FEATURE: Small Town Taiwan to Hollywood: Xiluo Theater and the Lin Family Odyssey

Credit: Jhen Chen
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An abandoned Japanese-era theater has a curious connection to the global film industry.

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By Taiwanese standards, the small town of Xiluo (西螺) in Yunlin County (雲林縣) is brimful of attractions.

Bestriding the Zhuoshui River (濁水溪), Taiwan's longest waterway, there's the Xiluo Bridge, which was second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in length when completed in 1953.

Then there's the soy sauce. Towns across Taiwan lay feeble claims to being the center of some bog-standard foodstuff, and foodstuffs in Taiwan don't come much more bog-standard than soy sauce. Yet, Xiluo has a genuine claim to being the preeminent soy town. Interestingly, while the history of the condiment dates back millennia in China, it wasn't really a thing in Taiwan until Koxinga brought it over when he sent the Dutch packing in 1662 – or so the story goes.

Xiluo's soy industry began in earnest with the establishment of the Wanzhuang Soy Sauce (丸莊醬油) factory at the beginning at of 20th century.

Offering daily tours, the factory is a top draw with visitors to Yanping Old Street (延平老街), Xiluo's main drag. The history here extends way beyond the culinary. There are old streets all over Taiwan, many of them just streets that are old, but Yanping is a cut above. The street hosts some of Taiwan's best-preserved Japanese colonial-era buildings, featuring architecture that has alternatively been described as Baroque or, “ancient Chinese art decor [sic]."

The former claim is just about tenable, the latter utterly spurious.

Following an earthquake in 1935 that all but leveled the town, some of the buildings were reconstructed with a flair and individuality that certainly transcends the generic term “colonial.” It helped that the reconstruction coincided with a boom period for the region, which saw some of Taiwan's landed gentry keen to stand out from the hoi-polloi.

A blend of influences can be seen in the archways, windows and swirling adornments that frame the facades. Yet any suggestion that these designs were examples of a unified movement pangs of the kind of the Sinocentric revisionist nonsense that is, alas, all too common in descriptions of heritage sites in Taiwan. It is true that a contemporaneous Art Deco movement was occurring in China, but there is no evidence that these developments had any impact on aesthetic considerations in Taiwan. Nor were they likely to with the colonial government footing part of the bill for the repairs.

For abandoned-space aficionados, the town's piece de resistance is the Xiluo Theater a few blocks east of the old street, tucked away on Guanyin St, just behind the touristy East Market. The information board out front – and pretty much every online description that has lifted from it verbatim – also describes the building as Baroque. The upper portion of the facade – an undulating trapezoid in green stucco – might justifiably be identified as such. Yet unlike some of the shop fronts on Yanping, there is little in the way of the grandiosity that one associates with the style. A florid, sandy gold motif perched above a set of shuttered windows, which are framed with the same hue and texture, is about as ornate as the embellishment gets. The rigid brick columns below are certainly of another order.

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Credit: James Baron
The front of the Xiluo Theater as it stands today.

Whatever label this slightly jarring fusion of influences is given, the theater is undeniably charismatic. Down at heel, yet defiant, it mutters historical half-truths like a disheveled old raconteur. As you enter through an inharmonious sliding accordion gate, black and white photos of the town and the theater in various states of repair greet you, some of them plastered across what used to be the box office window.

Group snaps of local bigwigs and dignitaries also feature. In one we see a commemorative event for Xiluo's mayors past and present; another shows a handsome, well-to-do family dressed in Western attire – the women wearing floppy bonnets and overcoats with fur trimmings, the men sporting tailor-made, double-breasted suits and ties. Two boys in button-up, mandarin-collared jackets add an element of incongruity to the image. Elsewhere, row after row of former residents appear, clad in kimonos, military attire and shabby, full-length changshans (traditional Chinese dress for men). The heterogeneity of the attire is a testament to the melting pot of influences that colonial Taiwan had become.

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Credit: James Baron
Historical photos of the theater and various other locations from around Xiluo can be found at the entrance.

On the other side of the cramped foyer above the entrance to the theater proper, posters of old films are set in a display that is tilted forward in a manner typical of Chinese calligraphy plaques. Moving into the auditorium, one discovers dust-covered wooden folding seats extending in two rows from the stage, fractured into splinters in sections. A narrow aisle runs down the middle. Most of the original wooden structure – described as Chinese cypress – remains intact, though the exposed roof truss has been shored up with steel beams which support corrugated iron paneling. Punctured in places, this ugly, presumably stop-gap, covering lets in bursts of light that refract in the stippled dust.

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Credit: James Baron
Beams of light refract over the dust-strewn wooden seating.

The stage is in a sorry state, covered in a layer of sediment, with lengths of wood strewn willy-nilly. Downstage left, there are no longer any boards to tread, a jagged sinkhole having ingested a sizeable portion of the surface. Along the back wall, a gray sheet flaps in the light breeze, torn around the opening of a large paneless window, which looks out onto a tangle of undergrowth. In the wings on both sides, staircases leading to small, railed balconies are masked from the audience by narrow walls running from the floor all the way up to the beams of the naked truss. The doors off to the side of these presumably lead to what were once green rooms.

theatre9
Credit: James Baron
The stage is in a state of ruinous disrepair.

A smaller, wooden theater had apparently stood on this site from the 1920s, but the current edifice dates to 1940. Hosting plays, Chinese opera, puppetry and films, the theater drew packed houses of up to a thousand people, supposedly earning it the name the “Ximending of Xiluo.” Given its current decrepitude, it's hard to imagine those glory days, when some of the leading lights of the era appeared on stage, screen and, not infrequently, in the audience, but one gets an idea through films such as Chang Chi-yung's drama Lament of the Sand River (沙河悲歌) to which the building lent an element of period authenticity.

Overhanging the final quarter of the room, toward the entrance, a balustraded mezzanine provides extra seating. The front row of this dress circle would surely have offered the best seats in the house. Like the stage, the flooring here is precarious, but for the sure-footed, a treat lurks at the back where a pair of clunky projectors stand amid piles of old film reel.

The frames of one reel in particular catch the eye. On closer inspection, one discerns the squinting, rather tired-looking visage of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正). The Generalissimo is doffing his cap, his lips pursed somewhere between a smirk and a gurn – an expression forced on his face by his dentures – and standing in front of a set of microphones. He appears poised to address an adoring audience.

Below the image is a subtitle with words that loosely translate as “one heart, one soul” (一心一德). It's the concluding line from the Republic of China's national anthem. The song and the accompanying images of Chiang were screened before every show in Taiwan. Chiang was shown in various attitudes: assiduously occupied with official documents at his desk, casting a keen eye over military parades from the vantage of horseback, saluting to unseen subordinates – beatifically avuncular all the while.

One wonders how this requirement went down with audiences, particularly in this part of the country where Taiwan's separateness and difference from China were and continue to be most acutely felt.

While there was no official requirement to sing along, the “national anthem” was played in Mandarin. The movies, on the other hand, were almost exclusively in the Southern Min language (Minnan, 閩南) – commonly referred to as Taiwanese. Brought to the island by settlers from China's Fujian province in the late 17th century, this tongue had survived concerted Japanese attempts at extirpation. By the 1950s, it was under renewed attack by the Nationalist (KMT) government at least in official settings. Schoolchildren were beaten, humiliated and eventually fined for using Minnan or Hakka (the other major Chinese language of Taiwan), not to mention the “barbarous” Austronesian tongues of Taiwan's indigenous people, and non-Mandarin languages were officially banned from the education system in 1964.

A steady stifling of the Minnan voice in media, television and music ensued, yet many forms entertainment escaped relatively unscathed until the 1970s. In the end, it was more a deliberate lack of support for this first generation of Minnan-language films that sped the fledgling industry's demise. Of course, there was censorship for any productions deemed to contain seditious content and the definition of this could be completely arbitrary.

However, by a strange confluence of events, the KMT's defeat in the Chinese Civil War and subsequent flight to Taiwan actually indirectly contributed to the emergence of a Minnan-language film industry.

Perhaps with a foreboding of what would become of the performing arts in general and, more particularly local dialect ensembles, under the newly established People's Republic of China, Fujianese opera troupes began relocating to Hong Kong in the late 1940s. With speakers of the various Minnan dialects scattered throughout Southeast Asia, Hong Kong directors were quick to see the potential for an industry catering to the diaspora.

Although the dialogue was spoken in the Amoy and Quanzhou-dialects, which despite their high degree of mutual intelligibility with Taiwanese, were easily recognizable as “foreign,” the films were marketed as “Taiwanese-dialect” productions by local distributors. With no wool pulled over them, all eyes were fully focused on these offerings, allowing them to dominate the nascent movie industry in Taiwan.

By the mid-1950s, the locals were muscling in -- most of the directors of this early period were Chinese émigrés who often didn't even understand the language of the films they were shooting, Taiwan-born directors and producers were soon cutting their teeth. In most cases, they had to learn on the job, making these early forays steadfastly formulaic. Melodramas were the order of the day and acting often consisted of little more than delivering lines in front of the camera. (To be fair, if one were to go on the average local TV soap opera these days, things don't appear to have progressed all that much.)

One such example was the 1957 feature "Xiluo Bridge" (大橋情淚), which starred Hong Ming-li (洪明麗), a leading light of Minnan-language cinema right up to the end of its golden age in the early 1970s when television and Mandarin-language productions took their toll. Interestingly, two decades after her last notable appearance, Hong's on screen relationship with Xiluo was rekindled in the 2009 comedy "Step by Step" (練戀舞), which used the old town as its backdrop. The surprise hit featured several other veteran actors and came on the back of a resurgence in local cinema credited to the phenomenal success of "Cape No. 7" the previous year.

1952年大橋落成
Credit: Jhen Chen
Celebrating the completion of 'Xiluo Bridge' with a performance at the Xiluo Theater.

As for "Xiluo Bridge", with even the Chinese Taipei Film Archive unable to shed any light on the production and no copy of the film extant, many of the specifics of the film have been lost to time. What we do know is that it was written and directed by Lin Huo-ming (林火明), a member of the Lin Guanghe (林廣合) clan, who built and ran the theater in its pomp. The name and fortunes of this family have been inextricably bound to those of the town they played no small part in helping to develop following the arrival of the first Lin from Chaozhou Prefecture in China's Guangdong Province in the early 18th century.

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Credit: Jhen Chen
Constructed in 1938, this was the old Lin clan's residence.

Jacks of several trades and masters of more than a few, the first Lins practiced medicine and agriculture, successfully transplanting to Taiwan the citrus fruit business they had established in China. By 1770, they were operating a grocery trade under the name Guanghe (廣合) based out of a store on Yanping Old Street (then Xiluo Street). Literally translating as “wide cooperation,” and incorporating a character from the name of its founder Lin Quan-he (林泉合), the name was prescient. During the colonial period, the business expanded into an international firm with branches in Hong Kong and Shanghai selling everything from groceries to vehicles. Old newspaper ads from the era show the company offering Harley-Davidson and Indian brand motorbikes, and the firm's interests included a brown sugar factory at the indigenous settlement of Alapawan (阿拉巴灣) in Donghe (東河) Township in coastal Taitung County (台東縣).

These days, the old Lin shop is identified by the lettering that spans the breadth of the balustrade above the storefront. In the manner of many a sign designed to evince class through the use of foreign script, the missing letters, which lend the rails the aspect of a gap-toothed grin, are likely detected only by the symmetrically inclined or linguistically curious history nerds. The original display read RINKIŌGŌSHAUKŌ, a curious romanization of the Japanese name for Guanghe Shanghao (廣合商號) – the Guanghe Store.

Over the course of the 20th century, reputable scions of the Lin clan occupied positions in medicine, academia and business. Indeed, scarcely any sphere of local life remained untouched by their influence, politics included. During the Japanese era, Lin De-xian (林徳賢) served as mayor of Yunlin County, while in the postwar period, Lin Heng-sheng (林恒生) was twice elected a county chief. Meanwhile, one of the Lin sons married the sister of Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), the independence activist, exile and, latterly, presidential candidate (though she remarried after this Lin passed away).

As trailblazing as they were, the Lin's film-making exploits might thus be regarded as a side note to the more illustrious achievements in the family history. However, these forays into cinema do provide a curious link to the present through perhaps the most successful in a long line of achievers.

An award-winning Hollywood producer, who has enjoyed success with "The Lego Movie" franchise and the horror flick It, Dan Lin is surprised when I contact him through his eponymous production company Lin Pictures.

“You're quite the sleuth,” he writes in response to my first email.

Not really, I explain. The clue was there for all to see on one of the signboards on Yanping. Dan Lin, we are told, is a prominent producer whose credits include the intriguingly titled "Gandster Squad". I simply went from there, with a slight tweak in spelling for the search engine.

A graduate of Harvard Business School, Lin cut his teeth during an eight-year stint with Warner Brothers, working with directors such as Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone. Striking out solo from 2008, Lin oversaw production on the "Sherlock Holmes" films starring Robert Downey Jr. before helming the Lego franchise. Upcoming projects include a live-action musical version of "Aladdin" starring Will Smith.

Lin was born in Taipei but emigrated to the United States with his family when his father decided to pursue a master's degree. Although he does not directly cite Taiwan's repressive political climate as factor in his branch of the family's departure, Lin references the relationship to Peng Ming-min, who fled Taiwan for the U.S. via Sweden in 1970. “Most of the family was emigrating to the U.S. at the time in the mid-1970s,” he adds.

Having grown up in Connecticut, Lin attended boarding school in New Hampshire while the rest of his immediate family moved to Hong Kong as his father pursued a career as an executive at Kraft Foods. Lin would visit the family in Hong Kong for extended stays during school vacations. This rather challenging background has contributed in part to the kinds of projects Lin has chosen to take on.

“I wanted to produce 'It' because it's a coming of age story,” Lin says. “This is my first horror movie and I'm not usually a fan of horror. But I loved the 'Losers Club' aspect of the story. I was a nerd in middle and high school and can relate to those kids. I love the message of these kids having to bond and come together to overcome a source of villainy in this world.”

Lin maintains an apartment in Taipei and tries to get back once a year with his wife, who is also Taiwanese-American, and two children. He feels it is important for them to know their heritage and believes it has played a part in his own success. “I think my Taiwanese background has influenced me in its values of family and hard work,” he says. “I love spending time with my family and many of my movies address the theme of family ties. Also because I am an outsider in Hollywood, I felt that I always had to work harder and be smarter to gain entry to the U.S. entertainment market.”

It is this mindset that has inspired Lin's involvement in initiatives such as the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) and the Center for Asian American Media, both of which advocate for increased representation of Asian Americans in entertainment. “I'm involved in board positions in organizations such as CAPE because I feel it's important to help support the next generation of Asian Americans in entertainment,” he says. “We are still under-represented both at the creator level and in front of the camera. There are still so many great stories to tell and from a different point of view. So now that I am in a position of influencing culture, I try to help create a path for this generation of Asian American storytellers.”

Despite his emphasis on heritage and family ties, it is apparent that Lin’s side of the family is no longer particularly close to its roots in Xiluo. When it comes to the old theater and the family history in the town, we draw a blank. “Unfortunately, my father doesn't have much information,” he tells me. “This was the generation before his generation.” He promises to get back to me with anything his dad can dig up, but nothing emerges.

林德友林振聲叔侄
Credit: Jhen Chen
Lin De-you (林德友) and Dr Lin Zhen-sheng (林振聲).

If the Hollywood executive has become somewhat detached from the Lin clan's origins, other older relatives retain stronger ties to the golden era in Xiluo. Dan's aunt Jhen Chen (陳真智), whose maternal grandfather Lin Zhen-sheng (林振聲) was the most prominent of several physicians in the family, has clear memories of the theater as a vibrant focal point of life in the town. She stresses that the building was much more than just an entertainment venue in its heyday. “It functioned as a kind of community center,” Chen says.

Some of the pivotal moments of her life are bound up with the old building. “Among my fondest memories is being taken hand-in-hand by grandfather as a little girl to see all the shows at the theater,” she says. These recollections were made all the more poignant as Chen had lost her father when she was just three years old. Dr. Chen Mao-qi (陳茂琪) had been aboard the Shinsei Maru, a Japanese cargo ship that was sunk outside Saigon by the United States Third Fleet as part of Operation Gratitude in January 1945. Dr. Chen was one of 247 Taiwanese, 41 of them doctors, onboard the ship. An exhibition dedicated to those who lost their lives in this incident can be found at Wufeng Story House (霧峰民生故事館) in Taichung County (台中縣).

Later, Jhen Chen remembers being selected to present a bouquet of flowers to government officials presiding over the opening ceremony of the new Xiluo Bridge, which was held at the theater, and she also took part in dance performances and piano recitals there. In fact, it was at one such event that she first met her future husband. “We were both kids performing at the theater,” she says. “Years later, I bumped into him while we were students at National Chung Hsing University (國立中興大學) in Taichung. “We immediately recognized each other, and the rest is history!”

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Credit: Jhen Chen
Jhen Chen (right) dances on stage at the Xiluo Theater.

As for the theater itself, it's future remains uncertain. Falling into disuse after 1980, it was finally registered as a heritage site in 2001. The building and the land on which it stands remain in the Lin family's hands, though divided between various members. In recent years, there has been frequent speculation that it will be sold, with the family reported to have commissioned brokers to seek a buyer. An asking price of more than NT$36 million (US$1.23 million) has apparently been an obstacle, though some developers have reportedly shown interest in revitalizing the building as a cultural center or multipurpose venue.

Whatever use the building is put to, it now seems certain that it will be protected and restored in an appropriate manner. In addition to its official status as a historic legacy, it is also covered by an ad hoc rehabilitation and reuse program established by the county government. As a storied relic of a bygone age, and one of the finest examples of colonial era architecture in Taiwan, this is the least the building deserves.

Read next: FEATURE: Taiwanese Rediscovering their History in the Streets of Taipei

Editor: TNL Staff

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