Zhōnglì 中壢 is home to a surprising number of disused and abandoned cinemas, relics of a lost age of theater in this conurbation of half a million sprawling across the central Taoyuan Plateau 桃園台地. Decades ago there were nearly two dozen standalone movie theaters in town—but only Zhongyuan Theater 中源大戲院, one of two in Taiwan still displaying hand-painted movie posters, clings to life as of 2018. Most of the others have been renovated beyond recognition or demolished, but several more are derelict, hard-worn subjects of entropy. Among these relics there are none more alluring than the imposing Dàdōng Theater 大東戲院 (literally the “Great Eastern Theater”), former anchor of Zhongli’s long-vanished Cinema Street 戲院街.
I chanced upon Dadong Theater while wandering around Zhongli sometime in late 2015. I was in town to search for an apartment—and to get a feel for what would eventually become my winter residence. Straying from the brightly-lit streets of the commercial district west of the train station I soon noticed this fortress-like structure looming over a dark intersection. At that time I had only recently acquired an interest in Taiwanese movie theaters so it seemed like a serendipitous discovery. I resolved to return—and mere weeks later found myself creeping into the dimly-lit lobby, ready to elucidate the mysteries of a movie theater utterly detached from the human world for nearly a decade.
Business records indicate Dadong Theater was founded in 1956. I harbour some doubts about whether the physical structure of the theater is quite so old—there’s a good chance it was renovated or moved into a newer building in the 1960s or 1970s, but little information exists to corroborate such speculation. What I’ve gleaned from nostalgic threads on Facebook and PTT suggest that Datong Theater was one of several cinemas along this stretch of road at the heart of Zhongli’s old entertainment district1. Many Zhongli residents recall the buzz and excitement of seeing Titanic (1997) at Dadong Theater, but it later became a second-run theater (二輪戲院) with discounted tickets in its dying days.
The approximate date of closure can be determined from the films advertised outside and a calendar found in one of the projection rooms. Both lines of evidence indicate the final showing must have been sometime in the spring of 2006. The building was sealed thereafter—and I have a strong suspicion I may have been the first person to set foot inside since the final curtain call. The access point was a wooden door that had fallen apart after years of exposure to the elements—but it was only open for a brief period of time, and has since been sealed by a metal barrier. I made multiple visits while it was feasible to do so, sometimes with company. As always, we were respectful, abiding by the urban explorer’s code: take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.
Unlike many other theaters I’ve explored this one is a place of darkness, with no natural light except in the office and lobby at the front of the building. Although there are numerous leaks throughout the building—some of which have led to the decay and collapse of parts of the internal structure—the rooftop remains more or less intact. Mold flourishes through the building and large Huntsman spiders stalk the dark corridors for whatever prey they might find. Deep within the building there are no sounds, only a strong, steady silence far removed from the realm of human activity.
There is no future but destruction for a theater like this. It has little historic value, despite running for half a century, and I would expect it to be demolished in the coming years as the Taoyuan Metro expands into the city, revitalizing the area and raising property values. These images document the last vestiges of an era already disappearing into history.
If you’re curious about the movie theaters of Zhongli I encourage you to read my reports about Zhongyuan Theater 中源大戲院 and Xinming Theater 新明戲院. Traces of several other theaters remain around the city but there are none more important than these three. More photos and information in Chinese can be found here, here, and here. Finally, I should emphasize these photos were taken years ago and this theater is no longer accessible.
Update: as of late 2020 this theater is being dismantled.
- Dadong Theater was located diagonally across from Yíngōng Theater 銀宮戲院 and in the immediate vicinity of Guójì Theater 國際戲院 and the eponymous Zhongli Theater 中壢戲院. All the others were demolished long ago. ↩