In the 1970s, Taiwan had a total of 826 local movie theaters. In those days when entertainment was a lot harder to come by than it is now, entering that inky black space and throwing yourself into the magical world of projected images was a way to temporarily escape the daily grind. Local theaters were storehouses of joy, sorrow, love, and happiness for ordinary small-town folk, and the foundation stones of many of the collective memories of that era. Although the arrival of television drew away a big chunk of the audience, the fascination and charm of old movie theaters has never died, and in recent years some people have been working ceaselessly to promote an old theater renaissance.
Jiang Minghe has collected quite a few items of memorabilia connected with old cinemas, including reels of eight-millimeter film and 78-rpm records, evoking nostalgia from the old and curiosity from the young.
In rural and sparsely populated Fuli Township in Hualien County lies the Ruiwudan Theater, which opened in 1964 and ceased operations in 1989. In 2015 it was the venue for the premiere of the film Wawa No Cidal, directed by Cheng Yu-chieh and set against the backdrop of the East Rift Valley in Hualien and Taitung, which drew a crowd of over 600.
In 2016, in Chiayi County’s Dalin Township, the Wanguo Theater, which had been dark for 20 years, held a showing of Yang Li-chou’s film The Moment, carrying 200 viewers back in time to a “moment” in the collective memory of Taiwan cinema.
Entertainment for small-town folk
The Wanguo, which opened in 1968, was owned and operated by the Fan family, who had made their money in real estate. The ground-floor seats sloped upward from lower to higher levels, a feature boasted by only the most cutting-edge movie halls of the day. There was also a U-shaped balcony.
Grandma Yang, now in her 90s, lives right next door to the Wanguo Theater. She recalls that seeing movies was her main pastime when she was younger, and the Wanguo was as familiar as her own kitchen! Oddly enough, Fan Fengzheng, whose clan owned the theater, was not so lucky. His parents, who had built up the family fortunes from scratch, were strict, and required their children to work in the theater collecting tickets and keeping the books. They could only catch a glimpse of the movies being shown by stealing a peek on the sly in their odd free moments.
Later, after Taiwan’s first three broadcast TV stations started operating, and as entertainment options grew more diverse, local theaters fell into decline. The Wanguo Theater remained in suspended animation until 2012, when Jiang Minghe, who was born in Dalin, got the notion of borrowing it as a venue to exhibit and promote Dalin’s special local character. He sought out Fan Fengzheng, who just happened to be mulling exactly the same idea, and Fan agreed to let Jiang use the movie house free of charge.
Putting a new shine on a Chiayi fixture
Jiang, a military man by profession, decided to become a career soldier after seeing the movie Yes, Sir! at the Wanguo. Many years later, he was back at this place that had been a turning point in his life, painstakingly renovating and repairing it, so that it could once again become a highlight of the town of Dalin.
When Jiang took over, the only things salvageable that remained were the four Chinese characters for “Wanguo Theater” hanging on the outside wall. The task of renovation was daunting, and the funding he received from the Ministry of Culture was only enough for clearing out the interior, which, Jiang recalls, left the theater looking like a decrepit warehouse with nothing but four bare walls. But he didn’t give up hope, and started by showing films once a month on a screen set up just outside the theater, as a way of bringing more people into contact with this part of Dalin’s history.
Things really changed when Jiang learned that Formosa TV was looking for a venue to film a new drama series. He immediately contacted the producers and invited the production team down to Dalin. The set designers reconstructed the old interior, and left the set intact after filming for the TV series was wrapped up, thereby converting the building from a “warehouse” back into a genuine theater. It was at that point that the space for showing films moved from outdoors to indoors.
Besides showing movies, the venue has also been borrowed by a nearby school to hold various ceremonies and off-campus educational activities. To add to the throwback mood, Jiang reached into his own pocket to buy a gramophone to display in the theater, and some old 78-rpm records for people to have a listen.
Fan Fengzheng has hosted a group of exchange students from the UK, as well as friends from Italy. He is delighted that this out-of-the-way little community can attract foreign visitors, and says what a great thing it is that the theater has been kept around.
Four generations in Eastern Taiwan
While you could say that the Wanguo Theater has recovered some of the luster of yesteryear, the Ruiwudan Theater is even more a reminder of how quiet local theaters became once their glory days had passed.
The Ruiwudan is located on Yong’an Street in Fuli. It is actually on the second floor, so you have to walk up a staircase to get to the box office, which is separated from the seating area by a black curtain. When you enter the seating area and start to look around, the first thing that strikes the eye is rank after rank of seats made of cypress wood, with the row and seat numbers engraved on the back. After closing its doors in 1989, this venue remained dormant for more than 20 years, only reopening in 2014 thanks to the efforts of Chen Weiqiao, the fourth generation of the family that operated the theater. Only since then have people had the chance to once again bear witness to its former grandeur.
The Ruiwudan Theater has always been a family enterprise, belonging to the Chen clan of Fuli. Back in the day it could hold an audience of 1800, with four shows a day, nearly always sold out. Projectionist Chen Xiangrong, a third-generation member of the Chen lineage, remembers like yesterday the ruckus and bustle of the audience spilling out after each showing.
Besides screening movies, the Ruiwudan was also the first choice for major events, ceremonies, and rituals. For example, it was where the draft lottery was held for young men starting their compulsory military service. Chen Xiangrong recalls that when a young man drew a posting in Kinmen or Matsu—which, through a Chinese play on words, was known as a “Golden Horse Award” (a Taiwanese “Oscar”)—the audience would burst into applause and shouts of congratulation.
For Chen Weiqiao, the theater had a very personal meaning. It was like his own amusement park, and as a small child he spent most of his time hanging around the place. Even when just learning to walk, he could be found stumbling along in his stroller in the shade of the black curtain at the box office, with his grandfather holding fast to a rope to limit the range of the stroller so that young Weiqiao wouldn’t fall down the stairs. Weiqiao once even earned himself a beating after ripping the projection screen while playing basketball on the stage.
But Chen Weiqiao only lived in Fuli until he was seven, after which his father took him to Kaohsiung. He went to school, found a job, and got married all in the western part of Taiwan, while his contacts with his old home in Hualien were limited to visits home at the Lunar New Year and Tomb Sweeping Day.
Reopening doors into the past
After flourishing for many years, the Ruiwudan Theater also met the fate of its kind, declining in popularity in proportion to the rise of television in the 1970s, until it finally ceased operations altogether at the Lunar New Year in 1989. Chen happened to be back home for a holiday visit, and he recalls: “That was an extraordinary day. My grandfather called me to go down to the theater and together we closed the doors for the last time.” Still a child, Chen could not quite grasp why his elders were so sad. But as Chen recounts this memory now, his hand unconsciously gestures toward the staircase and his eyes redden.
In 2014, Chen returned to his hometown to reopen those very same theater doors. He remembers realizing that the place he had taken for granted as “home” during his childhood was actually a precious piece of the community’s cultural heritage: the local theater. If he did not get to work, the community would lose it, and his childhood playground would disappear.
The first film shown for the reopening of the Ruiwudan Theater was the 1961 Taiwanese-language classic The Fantasy of Deer Warrior. Since then, Chen has returned from Kaohsiung once a month to show a flick at the venue. In September of 2015, much to his astonishment, the place was packed for the premiere of Wawa No Cidal. Chen was delighted by the return of such a crowd to the old theater and felt that he had done his duty not to let down his grandfather. Ironically, however, his joy was succeeded only a second later by worry over whether the old structure would hold up under the weight of all those people! Fortunately it proved to be sturdy still.
Chen, who today is still fighting his fight alone without any outside help, feels satisfied by even the small audiences who come for the monthly showings. He is not interested in casual tourists—he once turned away a large group of passing bicyclists who just wanted to pop in for selfies and to check in on Facebook—but is happy to invest time in people who are genuinely interested. Each time before starting the film, he personally goes on stage to thank the audience for coming, and even invites people to step out into the lobby where he will tell them stories of the old days at the Ruiwudan. In his view, the only way to really experience the mood of an old theater is to take things slow and linger over each moment.
Local theaters are an endangered species in these times. But there are still a few people who, with admirable if foolhardy determination, are preserving these shadows of the past for today’s society, so that we too can have the chance to see and experience these elegant spaces, and relive, however briefly, the ambience of an era gone by. Stories that have long been collecting dust can be retold, allowing us to see theaters as something more than conventional red carpets and high-tech Dolby sound systems—as places where there were warm and embracing rows of wooden seats and where the air was filled with the sounds of laughter shared by an entire little community all together.