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

Jhen Chen, right, of the Lin family dances with a partner at the Xiluo Theater in the early 1950s.

The following piece appeared in today’s News Lens

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.

Read the full article here.

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