Taichung 台中 is a rather odd example of the process of urban decay – most cities seem to rot from the outside in, with the majority of derelictions haunting the city’s outskirts, while the center enjoys somewhat constant development keeping it looking nice and modern. Not so in this city’s case – Taichung has decayed from the inside out, with the downtown core area adjacent the main station housing the most abandonments I’ve ever seen in such a populated location. The reason for this seems to be primarily down to a case of the city government concentrating it’s efforts on utterly relentless expansion of the city’s outer zones, at the cost of ignoring the neglected central district which is in dire need of renewal.
From a historical standpoint this is a real shame, as there are some beautiful Japanese colonial era buildings occupying the heart of the city that are now crumbling away steadily – a noteworthy example of which, is the Tiānwàitiān Theater – an immense, hulking complex a mere stones throw from Taichung Main Station that once served as a beacon of culture and the arts, but now stands partially hidden amongst newer structures, at the end of a small street.
The building was first commissioned as a private theater by Wú Luánqí 吳鸞旂, a prominent member of the local gentry. This initial construction was completed in 1919, and was much less imposing than the current design – this article includes a photograph of the front facade from this early period in it’s history. Luánqí died in 1922, just 3 years later, and ownership passed to his son Wú Ziyú 吳子瑜, who it appears inherited his father’s cultured tastes; frequently attending the opera and becoming a member of the ‘Lishe 櫟社 Society’ – an exclusive local organisation dedicated to poetry, which underwent something of a resurgence during the Japanese occupational period.
A (possibly apocryphal) story, widely circulated in articles about this theater, suggests that it was actually an act of pettiness that led to it’s comprehensive expansion, and eventual opening to the general public. Supposedly Ziyú was watching a performance at the nearby ‘Le Stage 樂舞台’ Theater (demolished in 1990), which made use of long benches for all audience seating. The story goes that he got up to go to the bathroom, and upon his return found another man in his seat. Ziyú protested and the man refused to move, saying something to the effect of: “I don’t see your name on it”. Apparently, then seething with rage, Ziyú stormed out and vowed to open his own theater with his name engraved on every seat as a ‘totally-not-over-the-top’ act of revenge.
To enlarge his current private theater and make it suitable for the general public, He enlisted the skills of Japanese architect Saito Chen Jiro 齋藤辰次郎, who designed the expansion in the Imperial Crown 帝冠様式 style – which combines Japanese and classical European influences – that was heavily in fashion at the time. Tiānwàitiān’s very Byzantine-esque overhaul was completed in 1936, and is very reminiscent of the Judicial Yuan Building 司法大廈 in Taipei, which predates it by a couple of years. Ziyú installed iron chairs rather than benches, and made good on his promise, stamping the back of each with his name (which seems to be in the form of a family crest). You can see some excellent drawings of these and other interiors from the theater in this article.
Tiānwàitiān served as a mixed use theater, showcasing theatric and operatic performances (Wú Ziyú was reportedly a huge fan of Peking Opera 京劇) alongside movies on the 1st floor (that’s the 2nd floor for US and Asian readers). The Ground floor housed the ticket booths which were incoporated into the entrance porch and presumably the refreshments area and stores that were said to have been present, while the 3rd floor was where the Lishe Society originally convened, although they reportedly disbanded in 1949 so I’m unsure of it’s purpose after this occurred – storage would be my best guess.
It seems that within the Lishe Society, there was an undercurrent of anti-Japanese sentiment that manifested itself during WWII. When showing silent movies, ordinarily there would be a ‘Piān-sū 辯士’ narrating live in Japanese to encourage the spread of the language (which few Taiwanese could understand), however Tiānwàitiān instead, opted to narrate in Taiwanese as a small act of subversion. Another, less subtle show of defiance came when, instead of painting the roof, the mandated camouflage colours as a measure against allied bombers, Ziyu instead painted it bright Red, which apparently caused quite an outrage locally and further illustrates something of his stubborn character.
The next stage in the Theater’s history is somewhat murky and I can find nowhere near as much information, but shortly after the War, it appears Ziyu sold it in order to finance the reconstruction of the bomb damaged Mei Yashiki 梅屋敷 ‘Plum House’ in Taipei, in which his acquaintance Sun Yat-Sen 孫逸仙 had stayed previously, to serve as a memorial of sorts. Tiānwàitiān changed names (presumably to reflect the change in ownership) to ‘The International Theater 國際戲院’ and began to focus primarily on cinema, as interest in opera and theatrical performances waned. This lasted until 1974, when, after years of gradual decline (potentially due to the rise of home-media consumption), the theater closed down and assumed varying business guises in it’s later years, including an ice production facility, refrigerated seafood storage, a parking lot, and even a pigeon loft.
The building has lain dormant, since around 2012 however, and with it emerging soon after, that the current owner had plans for demolition (in fact judging by the state of much of the theater he may well have already started the process), momentum has been steadily gaining with regards to preservation efforts, as many locals feel justifiably outraged that yet another piece of cultural heritage was soon to disappear, A documentary has even been produced, highlighting the theater’s plight. Currently the building appears to be very much in limbo, as it has yet to be granted culturally important status, but demolition can’t proceed until assessments have been completed to determine whether there is any aspect of the building that can be seen as having enough cultural ‘value’ to save it from it’s fate.
It’s not often you get a tour of a place like this, but that actually sort of happened here! I was wandering around the exterior taking a few photographs, when an elderly woman came out of one of the neighbouring apartments – at first I thought she was going to tell me to get lost, but she started talking quickly at me, gesturing towards the theater and motioning with her hands – flat palms and arms outstretched in the way you do to indicate something huge. I tried to follow what she was saying but my Chinese leaves a heck of a lot to be desired. I guessed she was saying it was once the largest/most grand theater in Taiwan and tried to say as much. She nodded enthusiastically before beckoning me to follow her. She led me back round to the front of the building, then proceeded to bypass the construction fencing surrounding it, before leading me upstairs into the cavernous hall which would have housed the main stage.
She evidently derived a lot of pleasure from seeing my jaw drop – the scale of the circular room is very impressive, as light floods in through the skeletal framework which is all that remains of the iconic domed ceiling that’s nearly 20m wide – the high noon sun casting a spiderweb of shadow on the floor. The walls are covered in peeling black paint that has gotten several shades lighter over the years as the exposure has gradually bleached it, and you really get a sense of how grand it must once have been. The lady smiled at my reaction and I thanked her profusely after she gestured that she was leaving me to it. She seemed incredibly proud of the building, even in it’s dilapidated state and I guess she had come here when it was actually open and had some fond memories of the place.
The sheer heat in this open-air space is intense and before long I was pretty much soaked in sweat so elected to make my way through to the corridor outside and see what else there was to be found. There were a few rooms adjoining circular corridor that runs just outside the main theater space, but none contained much of interest bar an old AC system that I imagine was used by one of the later tenants after the theater’s closure, and some large bulbs that look they were possibly used for a projector or stage lighting, but given the length of time since it was sold, I find it pretty unlikely that they’ve managed to remain in the building for that long.
The place has been effectively stripped, most of the detritus left is from the modifications made by subsequent owners and the partial demolition that has had to be halted, however I did find some rather interesting graffiti on one of the walls – which seems to take the form of a kind of poetic love letter, with different sections seemingly written at different times, dating from 1970/71 (if the dates scrawled into the wall are to be believed). I’m unsure whether it’s actually sincere or is some kind of romanticised idea that someone thought it’d be poignant to write, given the poetic society that once inhabited this place. – I’m leaning towards the latter.
From the roof you get a view with direct line-of-sight towards Taichung Main Station through the crenellations, and the owner’s plans to demolish and sell the land for construction make sense when you consider what the location must be worth, but far too many of Taiwan’s historical buildings have already been leveled for the sake of ‘progress’ so I’m hoping that the Taichung city government will look inwards to the city centre and possibly arrange to buy the theater from the current owner and give it the renovations it desperately needs. I’m sure the money’s there.