A forest grows out of the old movie theater

Huaguo Theater 華國戲院

Huáguó Theater 華國戲院 is one of hundreds of abandoned theaters scattered around Taiwan. Located in Pǔlǐ 埔里, a town of approximately 80,000 in the heart of Nántóu 南投, this particular theater was likely built in the late 1950s. From what I’ve read in this post by Wáng Hénglù 王亨祿, this theater was operated by a couple with the family name Zhōu 周 and specialized in showing Western films on a single screen before its inevitable demise.

Guohua Theater from the streets of Puli
The historic Huaguo Theater from the streets of Puli.
Last remnants of entrance to Guohua Theater 國華戲院
The sign over the entrance is barely holding on.
A broken sign for Guohua Theater 國華戲院
The sign jutting out into the street isn’t faring much better.

I’ve been interested in the rise and fall of the Taiwanese cinema industry ever since I chanced upon Datong Theater 大同戲院 in Taitung City 台東市 on another road trip in 2015. Going to the movies was one of the primary forms of mass entertainment in Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s. Home video, personal computers, and movie piracy contributed to the wholesale collapse of the cinema industry in the early 2000s, when hundreds of theaters went out of business almost all at once. Their carcasses now litter cities across the nation, a testament to changing consumer habits and economic stagnation1.

Another look at the old ticket booth
The ticket booth next to the entrance is pure vintage.
Vintage clock in Guohua Theater
A vintage clock near the entrance.
This way to the air raid shelter
Directions to the nearest air raid shelter.
Inside Puli’s Guohua Theater 國華戲院
Stepping into the theater hall is like taking a walk in the woods. This is where the theater’s seats once were.

Almost all Taiwanese movie theaters built prior to the advent of modern multiplexes have been abandoned. A scant few survive, benefitting from ideal placement next to night markets and university campuses or lingering nostalgia. Some abandoned theaters have already been redeveloped or demolished but most have been left to the elements and the vagaries of time.

A forest grows out of the old movie theater
The main screen can be discerned through the forest growing out of the old movie theater.

Huaguo Theater suffered a rather unusual fate: its rooftop completely collapsed and a forest now grows within it. What was once the seating area has become an entire ecosystem supported by the rotting wooden remains of rooftop beams and whatever dust and debris finds its way inside. Golden orb-weavers, giant spiders found almost everywhere in Taiwan, have spun impressive webs among outstretched branches and low-lying foliage. Insects buzz and chirr, darting in and out of beams of sunlight slipping through the canopy overhead. Mosquitoes, alerted to the presence of mammalian intruders, swarm in search of blood. There is a sense of mystery and wonderment in this unlikely forest within the walls of the old theater.

Rotten wooden beams that once held the roof aloft
Rotten wooden beams are scattered all around the ground floor of the theater. The collapsed rooftop provides ample material from which a forest might grow.
Another look at the big screen at Guohua Theater
The big screen on the ground floor of Huaguo Theater, Puli.
This abandoned theater is sponsored by Heysong
Corporate sponsorship of this abandoned theater is provided by Heysong.

Many of the old theaters I have explored were at one point subdivided into smaller halls with smaller screens, a last-ditch attempt to address declining attendance with more choice and variety. Not so at Huaguo; its fortunes were determined by the success or failure of its only screen. This screen, still intact, is framed by red velvet curtains bearing the imprint of the theater’s corporate sponsor, HeySong 黑松, a popular beverage producer in Taiwan.

Cinematic history
Artifacts on the main stage of Huaguo Theater.
Triangulation point from Japanese times
History buffs regularly visit the old theater to locate a remnant of Japanese colonial times.
Below the stage, a remnant of Japanese colonial times
A curious relic of Japanese colonial times: a geographic triangulation point beneath the main stage.

There is an old Japanese colonial era triangulation point underneath the lip of the stage. This survey marker was used about a century ago to help locate the geographic center of Taiwan on the other side of Pǔlǐ 埔里. The fact that the theater was built to accommodate access to the old marker suggests a certain respect for history—or perhaps this was required by law? Whatever the case, many Taiwanese go out of their way to find all three triangulation points in the Puli Basin 埔里盆地 (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here). None of the Chinese language blogs I have read say much about the rest of the theater—for them, crossing the forest floor to the stage and taking a photograph with the marker seems to be adventurous enough.

The forest from the stage
The forest from the main stage of Huaguo Theater, walled in from all sides.
A forest grows out of this old movie theater in Puli
From the back of the main stage the interior of the theater appears to have been consumed by rapacious nature.
Beneath the main stage at Guohua Theater
Descending into the storage space beneath the main stage at the back of the building.
Cobwebs block the way
Some of the exits are cluttered with spiderwebs.
One of several bathrooms at Guohua Theater
One of several bathrooms on the main floor of Huaguo Theater. This is the men’s room, as the trough on the far wall should have indicated.

Of course, I was not about to leave it at that. After exploring the storage area beneath the big screen I crossed back to the ticket booth and ascended one of two stairways to explore the office, the upper balcony, and the projection room. The front part of the building was far more solid and less exposed than the rest—but even here the predations of nature could be seen in abundance.

Crumpled movie poster at Guohua Theater
A crumpled movie poster leading up to the upper balcony.
The first projection room at Guohua Theater 國華戲院
Inside the office at Huaguo Theater.
Utility area behind the office
The utility and storage area on the balcony behind the office.
Banyan roots breaking through a window at the Guohua Theater
Banyan roots breaking into a window at the old Huaguo Theater in Puli.
Breaking through the window at Guohua Theater, Puli
A long shot of the banyan roots on the outside of the theater.
Into the office at Guohua Theater 國華戲院
Entrance to the office on the second level.
Ascending to the second floor of the Guohua Theater 國華戲院
Ascending to the balcony level.

The upper balcony was incredibly overgrown and did not afford a view of the screen beyond. I could see nothing of the flooring at the top of the stairway—it was completely obscured by the thick underbrush. I stepped into this levitating forest and tested my footing along the wall at the side of the theater but could not determine whether there was anything solid enough to support my weight. I regularly take risks when exploring ruins but try to avoid doing anything too reckless. Pushing out into the overgrowth without a rope or something seemed like a foolish idea—and so I turned back and headed inward to scope out the secret heart of the cinema, the projection room.

The upper level at Guohua Theater 國華戲院
On the balcony at Huaguo Theater looking toward the projection room. The balcony didn’t seem at all stable so I didn’t venture out into it. Besides, it is terribly overgrown.
Abandoned film reel at Guohua Theater
Film spool.
Ghost radio
Ghost radio.
The projection room at Guohua Theater 國華戲院
Inside the projection room.
Discarded remnants at an abandoned theater in Puli
Discarded remnants of the Taiwanese film industry.

The projectors and films themselves had been stripped from the building but a utility closet next to the projection room concealed an interesting surprise: a rusty metal ladder leading to the rooftop! Testing each rung before putting any weight on it, I climbed to the top and emerged to capture the stylish stonework on the facade. Turning the other way, I was surprised at the extent of the forest growing out of the body of the theater. The top of the canopy, taller than the outer walls of the building itself, was a beautiful sight to behold.

Down the hatch at Guohua Theater
Rooftop access from the projection room.
Ornament on top of Guohua Theater 國華戲院
A stylized ornament on top of the theater.
On top of Guohua Theater 國華戲院
On top of Huaguo Theater in Puli.
A closer look at the stonework out front at Guohua Theater 國
A closer look at the stonework on the theater’s facade.
A forest in a movie theater in Puli
Looking toward the screen at the back of the theater from the rooftop. A forest grows within it.
Ascending to the upper cinema at Guohua Theater 國華戲院
Coming down from the heights.

We might ask, what is a movie theater anyway? A dark chamber through which we stream beams of light to create images on a screen that entertain and inspire and make us dream. Torn open and exposed to the sun, that most primordial of projectors, the theater has become a secret garden hidden from the street. And so another work of man is reclaimed by lascivious nature and transformed into a vision of the future without us.

The front of Guohua Theater
One last look at the front of Huaguo Theater, Puli.

If you’re interested in reading more about the abandoned theaters of Taiwan I have already published three other accounts: Datong Theater 大同戲院 in Taitung 台東, Xinming Theater 新明戲院 in Táoyuán 桃園, and Fengzhong Theater 豐中戲院 in Taichung 台中.

Exterior View of Huaguo Theater in 2017
Huaguo Theater in late 2017. Sheet metal fencing now blocks access to the building.

Update: I returned in 2017 to check up on the old theater and found it no longer accessible. The front and sides have both been sealed shut with sheet metal. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone intent on finding the triangulation point makes a new entrance—but for now, I wouldn’t recommend visiting the site if you’re keen to see this theater in all its dilapidated glory.

  1. For reference, Puli was once home to at least seven old school theaters. Apart from the theater featured in this post there were several more on the same street: Nénggāo Theater 能高戲院 (from the old Japanese name for this part of Taiwan), Lǜdū Theater 綠都戲院, Gāolè Theater 高樂戲院 (which collapsed in 1967, allegedly killing 11 audience members), and Méihuā Theater 梅花戲院 (which has been converted into a church). Additionally there was Tiānyī 天一戲院 (now a hotel of the same name), Nántiān Theater 南天戲院 (later Xīnxīn Theater 欣欣戲院 and now a gas station), Běiguāng Theater 北光戲院 (location unknown, somewhere not far from Zhōngshān Road 中山路), and Tài’ān Theater 泰安戲院 (probably on the east side of town, but that’s pure guesswork). Finally there’s Shānmíng Theater 山明戲院, which is still in business as of 2018!