In June 2015 I undertook a bicycle trip from Tainan 台南 to Taitung City 台東市, where I spent an extra day wandering around to get more of a feel for Taiwan’s remote southeastern capital. Mere minutes after leaving my hotel, immediately after chancing upon the historic Taitung Chinese Association 台東中華會館, I noticed the stark outline of an abandoned building at the end of a short laneway leading off of Zhōngzhèng Road 中正路. After taking a closer look I realized it was yet another abandoned movie theater, of which there are many scattered all around Taiwan.
Dàtóng Theater 大同戲院 opened in 1958, back when films had to be flown from Taipei 台北 to Hualien 花蓮 and then shipped down to Taitung 台東 by rail. Film was among the main forms of mass entertainment in those days and Taitung County, despite its small population of approximately 250,0001, was reputedly home to 36 theaters at its peak in the 1970s. With the advent of home video and modern cineplexes in the 1980s most of these old school theaters went out of business, one by one, until only Datong Theater remained, the very last of its kind2.
Disaster struck in 2009 when an early morning blaze broke out and consumed much of the theater, putting an end to Datong’s cinematic reign. Many of the abandoned buildings I explore were purified by fire at one point or another, not an uncommon fate for struggling businesses in Taiwan.
Datong Theater changed with the times. What was once one big cinema was eventually sliced up into six smaller halls to accommodate a changing market3. Datong also went downmarket as a second-run theater with double billing (one ticket buys two showings). But even with these measures Datong was barely holding on, much like the Gemini Theater 雙子星戲院 in Dǒuliù 斗六.
Six years have passed and not much remains of Datong Theater apart from scorch marks on the empty concrete shell. The interior of the building is now exposed to the elements and has become overgrown, though not as much as some other abandoned theaters I have visited. It is more a prairie than a forest inside—though the presence of papaya trees belies the tropical location. Wouldn’t it be sweet to taste the fruit grown in the wreckage of a historic cinema? Out of the ashes new life appears…
What will become of the last operating standalone theater in Taitung? Is there any hope of preserving this place, or is it doomed to be demolished to make way for new developments? This remains an active debate in the local community, something made far more difficult by the unusual number of shareholders—more than 60—all of whom must agree on a course of action before anything can change. It was reviewed for its historic value by the local government in 2018 but did not qualify for active preservation efforts. Instead, the building was identified as a dangerous structure, and a partial demolition was carried out over the next two years. As of 2020 only a small section at the very front of the theater remains, and even this part may come down before long.
Stumbling upon Datong Theater opened up a new world for me. Now I am much more conscious of how easy it is to find abandoned cinemas in just about any settlement of any size in Taiwan. Since then I have identified or explored a dozen more in my travels. Taken together, these cast-off husks trace the rise and fall of the Taiwanese film industry.
- Taitung’s population has actually decreased since the 1960s from what I know. I’ve had some trouble finding reliable statistics but from what I gather the population has dropped from a high of about 290,000 to 225,000 residents today, largely a consequence of rural flight. This could mean that the city itself has actually grown even as the countryside emptied out. ↩
- This article from Focus Taiwan suggests Datong Theater was the only one operating in Taitung from 1985 until its closure in 2009. ↩
- The six smaller theaters were named Gold Hall 金廳, Silver Hall 銀廳, Cái Hall 財廳, Bǎo Hall 寶廳, Fú Hall 福廳, and Shòu Hall 壽廳. ↩