One of the last of the many vintage theaters of Tainan 台南 seems to have finally closed its doors. Founded in 1964, the notorious Xīnjiànguó Theater 新建國戲院 was originally named for its location on Jianguo Road 建國路, which was later renamed Mínquán Road 民權路. It is not uncommon for old theaters in Taiwan to resort to showing pornography in the twilight of their decline but this particular theater appears to have specialized in more carnal forms of entertainment for much of its history. Perhaps this is why this theater remained in business until very recently—long after most of the nation’s hundreds of other standalone theaters shut down in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Much of what I’ve read about this theater online is pretty much what you’d expect: nostalgic anecdotes recounted with some sense of embarrassment, cruising reports on queer message forums, and occasional references in posts about local theater history. It also appears in this quaint illustration in a book about the old shops of Tainan 台南. The blood red signboard has become an iconic feature of Tainan’s collective memory.
As for my own experience of this theater, I actually lived around the corner back in 2014 but hadn’t yet taken an active interest in documenting the decline of Taiwanese cinema. I faintly recall cycling by and noting the advanced age of most patrons milling around out front but not much beyond that. Only in 2017 did I return, armed with my camera and the vague intention of sneaking inside for a look, but that moment is gone, lost forever.
I returned in 2018 on a much nicer day, intent on taking a closer look at the old theater. Not much had changed, though if you look closely you might notice a poster missing from the left side of the ticket booth. This time around I noticed the big signboard is mounted low enough that you can see something of the original facade from across the street. It’s tricky to make out but there’s a circular logo in the middle—and the original name of the theater is written right-to-left on the left-hand side of the building!
I wonder what the future might hold for this old cinema? Despite its sordid history it strikes me as a great candidate for restoration and repurposing. The location is fantastic: very close to the train station, fashion district, and many tourist attractions. And I’m guessing the original facade will end up looking quite stylish, however drab and utilitarian it might be. Chances are it’ll be demolished before we find out, but who knows? I’ll keep an eye out for any news about this theater and will update this post accordingly.