Golden Birds Paradise 金鳥海族樂園

Not long after returning to Taiwan 台灣 last year I received an invitation from a friend to go road tripping down to Hsinchu 新竹 to check out an abandoned theme park. Along the way we stopped off to check out a derelict cablecar station and the restored Héxìng Station 合興車站 before arriving at the gateway to Golden Birds Paradise 金鳥海族樂園. Located in the rolling hills of Hsinchu 新竹 not far from the border Táoyuán 桃園, it was among the most extensive and well-known theme parks of northern Taiwan 台灣 at its peak in the 1990s. Business faltered with the rise of new forms of entertainment in the 2000s and from what I can tell it was completely abandoned nearly a decade ago. Most of the amusement park rides were torn out and probably sold for scrap metal long ago—but many of the original buildings remain, neglected and overgrown.

One of the more interesting ruins on the grounds of the old theme park is that of a massive aquarium not far from the entrance. Part of it has been knocked down—and the gaping hole in the side of the building has been covered up with a plastic screen for some unfathomable reason. Considerable effort went into obscuring the damage: the screen was printed and mounted on a metal frame that was then bolted into place making access to the interior difficult. Not only is the choice of artwork bizarrely out of place, but it hardly even covers half of the hole. What on earth were they thinking? The building to the left looks like it may have been renovated in the last few years—which suggests it might be on the market—but even so, can you imagine owning a holiday home in the mountains with this fake plastic forest in your backyard? Very peculiar.

Inside the aquarium one will find all manner of little wonders. Sunlight seeps into the interior, illuminating an artificial reef affixed to the central support column and a knobby, undulating surface that thickens at the base, all of which would have once been immersed in water and surrounded by marine life. The viewing area that circles the ruins of the big tank is open and exposed to the elements and broken chunks of heavy aquarium glass litter the area around the huge gap in the outer wall. Down below, the gloomy lower level is mostly intact, though many of the thick glass panes have turned translucent with age and neglect, and the few standalone tanks that remain are thick with pond scum and stink to high heaven.

There was something oddly familiar about the layout of the aquarium, almost as if I had visited one just like it when I was a child. The circular plan is a sensible example of form following function, and perhaps there is a kind of convergent evolution of engineering at work here. Of all the many places I’ve explored these past few years this aquarium was certainly among the most interesting.

Behind the aquarium lies an overgrown path leading up the slope. Various other paths branch off to the left of this path, leading to what remains of the various attractions that made up the old theme park. We followed the first branch around a bend to the back of a partly-covered stage, the hǎishī biǎoyǎnchǎng 海獅表演場, or sea lion arena, which hosted shows similar to what you’d see at SeaWorld, or—closer to my roots—Marineland in Ontario. A small enclosure behind the shed is equipped with several small tanks that must have housed sea lions when they weren’t on duty.

The main pool is partly filled with rubble, presumably from the demolition of some other structures on site. You can see down to the bottom of the empty pool at one end—while the other is so thoroughly colonized by weeds that you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for solid ground. And indeed, it works well enough to convey passengers on foot to the overgrown terraces on the other side. We crossed the debris field to take in the view.

Paddle boats once plied the open waters of a small pond further up from the sea lion arena. Now it is so thoroughly overgrown with aquatic plants that it almost looks like you could walk across it. The only halfway sane means of accessing the opposite side of the pond is to cross a precarious bridge composed mainly of rotting wood. Twin steel struts underly the length of the bridge so it’s not quite as dangerous as it looks—but one misstep and you’ll fall into dark waters of unknown depth.

The poured concrete pathway leading to the back of the theme park is heavily overgrown with long grass. Here we encountered several Nephila pilipes, a species of golden orb-weaver known as the “human face” spider, rénmiàn zhīzhū 人面蜘蛛, named for a common pattern of markings on its dorsal surface. These spiders are venomous but not lethal and get to be quite large, about the size of the palm of your hand. They spin huge webs with support strands that can extend a meter or more. Their silk is unusually strong but not all that sticky—which means you can graze or bump into their webs without getting caught, which is precisely what happened to me in the long grass of Golden Birds Paradise. Golden orb-weavers are an almost constant fixture of the Taiwanese wilderness so I’m used to seeing them—but they still give me the creeps.

The big building at the very back of the theme park is an abandoned hotel. Some half-hearted attempt at blocking entry to the building is easily circumvented. The chain-link fence out front doesn’t even cover the full length of the stairway! Up and around we went.

The interior of the hotel is musty and dank. Most doors and windows remain shut but the elements have clearly worked their way inside over the many years since this place was abandoned. Thin layers of green algae make for slippery footing in several areas and the smell of mold is pervasive. A calendar hangs in the dining area, dating back to 2008. Beyond the modestly-sized kitchen we found a dishwashing area where water flows freely from pipes fed from a nearby stream.

Returning to the front desk we rifled through the drawers and found a tourist brochure featuring pictures of the theme park when it was still in operation. Several amusement park rides can be seen, all of which have been removed long ago, as well as the sea lion show. There is also a photograph of the entire theme park from the rooftop of the hotel—a shot I attempted to replicate later on to show how things have changed.

The second floor features several dorms as well as an area for games and probably karaoke. One side room contained huge piles of flip flops and mountains of bedding. It was perfectly still on this level, completely unlike how it must have been once upon a time, when boisterous tour groups came to spend the night.

The third floor would have offered more expensive lodging. Here the rooms are much bigger, with intriguing retro-styled furniture, and there is what looks to be a bar. Behind that bar is an office filled with all kinds of stuff—vintage 8-track karaoke and VHS video tapes, for instance. I took a series of photos of whatever movies were kicking around, all of which remained in their cases except one, evidently a favourite of some departing employee.

We gained rooftop access through the laundry room and stepped out into the hot sun. Here we were greeted with the incredibly surreal sight of the forest reflected in rainwater that had collected along one edge of the building. It was almost hard to believe we were three floors up from the long grass and many crumbling ruins below. This illusion was dispelled as we walked closer to the edge to take in the entirety of the abandoned theme park. Nature has reclaimed most of it by now—only a few small parts distinguish themselves from the sea of nearly endless green out here in the hills of Hsinchu 新竹.

An interesting coda to this exploration is provided by the fact that Golden Birds Paradise was abandoned recently enough that some trace of it remains on the internet. Most exceptional is this home video from 1989, which shows the theme park in its prime. There are also several posts detailing the decay of the theme park prior to its eventual closing—those can be seen here, here, and here. If you’re curious to see another abandoned theme park in Taiwan 台灣 have a look at my post about Encore Garden 亞哥花園.

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