Zhōnghuá Theater 中華大戲院 is an impressive KMT authoritarian era ruin in Guānshān 關山, a small town of approximately 8,800 in the idyllic Huādōng Valley 花東縱谷 of Taiwan. With seating for 1,200 patrons it was the largest theater in Taitung 台東 when it opened in 1965, and it soon earned the title “northern tyrant” (běibàtiān 北霸天) for dominating the cinema industry at this end of the county. What explains the existence of such a huge theater in this remote, sparsely populated place? As with the more modest and folksy Wǔzhōu Theater 五洲戲院 in neighbouring Chíshàng 池上, an examination of regional socioeconomic history provides answers.
Guanshan was once home to as many as five movie theaters1, an impressive number for a district with only 8,800 residents today. But Guanshan wasn’t always such a backwater—as with most other small towns in Taitung it experienced a massive increase in population and economic activity after the completion of the Central Cross-Island Highway 中部橫貫公路 in 1960. The opening of this highway dramatically increased access to eastern Taiwan, which had previously been only tenuously connected to the rest of the country2, and facilitated a rapid expansion of industry and natural resource extraction3. Government and military development programs flush with American foreign aid provided employment opportunities and incentives for migrants (many of them retired KMT veterans, a class known as róngmín 榮民 or “honored citizens”) to relocate to the southeastern frontier, and the population almost doubled in less than a decade4. All of this occurred against the backdrop of the Taiwan Miracle, a period of explosive growth that neatly overlaps the golden age of cinema in Taitung County.
The name of this theater alludes to Greater China 大中華 and, as you would expect, it was founded by KMT veterans keen to express their patriotism in the midst of the White Terror 白色恐怖, a 38 year-long period of martial law and political oppression. Back in those days theaters were monitored by the authorities to ensure only approved films were shown, and screenings would have followed the national anthem of the Republic of China. My understanding is that the owner of this particular theater would have approached their duties with enthusiasm, but this was not the case for all theater owners, some of whom chafed against these rules.
The KMT connection goes a little deeper than that, however. If you take a closer look at the characters on the facade you’ll notice four much smaller glyphs to the left of the theater’s name: (written by) Bái Shìwéi 白世維題. Naturally I was curious about the artist—so you can imagine my surprise when I learned he was a KMT police officer famous for assassinating the warlord Zhāng Jìngyáo 張敬堯 (中文) in 1933. After 1949 he retreated to Taiwan with the KMT, became chief of police in Kaohsiung and Tainan, and eventually entered local politics. Perhaps the founders of the theater were former police officers prior to migrating to Guanshan and knew Bai personally? Whatever the case, you’re not likely to find another cinema adorned with an assassin’s calligraphy5.
Another common feature of KMT iconography can be found resting against some of the seats in the main hall: a popular portrait of generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, supreme leader of the Republic of China until his death in 1975. This portrait was originally shot on black and white film by Wáng Guìxùn 王貴遜 of the Guānghuá Film Studio 光華照相館 in Chongqing, the provisional capital of the ROC, in 1943. It was colorized by the same film studio in 1946 to mark the occasion of the president’s 60th birthday, imbuing the photograph with an almost beatific glow, rosy cheeks and all. Apparently Chiang was quite enamoured with this portrait, which is why it became a mainstay of the cult of personality promulgated throughout the Republic. It is also the portrait you will find on his Wikipedia entry! Here I have reversed the work of the film studio, presenting it in the original black and white, mostly out of a perverse appreciation for the absurd.
Taiwan’s economic growth continued into the 1980s despite the energy crisis of the previous decade but the local economy in Taitung did not fare as well. Both the agriculture and logging sectors underwent downsizing, and a population outflow began that continues unabated to this very day. At the same time, families who had saved through the booming years of the 1960s and 1970s could now afford televisions and home video, further thinning audiences. Zhonghua Theater was also used for puppet shows, traditional Taiwanese opera, graduation ceremonies, and local events, but in the early 1980s there were no longer throngs of people attending every film screening, and soon the numbers dwindled to unsustainable levels. In 1985 it closed forever, and since then has only been used for storage, its future unknown.
- I’m uncertain about the total count as the rest have been demolished and it’s unclear how many of these were contemporaneous. From my notes, these include the eponymous Guanshan Theater 關山大戲院, formerly located somewhere near the main Mazu temple; Liánhé Theater 聯合戲院, also located next to the Mazu temple (which opens the possibility that these first two are the same theater); Dōngshān Theater 東山戲院, located near the old vegetable market somewhere around Zhonghua and Minsheng, known for showing the same film reels as Wuzhou Theater in Chishang; and finally the Japanese colonial era Lilong Theater 里壠劇場, originally located where the “35 Chicken Rice” shop is on Heping Road. Prior to 1937 Guanshan was known as Lilong, or Rirō in Japanese, a name derived from an Amis word for a species of red mite. ↩
- Prior to the opening of the Central Cross-Island Highway only the dangerous Suhua Highway and remote South-Link Highway, both built by the Japanese in the 1930s, provided road access to eastern Taiwan. The eastern railway network was only connected in 1979 with the completion of the North-Link Line, and it wasn’t until the South-Link Line opened in 1991 that an around-the-island tour by rail became possible. ↩
- Taitung Datong Cooperative Farm 台東大同合作農場, one of the main government projects in the region, was founded in 1954, and regularly expanded and reorganized through the 1960s as thousands of newly-retired veterans poured over the central mountains into eastern Taiwan. This article (in Chinese) has an interesting perspective on the disappearing legacy of agricultural development in Taitung. ↩
- Taitung County had a population of approximately 160,000 in 1956; by 1970 that number had swollen to nearly 300,000, but it has been falling ever since. As of 2015 the population was down to 222,452 with no sign of a recovery. ↩
- The fact that Bai would have taken up calligraphy as a hobby is no great surprise. Despite their ruthlessness, the KMT also celebrated many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, and it was fairly common for members of the establishment to dabble in poetry, painting, calligraphy, and so on. Similarly, Bai’s elevation to police chief and political office under martial law demonstrates another KMT tendency: rewarding party loyalists with plum positions. ↩