When talking about watching movies in Taitung, people probably only think of ShowTimes Cinema next to the Taitung Bus Station. Can anyone imagine that in the 1970s and 1980s, there were more than 30 theaters in Taitung from north to south? Most of the townships had two cinemas, and even the Li-De training class far in Orchid Island had movies on air. Theaters not only played movies, but also had occasional performances of puppet shows, Taiwanese opera, and chorus, those provided the most important entertainment for people in the 1960s to 1980s. With the popularization of television in the 1980s, local cinemas in Taitung closed one by one like collapsed dominoes. They are now all out of business, and this kind of plebeian life was no longer seen.
Located at the southernmost tip of Taitung, the“Southern Boss”, Dawu Theater, was established in 1969. At that time, Dawu Township served as the transportation hub between Pingtung and Taitung. The coast along Dawu was the main area for catching milkfish fry and eel fry in Taiwan, and with the prosperity of the forestry business and the sisal rope business, watching movies was once the main leisure activity for fishermen, sisal farmers, and loggers.
The theater hall of more than a hundred square meters can accommodate up to 1,200 people. Moreover, the “Four Sisters of Wenxia” were on stage at the opening of the theater. It was the most glamorous theater in the Taitung area. The plaque of Dawu Theater was a joint gift by dignitaries from all walks of life on the opening day of Dawu Theater, including the mayor of Taitung County, Huang Jing-Feng, National Assembly representative Chiang Sheng-Ai, the mayor of Dawu Township, Taitung County council members, and the township Councilmen.
At the time when there was no television, the theater became the best place to spend time in the countryside at night, and also a perfect place for young boys and girls to date. In the evening, there were numerous vendors selling sugar cane, peanuts, grilled sausages, and squid at the cinema entrance, making it a small marketplace. With the decline of fishing, logging, and the sisal industry in Dawu Township, the Dawu Theater was closed in 1983 after two years of losses, and now only the ruined structure remains in place.
The Da-Tong Theater in Taitung City is the last of the traditional theaters in Taitung to close. In addition to watching dramas, Da-Tong Theater was also a venue for many junior and senior high school graduation ceremonies. Da-Tong Theater was established in 1956. Faced with the vicissitudes in the entertainment industry, it has continued operating and was once the only theater in Taitung. It was not until 2009 that Da-Tong Theater was closed due to a fire that destroyed nearly half of the building and the original wooden roof. During that time, people in Taitung had to go to other counties to watch movies.
After the fire, the two-story building and the large square could still be seen. The large seating space was transformed into a happy farm for the public, some women were often seen growing vegetables there. Many people have voiced their support to save the building. But after the county government identified it as a dangerous building by the end of 2020, Da-Tong Theater would not be able to escape the fate of going into history under the excavators.
For those of you who are new to Taitung city, you must be curious about the “Dong-He Surgical Clinic” which is located at the intersection of Zhonghua Road and Datong with a white castle and a cross on top. And you might wonder what kind of surgeon would want to build a hospital with such architectural beauty here? It is as beautiful as a museum.
In fact, this was not a hospital in the beginning, but a cinema! The building started as a warehouse for a transportation company owned by a wealthy Taitung man, Lai Ah-Chuan, trading Japanese imported goods. It was later converted to “Tai-He Cinema” build with reinforced concrete in 1952. The theater was design by the Japanese. The flooring and the walls were made of reinforced concrete at no cost. The interior space could accommodate up to 1,100 people. Some remnants of the original wooden structure of the warehouse could be seen inside, as well as the clapboard sidings and the tiles. The theater was opened on January 1, 1955, and was mainly used to show Western and Japanese films. After changing its ownership, it was renamed “He-Ping Cinema” in 1965. The theater closed in 1985 and was later leased to Dong-He Surgical Clinic.
The former Tai-He Cinema, the present-day Dong-He Surgical Clinic.
Since Tai-He Cinema mainly shows Western and Japanese movies, some elders said that in the past, elderly people did not go to Tai-He Cinema because ....... they could not understand English. With the decline of the film industry, the theater eventually ended up in the awkward “one movie, two dollars” situation. Dong-He Surgical Clinic take over the romance of the old cinema and continued the life of this beautiful old building.
Walking in the quiet alleys of Guanshan town, it may be difficult to find the large old cinema building hidden in the alleyway if not pointed out by the local people. It is the only old theater building existing in Guanshan town at present.
The market and the square in front of the theater once formed the best place for vendor’s stands to gather, and the bustling sound of hawking was played out every day. It is hard to imagine that the town of Guanshan, which has a population of less than 10,000, had three theaters at its peak! Zhonghua Grand Cinema was the largest one of the three and was even the largest theater in the Valley 50 years ago. And It was known as the “Northern Boss”! It was a pity that the movie-going crowd went from a full house of 1,200 people to less than 10 people in the 1980s, and the doors had to be closed eventually.
After the theater closed down, the building was gradually damaged. Not only the roof was broken but even a big tree grew inside the house. But like a time capsule, the memories were sealed in that lively time. The posters of the past, “The Emotional Swordsman Breaks His Love” and “The Wrong Train”, as well as the train timetable at that time, can still be seen on the wall. With a distance of less than a five-minute walk from the station, the theater must have many movie fans who came to see the movie on purpose! In September 2021, the large part of Zhonghua Grand Cinema in Guanshan was demolished due to the landlord’s decision, leaving only the front facade.
Chishang Wu-Zhou Theater, located next to the railway, was built in 1965. Parts of the building are still preserved. At that time, the open-air theater was converted into a movie theater in order to serve the veterans of the “Taitung Farm”, a nearby retired auxiliary association. The ticket counter and the screening times are a record of Taiwan's past. It was built in 1965, and in the 1970s, the economy of Chishang Township was booming, with a large number of outside workers. However, with the transformation of the economy, it closed in 1982.
In the early days, there were three theaters in Chishang. There were about 2,000 people in the Development Office (Retired Auxiliary Association), sugar factories, and other government units, as well as traders from the west who came to buy corn and peanuts, and workers in the mountainous areas for reclamation. Their biggest entertainment was watching movies. The owner of the cinema, He Wei Gui-Hua, said that “Wu-Zhou Theater is the big brother. It has 400 seats in it. However, it was usually for the officials. If the general public couldn't get a seat, there is room for 450 people to stand. Each show can provide up to nearly 1,000 people to watch the movie at the same time!”
At that time, films in Taitung were not first-run movies, but third-round. Only one or two years after movies premiered in Taipei that they would come to Taitung. The owner of the theater, He Wei Gui-Hua, said that a film only had four reels, so it had to be “bicycled”. Wu-Zhou Theater exchanged films with the nearby Dong-Shan Theater in Guanshan Township. Once the films from Dong-Shan Theater is finished playing, it must be delivered to Wu-Zhou Theater within half an hour. And her little brother is responsible for “bicycling the reels”.
The main structure of the Wu-Zhou Theater building is still intact, and the facade of it has been restored with the joint efforts of the community. They also invited the poster artist of the time to paint the poster on the entrance, in the hope that this common memory of the theater can continue to live on. Unfortunately, after a typhoon, the roof of the cinema was blown off and the main structure of the building became increasingly brittle under the sun and rain. Only the facade, which was built and maintained by the community, is still standing next to the railroad, welcoming visitors to Chishang on holidays.
With the change of economy and the departure of talents, memories of the theater culture and the cinema market in Taiwan have gradually withered away. With the development of television, leisure and entertainment activities have slowly changed from watching movies to watching television at home. Empty theaters witnessed the transformation of the economy. The film reels are not spinning anymore, and the memories of watching movies are forgotten bit by bit along with the fading tiles and walls.