Only traces remain of the tobacco cultivation and manufacturing industry in Taichung 台中, Taiwan. For the better part of a century tobacco was cultivated across wide swathes of the Taichung Basin 台中盆地, cured on location, sold at regional marketplaces, and shipped to factories for further processing into cigarettes and other tobacco products. Taiwan’s accession to the WTO in 2002 marked the end of domestic tobacco production but the industry was already in steep decline, a consequence of globalization and the end of the government monopoly system in preceding decades. Several buildings related to Taichung’s tobacco industry have earned heritage status in recent years—but this decaying tobacco barn hidden down an laneway in Taiping 太平, a suburban district on the eastern side of the burgeoning metropolis, is not among them.
Xiluo 西螺 is a small historic town on the south bank of the Zhuoshui River 濁水溪 in Yunlin 雲林. It emerged as an important center of trade in central Taiwan during the Qing dynasty era and continued to prosper into the early 20th century under Japanese colonial rule. Disaster struck in 1935 when the devastating Hsinchu-Taichung Earthquake ripped through north-central Taiwan, reducing much of Xiluo to rubble. Colonial authorities and the local gentry worked together to rebuild, taking the opportunity to completely remodel the main commercial thoroughfares with an intriguing blend of influences from Baroque Revival, Art Deco, and Modernist architecture. A short stroll down Yanping Old Street 延平老街 reveals that many of these unique shophouses and commercial buildings remain standing today.
Beigang Theater 北港劇場 in Beigang 北港, Yunlin 雲林, is among the finest and most well-preserved of Taiwan’s remaining Japanese colonial era theaters. Built in 1937 with investment from a local businessman by the name of Tsai Yu-Hu 蔡裕斛 (whose old house is also worth a look), this three storey theater featured a revolving stage, seating for 800 guests, and simple western-style facade with a trace of the Baroque Revival architecture popular at the time. It was not only a cinema—Taiwanese opera, glove puppet shows, musical concerts, wedding banquets, and other events were also held inside. The theater went out of business in 1988 and was converted for use as a department store and restaurant for some time thereafter. Nowadays it is apparently still in use as a pool hall and, inexplicably, a kidney dialysis center, but I saw no evidence of this when I visited in the summer of 2017.
People’s Park In The Sky is a peculiar attraction located about 60 kilometers south of Manila in Tagaytay, a popular leisure destination in the province of Cavite in the Philippines. Perched on top of Mount Sungay at an elevation of 709 meters, the highest point on the northern rim of the immense Taal Caldera, it was originally planned to be a palace suitable for state visits during the kleptocratic reign of Ferdinand Marcos. Construction began in 1979 with a drastic leveling of the mountaintop, which previously reached 759 meters, but ground to a halt with increasing civic unrest and the cancellation of Ronald Reagan’s state visit in 1983. Following the People Power Revolution of 1986 the unfinished mansion was transformed into a public park and monument to the greed, corruption, and excess of the Marcos era.
Xiluo Bridge 西螺大橋 (also Hsilo or Siluo Bridge) spans the mighty Zhuoshui River 濁水溪, the unofficial boundary between north and south Taiwan, connecting the counties of Changhua 彰化 and Yunlin 雲林. Construction began in 1937 under Japanese colonial rule but came to a halt after the attack on Pearl Harbor as the allotted steel was needed for the war effort. In 1952 the bridge was completed under the incoming Chinese Nationalist government with American steel and financial aid. At 1,939 meters in length it was one of the longest bridges in the world when it was finished—second only to the Golden Gate Bridge at that time—and became such a source of national pride that it appeared on Taiwanese bank notes and stamps in the 1960s. Originally it was equipped with sugar railway tracks but these have been removed and nowadays only light road traffic is permitted to cross the bridge.
What little remains of the historic tobacco industry in central Taiwan is disappearing fast. Tobacco cultivation was big business for much of the 20th century but went into sharp decline in the 1980s and essentially ended with globalization and Taiwan’s accession to the WTO. Robust preservation efforts in south and east Taiwan ensure something of this industry will remain for future generations but the situation in the former tobacco cultivation areas of Taichung 台中, Changhua 彰化, and Yunlin 雲林 is far more ambiguous, and documentation of what cultural assets remain is sparse or nonexistent. For this reason I’ve made an effort to record tobacco barns anytime I encounter them in my travels—as I did while driving through Jiuqiong Village 九芎村 on the south side of Linnei 林內 in Yunlin 雲林 earlier this summer.
Recently I stopped in Shuili 水里 while on my way to Puli 埔里 by scooter. There, while waiting out a rainstorm on the main street in front of the historic train station, I noticed an unusual betel nut booth with a fetching green sign. “Chinese chewing gum” is a curious phrase, not one I recall noticing before, and it is also peculiar to see an exclusively English sign out here in the mountainous heart of the nation. Searching around, I chanced upon a short documentary describing betel nut as Taiwan chewing gum, which still sounds somewhat odd. What sort of gum gets you high and stains your teeth red?
Xiluo 西螺 is justifiably famous for Xiluo Theater, the Japanese colonial era theater located close to the architectural wonders of Yanping Old Street 延平老街, but this small town on the south bank of the sluggish Zhuoshui River 濁水溪 was once home to two more theaters. Almost no mention of these other theaters can be found except in this news report about a local painter—but while browsing around satellite view on Google Maps I managed to locate Yisheng Theater 一生戲院 (literally “Lifetime Theater”).
Recently I wrote about the Liujiao Brick Kiln 六腳磚窯, an obscure abandonment in rural Chiayi 嘉義, Taiwan. While attempting to find out more about that kiln I found a reference to a second abandoned kiln in the area, the Shuangxikou Brick Kiln 雙溪口磚窯, informally named after the closest village in neighboring Puzi 朴子. Weeks after visiting the first kiln I returned to scope out the second and—insofar as I can tell—only other remaining brick kiln in this expanse of the Chianan Plain 嘉南平原. It was a hazy, grey day out there so these photos aren’t nearly as nice as those of the other kiln, but in the interest of adding a little something to the historic record I’m sharing them here anyway.
Despite its relative obscurity Xinying 新營 is the largest settlement along the railway line between metropolitan Tainan City 台南市 and Chiayi City 嘉義市. It is the former capital of Tainan County prior to amalgamation in 2010 and remains the second administrative seat of Tainan 台南 alongside Anping 安平. Located on the broad and fertile Chianan Plain 嘉南平原, it was also an important transportation hub for the sugar industry, and what remains of the Japanese colonial era sugar factory can still be found on the south side of town. These facts—the size of the town, its former importance, and the presence of a sugar factory—suggest that Xinying was almost certainly home to several standalone movie theaters in its heyday. After doing some research online I established that this was indeed the case—and in February 2017 I swung through to investigate rumours of several old theaters. One of these turned out to be a rather unusual example of a ruined KMT authoritarian era cinema by the name of Chenggong Theater 成功戲院.