Retracing Nathan Road — A Silhouette of the Past

Right now the biographical film Anita is the biggest hit in the city. The movie depicts the life of the Canto-pop diva Anita Mui and takes us back to the 1970s and ‘80s heyday in Hong Kong. The movie reconstructs the colourful and alluring night view of the old Nathan Road. Looking at the splendid neon signs and the nostalgic theatres on the movie screen, it brings back the memories of the bygone era.

Source: Facebook Page Anita Movie

Neon signs and billboard posters were an indispensable part of the city’s visual landscape in the 1980s, especially in commercial areas like Nathan Road. Among them were the iconic feather-displaying peafowl sign of the Millie’s Centre and the various billboard posters of movies and Cantonese Opera outside the Astor Theatre. One may still retrace their glory in the old newspapers. 

The original location for The Millie’s Centre (lower) and the Astro Theatre (upper)

The Millie’s Centre

People who grew up in the 1970s probably have heard of the advertisement slogan of Millie’s Centre, which was hailed as “the king of the land, the lord of the shopping mall”.

Opened in May 1977, it was the largest high-class department store in Yau Ma Tei. The four-storey building offered a wide range of goods to the customers, ranging from makeup, beauty products, clothing to accessories.

Source: Ta Kung Pao, 25 May, 1977

Upon entering Millie’s Centre, you would find over a dozen of fashion shops on the first two floors. If you were looking for jeans or cosmetics, do not miss out on the underground level. There you would find both imported and locally-produced jeans of all sizes. The sales personnel at the makeup counters would delightly dole out recommendations on the latest cosmetics and perfume.

The third floor was where Millie’s branded handbags, shoes, and kids wear were sold. If you were feeling hungry, head to the fourth floor, nicknamed “Gweilo Dai Pai Dong”, to fill yourself up with different kinds of Chinese cuisine. It was the first food street or food court concept incorporated into a mall in Hong Kong. 

It is rare to see chain stores, international brands, and small local shops side by side inside a department store today. That was what made Millie’s Centre unique at her time. Along with its iridescent neon peafowl sign, Millie’s Centre has become a thing of the past.

Astor Theatre and Movie Posters

If you pass by Jordan today, you would find a gigantic billboard of the movie Anita outside of Eaton Hotel. Coincidentally, the hotel is where the former Astor Theatre was located. It was famous for its array of movie posters.

Source: Facebook Page Anita Movie

Searching through newspaper archives, one would find Astor Theatre often associated with taglines like “full-house” or “sell-out”. It was a 1,900-seat theatre that screened movies and staged live performances. Established in the early 1900s, it underwent several renovations and expanded into a 13-storey building in the 1980s. Given its pro-Beijing leftwing background, a lot of PRC National Day celebrations and variety shows took place in this “cinematic palace in the Far East”.

Source: Ta Kung Pao, 13 April, 1960

Most of the hand-painted posters that appeared outside Astor Theatre were created by Wong Kum, one of the “four heavenly kings in poster design” at the time. He became the theatre’s art director in 1957. In the following 30 years, he painted numerous cinematic and theatrical posters. One of his most successful works was the poster of the film The Cruel Hand (1960). He drew a stunning giant hand that drew the gaze of many passers-by.

Source: Pinterest

Behind the neon lights and billboard posters were the artists’ creativity and craftsmanship. Piece by piece, they created a visually stimulating urban spectacle that captured our imagination of the golden era of the city.