An Old Theater in a Keelung Alleyway

Keelung Dahua Theater 基隆大華戲院

Dàhuá Theater 大華戲院 is an early post-war movie theater in the grim northern port town of Keelung City 基隆市, Taiwan. It was in business as early as 1949 and officially registered by 1952. Beyond that, little trace of it can be found online. Until recently I assumed this theater had been demolished, just like every other vintage standalone in downtown Keelung, one of the most densely-packed urban environments in the nation. Acting on a tip that a signboard was still in place I went to scope it out one afternoon in 2018—and was completely surprised to find the theater still standing, albeit in an extremely dilapidated condition.

Exterior View of Dahua Theater 大華戲院
A glimpse of the Modernist facade of the Dahua Theater in Keelung. It isn’t easy to see; there’s not much clearance in the busy laneway out front.

This old theater is located on a narrow laneway on the edge of one of Keelung’s many red light districts1. I’ve wandered through this area several times before but never noticed it looming overhead, likely because I was too busy dodging scooters and avoiding eye contact. This time around I spoke with several vendors across the way to ask about the theater. One woman told me its been closed for at least 30 or 40 years, a rather long period of time for a large building to remain derelict in a city with such limited space. Why the theater hasn’t been completely torn down is a mystery I wasn’t able to resolve—but it’s probably a familiar story, one involving shares distributed among many disinterested descendants of the original owners.

Behind the Wall at Dahua Theater
Behind the barrier: piles of trash; a metal gate, rusted shut; and the smooth contours of the former ticket booth.
All Boarded Up at Dahua Theater
The lobby of the old theater is used for storage and dumping trash.
Dahua Theater Rubbish Pile
Garbage just inside the rusty metal gate pictured above.
Gateway to a Green Cinema
First glimpse of the theater hall, stripped clean and now overgrown.

Finding a way inside wasn’t too difficult, and nobody seemed to mind, but I don’t recommend trying it yourself. This is one of the more repulsive ruins I’ve explored in a while thanks to the sheer amount of garbage that has been dumped around the entrance. Much like my visit to Fengzhong Theater 豐中戲院 in Taichung 台中, I was reminded of a certain scene in Star Wars: A New Hope. Anyway, it was worth doing once—but only because I’m working on this crazy project.

Red Brick and Green Growth at Dahua Theater
The far wall of the theater.
An Abandoned Cinema in Keelung
Nature has reclaimed this old theater, now an open air cinema.

No trace of the roof, screen, or seating remains, and the interior is almost completely bereft of interesting artifacts. Only a red brick and reinforced concrete shell remains of the body of the theater but the front of the structure is relatively intact. Walk inside, turn toward the exit, and you will observe four slots on the brick wall, one pair for each projector2. Gazing up, you might also notice the protrusion of a bifurcated metal tube, the hallmark of carbon arc projectors, which overheat without adequate ventilation. This medium-sized theater might have accommodated upwards of 600 to 800 patrons at its peak, but nowadays the former seating area is overgrown by long grass and sticky weeds. Technically this might be the largest expanse of green space in the flatlands around the foot of the harbour and north of the railway line.

Hercules Diesel Generator at Dahua Theater
A diesel generator in a small room at the side of the building.

I was intrigued to discover an old Hercules brand diesel generator in a side room on the ground floor, something I’ve never noticed in any other theater. Was this generator employed at a time when Taiwan’s electricity supply was unreliable? From what little I’ve read it sounds like Hercules supplied a huge amount of equipment to the US military during World War II. Could this unit have arrived with the American military presence in the 1950s? Keelung was the main port of entry for American military personnel for subsequent decades, so it certainly seems possible.

Rusted Shut at Dahua Theater
Rusted shut along the side of the theater.
Side View of Dahua Theater 大華戲院
Another view of the theater from along the narrow laneway. It’s impossible to get a good photo of the facade without gaining access to a nearby rooftop, something I was unable to accomplish.
An Old Theater in a Keelung Alleyway
Dahua Theater from the entrance to the laneway. The sign is in great shape considering its reputed age.
Rewilding a Cinema in Keelung
One last glance at the rewilding of Dahua Theater, a secret garden in the downtown core of Keelung.

Ultimately I have far more questions than answers about Dahua Theater. It is somewhat strange to find an old and obviously historic theater without much of an online footprint. It is occasionally mentioned on message forums in nostalgic threads reminiscing about growing up in Keelung—but without photographs I figured it must have been destroyed along with the others3. Chancing upon an early post-war theater like this one is a rare treat, and a worthwhile addition to the ever-growing collection.

Update: this theater was demolished in early 2021. Thanks to Jason for the tip in the comments below!

  1. This laneway is so narrow that it doesn’t appear on Google Street View, a tool I regularly use for advance research. Usually I verify the existence and condition of a ruin before making a visit—so my astonishment upon finding this theater was entirely genuine. Oh, and that red light district? Keelung is a port town, so don’t act surprised. 
  2. One slot is for the projector, the other allows for the projectionist to ensure the correct alignment of the device. 
  3. Keelung was home to dozens of movie theaters in the booming years of the Taiwan Economic Miracle. Only two others remain in the vicinity of the downtown core—and neither of them are nearly as old. 

1 Comment

  1. The old cinema was demolished in early 2021 to make way for a new residential building.

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