What little remains of the historic tobacco industry in central Taiwan 台灣 is disappearing fast. Tobacco cultivation was big business for much of the 20th century but went into sharp decline in the 1980s and essentially ended with globalization and Taiwan’s accession to the WTO. Robust preservation efforts in south and east Taiwan ensure something of this industry will remain for future generations but the situation in the former tobacco cultivation areas of Taichung 台中, Changhua 彰化, and Yúnlín 雲林 is far more ambiguous, and documentation of what cultural assets remain is sparse or nonexistent. For this reason I’ve made an effort to record tobacco barns anytime I encounter them in my travels—as I did while driving through Jiǔqiōng Village 九芎村 on the south side of Línnèi 林內 in Yúnlín 雲林 earlier this summer.
Recently I stopped in Shuǐlǐ 水里 while on my way to Pǔlǐ 埔里 by scooter. There, while waiting out a rainstorm on the main street in front of the historic train station, I noticed an unusual betel nut booth with a fetching green sign. “Chinese chewing gum” is a curious phrase, not one I recall noticing before, and it is also peculiar to see an exclusively English sign out here in the mountainous heart of the nation. Searching around, I chanced upon a short documentary describing betel nut as Taiwan chewing gum, which still sounds somewhat odd. What sort of gum gets you high and stains your teeth red?
Xīluó 西螺 is justifiably famous for its eponymous Japanese colonial era theater, located close to the architectural wonders of Yánpíng Old Street 延平老街, but this small town on the south bank of the sluggish Zhuóshuǐ River 濁水溪 was once home to two more theaters. Almost no mention of these other theaters can be found except in this news report about a local painter—but while browsing around satellite view on Google Maps I managed to locate what is almost certainly Yuǎndōng Theater 遠東戲院 (literally “Far East Theater”). A few months ago I seized an opportunity to revisit the lovely town of Xīluó 西螺 and dropped in to take a closer look.
Recently I wrote about the Liùjiǎo Brick Kiln 六腳磚窯, an obscure abandonment in rural Chiayi 嘉義, Taiwan 台灣. While attempting to find out more about that kiln I found a reference to a second abandoned kiln in the area, the Shuāngxīkǒu Brick Kiln 雙溪口磚窯, informally named after the closest village in neighboring Puzi. Weeks after visiting the first kiln I returned to scope out the second and—insofar as I can tell—only other remaining brick kiln in this expanse of the Chianan Plain 嘉南平原. It was a hazy, grey day out there so these photos aren’t nearly as nice as those of the other kiln, but in the interest of adding a little something to the historic record I’m sharing them here anyway.
Despite its relative obscurity Xinying is the largest settlement along the railway line between metropolitan Tainan City 台南市 and Chiayi City 嘉義市. It is the former capital of Tainan County prior to amalgamation in 2010 and remains the second administrative seat of Tainan 台南 alongside Ānpíng 安平. Located on the broad and fertile Chianan Plain 嘉南平原, it was also an important transportation hub for the sugar industry, and what remains of the Japanese colonial era sugar factory can still be found on the south side of town. These facts—the size of the town, its former importance, and the presence of a sugar factory—suggest that Xinying was almost certainly home to several standalone movie theaters in its heyday. After doing some research online I established that this was indeed the case—and in February 2017 I swung through to investigate rumours of several old theaters. One of these turned out to be a rather unusual example of a ruined KMT authoritarian era cinema by the name of Chénggōng Theater 成功戲院.
Liùjiǎo Brick Kiln 六腳磚窯 was an unexpected discovery while riding from Běigǎng 北港 to Puzi earlier this summer. The chimney is plainly visible from the roadside and the crumbling bulk of the kiln can be discerned in a gap between the row of houses out front. Stopping to take a closer look I went around (and through) the old kiln to document what remains. Liujiao is a rather obscure part of rural Chiayi 嘉義 so I’ve not found any mention of this place online apart from this brief post. Whereas several kilns in various other parts of Taiwan 台灣 are being preserved this obscure ruin is almost certainly never going to be the object of a conservation effort.
Over the last several years I’ve grown interested in the aesthetics of the interfaces between buildings, something that I recently learned is known as a party wall. These interfaces are not designed to be seen—but here in Taiwan 台灣, where little value is placed on appearances in the urban environment, it is not uncommon to see these interfaces exposed long after an adjoining building is torn down. Another of my photography side projects involves the documentation of these exposed interfaces—and this immense field of wooden slats running up the side of a building in Chiayi City 嘉義市 makes a nice addition to the collection.
Hsin Kang Theater 新港戲院 is located in the small town of Xingang, Chiayi 嘉義, not far from the famous Fèngtiān Temple 奉天宮. Multiple sources agree it went out of business in 1988—a victim of shifting consumer preferences and demographic changes in small town Taiwan 台灣—but the actual age of the building is somewhat uncertain. This academic reference suggests it was founded in 1929, in the midst of the Japanese colonial era, but the theater was almost certainly renovated or completely rebuilt in the post-war period.
One of the last of the many vintage theaters of Tainan 台南 seems to have finally closed its doors. Founded in 1964, the notorious Xīnjiànguó Theater 新建國戲院 was originally named for its location on Jianguo Road 建國路, which is now Mínquán Road 民權路. It is not uncommon for old theaters in Taiwan 台灣 to resort to showing pornography in the twilight of their decline but this particular theater appears to have specialized in more carnal forms of entertainment for much of its history. Perhaps this is why this theater remained in business until very recently—long after most of the nation’s hundreds of other standalone theaters shut down in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The obscure Lìzé Theater 利澤戲院 is located in the village of Lìzéjiǎn 利澤簡 in Wujie, a rural township just east of Luódōng 羅東 in Yilan, Taiwan 台灣. Built in 1964, it once served as a cinema and playhouse, hosting a variety of films and live theater performances for the local populace before slipping into decline in the 1980s, a little earlier than most other theaters I’ve visited around the nation. Afterwards the theater was converted for use as a clothing factory but this also went out of business. Nowadays the building is more disused than abandoned, as descendants of the original owner are still making use of the structure for storage and other purposes. In a stroke of good luck I happened to visit while the door was open—and after communicating my interest in the history of old theaters in Taiwan I was invited in for a brief chat and look around. Each theater has its own story to tell—but in this case I was particularly interested in learning why a theater was built in such a small and seemingly unimportant village.