While living down in Changhua City 彰化市 last winter I made occasional forays up and down the TRA Western Line 西部幹線 to check out several places that aren’t often written about in English. One such place is Dǒuliù 斗六, the administrative seat of Yúnlín 雲林, which hardly earns more than a passing mention in the English language blogosphere. It was a worthwhile trip too—apart from the famous Tàipíng Old Street 太平老街 (to be blogged about at a future date) and the surprisingly large and lively Douliu Night Market 斗六夜市 I also chanced upon another hulking ruin to add to my growing collection: the Dòuliùmén Building 斗六門大樓, an archaic name for the area that dates back to the 17th century.
Since getting out and exploring more of central and southern Taiwan 台灣 I have developed something of a pet theory: there’s a very good chance you’ll find an abandoned entertainment complex or commercial building much like the Qiáoyǒu Building 喬友大廈 near the train station in every sizable settlement on the railway line1. Sure enough, after five minutes of poking around the cramped streets south of Douliu Station 斗六車站 I came upon an oddly shaped and obviously abandoned building with a sign out front that reads Datong Bingo Plaza 大統賓果廣場, doubtless the name of some shuttered gambling den. Not long thereafter I was scaling one of the outer stairwells in search of what might be seen.
On the seventh floor an open door beckoned me inside. Here I encountered the remains of an old movie theater stripped down to the floorboards. Red seat cushions, once stacked in neat piles, were scattered around the dimly lit room. I turned a corner and entered the projection booth. Not much had been left behind, just some old film spools and the detritus of many passing years. Peering through the square holes in the wall into the theater beyond I imagined how it might have looked on that final night when the light of that very last film played across the screen. Usually I am left wondering about those last moments—but not this time. With a bit of sleuthing around I uncovered the story of this theater’s dying days.
Gemini Theater 雙子星戲院2 opened in 1981 in the midst of the boom times of the Taiwan Economic Miracle 台灣奇蹟 and must have prospered during democratization. By the 2000s movie theaters all around Taiwan were struggling with competition from other forms of entertainment (video games, for instance) and piracy, both of which were causing audiences to dwindle. This particular theater moved downmarket, much like the Chin Men Theater 全美戲院 in Tainan 台南, transforming itself into a second-run theater selling double feature tickets for the paltry sum of 100 NT (about USD$3) near the end of its lifetime. This was not enough to halt the decline—and when the entire building was sold to new owners it looked as if the theater’s days were numbered.
Eventually all employees were let go—there simply wasn’t enough money to pay anyone and the new landlords weren’t willing to lower the rent to adapt to changing times. The theater would have shut down entirely were it not for the tireless efforts of Wáng Gāngyì 王剛毅, a former employee in his mid-60s with a passion for cinema. Working entirely for free3, he single-handedly sold and checked tickets, ran the projector, cleaned up hundreds of seats after each showing, and even hand-painting billboards and signs. This, in turn, attracted the attention of student organizations like Film Effects 膠捲效應, who shared this fantastic set of photos about efforts to save the theater. A series of videos was also released about Wang and Gemini Theater; watch them here, here, here, and here.
Media exposure and a groundswell of support from local film enthusiasts was not enough to save Gemini Theater. A final showing was announced in the summer of 2013—but, in a plot twist that would have been right at home on the silver screen, the building’s electricity was switched off without warning two days prior to the big event. With the support of many volunteers Wang managed to pull it off somehow—and the last film was shown to a full house despite the dank summer heat and lack of air conditioning4.
The story of the old man and the theater reminds me of Goodbye, Dragon Inn 不散, a Taiwanese film shot in a now-abandoned theater in Yǒnghé 永和 that I plan to visit one day. Read this review in the New Yorker for a preview. Here it seems fitting to quote one of the only spoken lines of dialogue in the film:
No one goes to the movies anymore, and no one remembers us anymore.
Of course, I knew nothing of the history of the building when I was exploring it. I could discern only the barest outlines of the story—past prosperity, generational change, and terminal decline. It was, at the time, just another abandoned building filled with unknowable stories, echoes of the lives of others. That I now have some insight into what happened there provides for a strange kind of remembering.
A rosy-hued apartment several levels below the theater provided me with another way of remembering. Here I found a small pile of photographic negatives laying on a cot. I unfolded a set and splayed them across the dusty window to capture their essence for later exposure. You can find the results of this exercise here.
One last thing worth mentioning about this building is that it was recently damaged by Typhoon Soudelor 蘇迪勒颱風. The news report mentions that permission had to be secured from the Taipei-based owners to remove a dangerous piece of metal hanging from the rooftop. If that doesn’t show neglect for the property I don’t know what would.
- This same logic brought me to the Fuyou Building 富有大樓 in Taitung City 台東市. ↩
- None of these places have official English names insofar as I know. “Gemini Theater” could also be written “Twin Star Theater”. ↩
An explanation of Wang’s motivations from the Apple Daily story:
- One thing I haven’t been able to puzzle out is what film was shown on the very last night. If anyone knows please leave a remark in the comments below. ↩