An Old Theater in a Keelung Alleyway

Keelung Dahua Theater 基隆大華戲院

Dàhuá Theater 大華戲院 is an early post-war movie theater in the grim northern port town of Keelung 基隆, Taiwan 台灣. It was in business as early as 1949 and officially registered by 1952. Beyond that, little trace of it can be found online. Until recently I assumed this theater had been demolished, just like every other vintage standalone in downtown Keelung, one of the most densely-packed urban environments in the nation. Acting on a tip that a signboard was still in place I went to scope it out one afternoon in 2018—and was completely surprised to find the theater still standing, albeit in an extremely dilapidated condition.

This old theater is located on a narrow laneway on the edge of one of Keelung’s many red light districts1. I’ve wandered through this area several times before but never noticed it looming overhead, likely because I was too busy dodging scooters and avoiding eye contact. This time around I spoke with several vendors across the way to ask about the theater. One woman told me its been closed for at least 30 or 40 years, a rather long period of time for a large building to remain derelict in a city with such limited space. Why the theater hasn’t been completely torn down is a mystery I wasn’t able to resolve—but it’s probably a familiar story, one involving shares distributed among many disinterested descendants of the original owners.

Finding a way inside wasn’t too difficult, and nobody seemed to mind, but I don’t recommend trying it yourself. This is one of the more repulsive ruins I’ve explored in a while thanks to the sheer amount of garbage that has been dumped around the entrance. Much like my visit to Fengzhong Theater 豐中戲院 in Taichung 台中, I was reminded of a certain scene in Star Wars: A New Hope. Anyway, it was worth doing once—but only because I’m working on this crazy project.

No trace of the roof, screen, or seating remains, and the interior is almost completely bereft of interesting artifacts. Only a red brick and reinforced concrete shell remains of the body of the theater but the front of the structure is relatively intact. Walk inside, turn toward the exit, and you will observe four slots on the brick wall, one pair for each projector2. Gazing up, you might also notice the protrusion of a bifurcated metal tube, the hallmark of carbon arc projectors, which overheat without adequate ventilation. This medium-sized theater might have accommodated upwards of 600 patrons at its peak, but nowadays the former seating area is overgrown by long grass and sticky weeds. Technically this might be the largest expanse of green space in the flatlands around the foot of the harbour and north of the railway line.

I was intrigued to discover an old Hercules diesel generator in a side room on the ground floor, something I’ve never noticed in any other theater. Was this generator employed at a time when Taiwan’s electricity supply was unreliable? From what little I’ve read it sounds like Hercules supplied a huge amount of equipment to the US military during World War II. Could this unit have arrived with the American military presence in the 1950s?

Ultimately I have far more questions than answers about Dahua Theater. It is somewhat strange to find an old and obviously historic theater without much of an online footprint. It is occasionally mentioned on message forums in nostalgic threads reminiscing about growing up in Keelung—but without photographs I figured it must have been destroyed along with the others3. Chancing upon an early post-war theater like this one is a rare treat, and a worthwhile addition to the ever-growing collection.

  1. This laneway is so narrow that it doesn’t appear on Google Street View, a tool I regularly use for advance research. Usually I verify the existence and condition of a ruin before making a visit—so my astonishment upon finding this theater was entirely genuine. Oh, and that red light district? Keelung is a port town, so don’t act surprised. 
  2. One slot is for the projector, the other allows for the projectionist to ensure the correct alignment of the device. 
  3. Keelung was home to dozens of movie theaters in the booming years of the Taiwan Economic Miracle. Only two others remain in the vicinity of the downtown core—and neither of them are nearly as old. 

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