Some people are into urban exploration for the optics—they love visiting the most visually-impressive places and taking cool photos—but I’m just as interested in documenting history and solving puzzles. Animated by curiosity, I have become proficient in navigating the Chinese language web in search of leads. Not all of these turn out to be something interesting but I enjoy those rare days where I set out into the countryside and see how many candidate sites I can knock off my list. This is what originally brought me to the gates of the humble Xizhou Theater 溪州戲院 in the small town of Xizhou, Changhua.
Xiluo Bridge (西螺大橋) spans the mighty Zhuóshuǐ River (濁水溪), the unofficial boundary between north and south Taiwan, connecting the counties of Changhua and Yunlin. 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 (specifically 第一套橫式新臺幣) 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.
Xiluo Theater (西螺大戲院) is perhaps the most widely-known of the many abandoned theaters of Taiwan. It is located just off the main commercial street running through Xiluo, a small city of approximately 46,000 residents on the south bank of the Zhuóshuǐ River (濁水溪), the traditional boundary dividing northern and southern Taiwan. Completed sometime between 1937 and 1940, this reinforced concrete and brick building replaced a wooden theater originally built in the 1920s. The new theater survived the war unscathed and flourished during the golden age of Taiwanese cinema in the 1950s and 60s. In those days the area surrounding the theater became known as Xiluo’s Xīméntīng (西門町), a name derived from Taipei’s popular entertainment district. Business declined sharply in the early 1980s and the theater was abandoned to the elements by 1988, a consequence of changing consumer habits, the rise of television and home video, and population outflow to larger cities. More recently it has become a popular site for photography, video production, urban exploration, and historical tourism.
Xiluo is a small historic town on the south bank of the Zhuóshuǐ River 濁水溪 in Yunlin. 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 Yánpíng Old Street 延平老街 reveals that many of these unique shophouses and commercial buildings remain standing today.
Xiluo is justifiably famous for Xiluo Theater, the Japanese colonial era theater located close to the architectural wonders of Yánpíng Old Street 延平老街, but this small town on the south bank of the sluggish Zhuóshuǐ River 濁水溪 was once home to two additional 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 Huáshēng Theater 華聲戲院 (also known as Yīshēng Theater 一生戲院).
Beigang Theater (北港劇場) in Beigang, Yunlin, 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), 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.
Liùjiǎo Brick Kiln 六腳磚窯 was an unexpected discovery while riding from Beigang to Puzi earlier this summer. The chimney is plainly visible from the roadside and the crumbling bulk of the kiln can be discerned in a gap between the row of houses out front. Stopping to take a closer look I went around (and through) the old kiln to document what remains. Liujiao is a rather obscure part of rural Chiayi so I’ve not found any mention of this place online apart from this brief post. Whereas several kilns in various other parts of Taiwan are being preserved this obscure ruin is almost certainly never going to be the object of a conservation effort.
The Second Air Force New Village (二空新村) is a former military dependents’ village in Tainan, Taiwan. It was established east of Tainan Airbase in 1950, primarily for members of the Republic of China Air Force and their families, and it eventually grew to become the sixth most populous of the official military villages in Taiwan. From 1950 into the 1960s several waves of construction and development increased the village to nearly 1,000 households, with a sizable number of unregistered structures scattered around the periphery. As with most other military villages this one was steadily dismantled and demolished over the course of many years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, part of a nationwide urban renewal program that relocated the remaining residents into more modern apartment blocks.
Recently I wrote about the Liùjiǎo Brick Kiln 六腳磚窯, an obscure abandonment in rural Chiayi, Taiwan. While attempting to find out more about that kiln I found a reference to a second abandoned kiln in the area, the Shuāngxīkǒu Brick Kiln 雙溪口磚窯, informally named after the closest village in neighboring Puzi. 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.
Hsin Kang Theater 新港戲院 is located in the small town of Xingang, Chiayi, not far from the famous Fèngtiān Temple 奉天宮. Multiple sources agree it went out of business in 1988—a victim of shifting consumer preferences and demographic changes in small town Taiwan—but the actual age of the building is somewhat uncertain. This academic reference suggests it was founded in 1929, in the midst of the Japanese colonial era, but the theater was almost certainly renovated or completely rebuilt in the post-war period.