Ruìmào Theater 瑞茂戲院 is an old wooden theater hidden in the winding laneways of Guògōu 過溝, a small fishing and farming village in remote coastal Chiayi 嘉義, Taiwan. Nobody seems to know exactly when this theater was established, although there is general agreement it likely dates back to the early post-war era. Remarkably, it was one of two theaters in this settlement, and one of maybe a dozen along this stretch of coast in the 1970s, when salt production and oyster farming buoyed the local economy. As with most other theaters of its vintage, this one closed sometime in the 1980s.
From the street this theater almost looks like it might be constructed with reinforced concrete, but the facade is mostly brick with a pebble-washed exterior. Hints of Baroque Revival styling, popular in the late Japanese colonial era, can be seen at the top of the facade, but the rest of the structure exudes early KMT utilitarianism. The interior of the theater is almost entirely made with Taiwanese cypress, not a common building material for cinemas, at least not those still standing. This theater would have used carbon arc lamp projectors when showing films. Such projectors are notorious fire hazards, so it’s a small miracle this theater hasn’t been set ablaze over the years.
Guogou residents taking to Facebook to share memories recall how this theater was more than just a cinema; it was also a venue for puppet shows, Taiwanese opera, and concerts. As with most other theaters in those days, new screenings and performances were advertised by pedal power, using a tricycle displaying posters and such. The driver would ride around town, calling out upcoming shows and handing out leaflets. Although no mention was made of movie posters, it is likely they would have been draped across the exterior when the theater was still in operation.
After the theater closed, probably sometime in the early 1980s, it was repurposed for use as the Fāngzhōu Knitting Factory 芳洲針織廠. Very little trace of this second life remains, though it may explain the lack of seating and other theater paraphernalia in the interior. Several rusted metal hulks and plastic tubing laying coiled on the dusty floor might have something to do with thread-making, but then again, maybe not.
Obviously the knitting factory went out of business at some point, after which the theater was finally abandoned to the elements. From what I’ve read it sounds like the back of the theater collapsed during a particularly violent typhoon, but I’ve seen no indication of when that might have occurred. Apparently there was some talk of seeking heritage status for this building years ago, but the owners are either disinterested or nowhere to be found, and by now the structure is beyond repair. Its ultimate passage into memory is only a matter of time.
Despite the paucity of factual information, this theater is a popular destination for history buffs and urban explorers alike. It is regularly featured in galleries of Taiwan’s old theaters and it is readily found on Google Maps. For another write-up in English check out this post by Formosa Jay. Two of Taiwan’s best Chinese language history bloggers also have entries about this theater; read entries from Apex Cheng and Just A Balcony for more. Numerous travel articles cite this theater; try this one, for example. Finally, you can get a better sense of the scale of this theater via this YouTube video.