In May 2018 I embarked on a multi-day bicycle trip along the majestic Huādōng Valley (花東縱谷) of Taiwan from Hualien City to Taitung City. Although I had previously cycled parts of this valley during my full tour of the island in 2013 I did so without really knowing what was there—and after five years I amassed quite a collection of notes about places I was interested in seeing up close. Several themes emerged while preparing for this trip: old standalone movie theaters, of which I had located more than a dozen; derelict railway infrastructure including stations, military checkpoints, and abandoned lines; and relics of the Japanese colonial era, particularly former Shinto shrines. This post documents my first day of riding, which only began in the late afternoon after arriving by rail at Hualien Station. I had shipped my bike ahead so all I had to do was pick it up from the baggage room, throw the panniers on, and start riding.
North of the railway station I stopped for a photo opportunity in front of the impressive Gǎngtiān Temple (港天宮), apparently the largest in the city. The twin dragon columns flanking the entrance contain spiral staircases leading to the third floor. This temple claims to have a 200 years-old history based on the age of some of the idols contained in the main hall (a common conceit in Taiwanese temples) but the current structure was built sometime after after the devastating East Rift Valley earthquakes of 1951. I was amused by the sight of a signboard depicting a woman wearing a qípáo (also known as a cheongsam) given that social media was in an uproar about a white American woman wearing one to prom that month. As usual, I also captured another picture of Yáng Rèn (楊任) in the room dedicated to Tài Suì (太歲), a pantheon of minor astrological deities related to the sexagenerary cycle (六十干支).
Back on the road, I crossed a bridge over the Měilún River (美崙溪) and entered Guófú (國福)1, an Indigenous village populated by the Sakizaya people (撒奇萊雅族). The Sazikaya were only recognized by the government as a distinct ethnic group in 2007; previously they were considered part of the Amis people (阿美族), who sheltered the Sazikaya after suffering a crushing defeat by Qing dynasty invaders in 18782.
Against the mountains behind the village is the Zuǒcāng Trail (佐倉步道) and the former site of the Guofu Mine (國福礦場), which was operated by the Taiwan Cement Corporation (台灣水泥股份有限公司) from the 1960s or 1970s until it closed in 1996. Little remains of this quarry apart from a sand and gravel loading dock3. There is an informational plaque out front with an unusually comprehensible English translation:
Sitting in a vast forest where birds and insects sing is a large, unsophisticated building. This used to be a passageway for Taiwan Cement Corp’s sand trucks. The six arches, which have become mottled with time, are now a signature sight along Zuocang Trail and a dwelling for plants and animals. In the evening, a group of bats line the ceiling of the arches; at dawn, a variety of birds fly around the arches. The storied past of this old sand mine has donned a green outfit. Nature and history have met to create a magical place.
I came down from the mountains after departing the old sand mine, following country roads curving around two airbases in this part of Hualien. One of these airbases is partly built into the mountainside, and I’ve even heard there’s an underground runway long enough to allow planes to take off without being exposed to enemy fire. I’m not in the habit of posting photos of active military sites but there’s a famous ruin next to Carrefour that attracts planespotters if you’re curious about that. Apparently it was an art supplies shop (藝品店) at some point, but I’ve uncovered no conclusive proof.
Further south I passed through what I soon realized was an old-fashioned red light district4. Such areas were common around military bases in Taiwan decades ago but they’re a rare sight nowadays. It was still early so I didn’t see much—just a few ladies leaning against the doorways of rundown sheet metal shacks, coldly appraising me as I pedalled by. One of these shacks appeared to be abandoned so I dropped my kickstand to take a closer look. Inside I found a bunch of cubicles separated by paper-thin partitions. Enough to get the job done, I suppose.
My next major stop was the former Hualien Port Shinto Shrine (花蓮港神社 or Karenkō Jinja), originally constructed on the slopes of Měilúnshān (美崙山) in 1916. As the top-ranking shrine in Hualien, an area of particular importance to the Japanese colonial project, it was quite extensive5. After the war the KMT transformed it into the Hualien Martyrs’ Shrine (花蓮忠烈祠), venerating a very different set of deities but otherwise leaving most of the original structure intact. Only in 1980 was the shrine destroyed and replaced by a building in the Chinese renaissance architecture style popularized by the state at that time6. Nowadays the only significant relic from Japanese times is a bronze horse (銅馬) awkwardly placed next to a stairway on the right side of the shrine. The KMT emblem on the side replaces what would have probably been a stylized paulownia (五七桐紋), a symbol still used by the government of Japan.
Heading west across the bridge I entered the outskirts of downtown Hualien and soon arrived at my second cinema of the day, the derelict Guóshēng Theater (國聲戲院). I haven’t been able to establish its exact inception date but from the sounds of this article it was likely constructed in the early 1980s. It became a second-run (二輪) theater sometime in the 1990s, briefly dabbled in hosting film festivals and other events, and finally went out of business around 20137. There is a big “for rent” banner hanging over the former entrance and the owner has made an effort to clean out the space.
There isn’t much to see of this theater at street level but that wasn’t always the case. The sheet metal structures out front obscure a stone-grey facade that hints at a functionalist design of some kind. Five sets of rusty spikes protrude from the rooftop; these would have once displayed the full name of the theater8. I wasn’t content with the shots I was capturing from below so I wandered into a nearby apartment block and ascended to the top floor to look for a better angle. Turns out there’s quite a good view from up there!
By this time it was getting late enough that my regular camera was no longer producing clear pictures. I stopped for a tasty snack at a Vietnamese restaurant, swung by a Giant Bicycles retailer for a tune-up, and ambled down to the area around the night market to investigate a few more points of interest in the oldest part of town.
It is easy to miss the modernist Háohuá Theater (豪華戲院), a cinema constructed on the site of an older wooden structure named Wénmíng Theater (文明戲院). Business records suggest it was founded in 1963 but the building doesn’t look quite that old, nor does it really stand out in any way. At any rate, it’s been on the market for a long time but it remains well-secured so taking a closer look is not advised. Around the corner I went to check out the former site of Tiānxiáng Theater (天祥戲院), later the Zhōnghuá Theater (中華戲院), but found no evidence it ever existed9.
I made another brief stop at the Xìnyì Presbyterian Church (花蓮信義長老教會) to have a look at an unusually ornate stone lantern just inside the courtyard. This is the only known remnant of a shrine dedicated to Inari Ōkami. I’m not well-versed in Japanese, but perhaps it would have been called Fukuzumi Inari Shrine (福住稻荷社)? At any rate, the shrine was probably built sometime in the 1930s only to be replaced by the church by 1950.
Soon the skies opened up and a torrential downpour forced me to seek shelter in a convenience store for the next hour or so. Altogether it was a productive afternoon, especially considering I had started so late. That’s all for this update; next time I’ll share my account of riding south into the Huadong Valley and spending the night in Fenglin.
- Guofu is a Chinese transliteration; it is Cupo’ (with a trailing apostrophe) in the village’s native Sakizaya language. ↩
- This conflict is known as the Battle of Jiālǐwǎn (加禮宛事件) or the Takoboan Incident. Following the Mudan Incident (also known as the Bāyáowān Incident 八瑤灣事件) of 1871 and subsequent Japanese punitive expedition of 1874 the Qing attempted to assert control over parts of the island that had previously been quarantined and mostly ignored. Qing troops arriving in what was then known as Qílái (奇萊 or Kiray in one of the Indigenous languages) soon came into conflict with two groups residing there. The first of these was the Jialiwan, a group of Kavalan people (噶瑪蘭族) native to the Lányáng Plain (蘭陽平原) in Yilan; they had emigrated to the area to evade harassment by Han Chinese settlers in the late 18th century. The second group was the far more powerful Sakizaya, who had already been living in the area for centuries. From what I gather a series of petty disputes became increasingly hostile and soon exploded into open warfare. The Qing soon gained the upper hand against both groups but were especially merciless with the Sakizaya, who they were intent on clearing from the area. The Jialiwan surrendered and were spared but the leaders of the Sakizaya were captured and publicly executed, allegedly by língchí (凌遲), a torturous process of slow dismemberment known in English as death by a thousand cuts. The surviving Sakizaya sought refuge among the Amis people, were identified by the Japanese as an Amis subgroup, and only began to reclaim their individual identities in recent decades. ↩
- Two scalloped excavation pits can be seen on satellite maps further up the mountain. Sand and gravel mining and cement production continues along this stretch of coast, most famously at the entrance to Taroko National Park. For reference, the Chinese name given to this kind of loading dock is zhuāngxièchǎng (裝卸場). ↩
- Normally I’m more forthcoming about locations and history but I’m being intentionally vague here for obvious reasons. The only clue I’ll leave is “Starfish Street”. ↩
- Several bloggers have written informative posts about this former Shinto shrine; have a look here and here for example. ↩
- Popular accounts of former Shinto shrines often suggest they were destroyed in the late 1940s or early 1950s but this is often revealed to be inaccurate. In many cases it was only in the years after the Japan–China Joint Communiqué and a government edict issued in 1974 that most shrines were fully dismantled. I wrote a little more about this in my post about a road trip up the Suhua Highway in 2018. ↩
- The article cited in the text mentions that the boss also managed Xīnměiqí Theater (新美琪戲院), another second-run theater. This theater, located further south on Zhongzheng Road, has been demolished and replaced by a hotel, but business records indicate it was in operation from 1982 to 2011. ↩
- The full name of the theater can still be seen on Google Street View in history mode. ↩
- Tianxiang Theater was one of about 20 theaters nationalized by the KMT, none of which remain standing today. The reason for that should be obvious: those theaters were usually the biggest in town, occupied valuable real estate, and were all liquidated for cash sometime after their value as instruments of propaganda began to decrease. ↩