Datong Theater 大同戲院

Outside of Taitung City’s historic Datong Theater.

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 台灣.

Inside the ticket booth after hopping the fence. Looks like people just closed the shutters and walked off the job.

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 kind.

Up the stairs to the projection room. Damage from the fire is obvious here.
The gutted remains of the projection room at Datong Theater.

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.

Searching for artifacts in the projection room of an abandoned theater in Taitung City.
Film stock and supplies.
Burnt yellow phone.
Dating the theater fire to 2009.
God of the abandoned cinema.
Datong Theater usher uniform.
Film screening at the abandoned theater.

Datong Theater changed with the times. What was once one big cinema was eventually sliced up into six smaller halls to accommodate a changing market2. 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.

The old theater is completely exposed to the elements.
Down from the projection room.
A scorched aesthetic.
On the balcony just outside the projection room.
Overlooking the ruins of Datong Theater.

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

At the outer edge of the second floor balcony at Datong Theater.
Looking back from where the screen once was. There’s not much left of the original equipment here.
Another look at what remains of Datong Theater.

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.

A parting glance at Datong Theater from the small alleyway it fronts onto.

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 台灣. 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.

If you’re curious about what else I found that same day in Taitung City 台東市 check out my post about the Fuyou Building 富有大樓.

  1. 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. 
  2. The six smaller theaters were named 金廳, 銀廳, 財廳, 寶廳, 福廳, and 壽廳

South Taiwan Ride 2015 南台灣自行車旅行

This series chronicles a multi-day bicycle trip around the deep south of Taiwan 台灣, specifically from Tainan 台南 to Taitung 台東 in June 2015. Along the way I visited many places in Kaohsiung 高雄 and especially Pingtung 屏東. A lot of what I saw and experienced hasn't been written about in English very much so I've taken some extra time to provide background information to better contextualize what's in the many photographs in this series. Altogether this is a complete trip journal clocking in at around 20,000 words from start to finish!

  1. South Taiwan Ride 2015: Tainan to Pingtung City
  2. South Taiwan Ride 2015: Pingtung City
  3. South Taiwan Ride 2015: Pingtung City to Fangliao
  4. Chaozhou Liu House 潮州劉厝
  5. Chaozhou Jiukuaicuo Catholic Church 潮州九塊厝天主堂
  6. Xinpi Machine Gun Fort 新埤反空降機槍碉堡
  7. South Taiwan Ride 2015: Fangliao to Manzhou
  8. Fangliao Factory 枋寮工廠
  9. Jiahe Railway Tunnel 嘉和遮體
  10. Tsai Ing-wen Old House 蔡英文古厝
  11. South Taiwan Ride 2015: Manzhou to Dawu
  12. South Taiwan Ride 2015: Dawu to Taitung City
  13. Dawu Theater 大武戲院
  14. South Taiwan Ride 2015: Taitung City
  15. Taitung Chinese Association 台東中華會館
  16. Datong Theater 大同戲院
  17. Fuyou Building 富有大樓

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