimensional wide screen cinema.

In the same year the first Chinese vectorgraph picture, A Travelogue of Lijiang River was screened in Daguanlou. The 500-seat cinema was for the first time equipped with audio-effect speakers and two projectors to show the films simultaneously. Audiences needed to wear special glasses to watch the films.

From November 1960 to June 1966, A Magician's Adventure, produced by the Shanghai Film Studio, was shown 10,000 times in Daguanlou, with a total of 4 million spectators, including 2000 foreigners annually, a never surpassed record in Chinese film history.

But when the moon is full, it begins to wane, and so it was with Daguanlou. On April 30, 1976, a fire destroyed the whole the viewing hall, bringing operation to a halt for 10 years. It wasn't until 1987 that a new cinema was completed on the site, with all the equipment imported from the United States. In 1991, a deluxe cinema hall opened in Daguanlou to cater to new demand. But all these efforts have not reversed the fortunes of the ageing cinema, struggling to survive in the DVD era. Hopefully the renovation will go some way to seeing Daguanlou stay open for another century.

(China Daily 12/30/2005 page3)


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