The Supreme Administrative Court on Thursday upheld the heritage status of an old movie theater in Changhua County, ending a three-year legal battle between the county’s Cultural Affairs Bureau and the Peitou Township Office, which had sought to build on the site.
“Although Peitou (北斗) is a historied township, the town’s former class 3 heritage site, the Tienan Temple, was demolished. If the old theater was also demolished, the culture, history and shared memory of Peitou residents would utterly vanish,” the court said in its ruling.
The Far Eastern Theater is 65 years old and was built on land that was once the private gardens of a clan of local gentry surnamed Hsu (許).
Photo courtesy of the Peitou Township Office
Hsu Tsung-lung (許從龍) built the township’s private academy, the Magpie House (鵲館), in the ancestral garden after passing Qing imperial exams as a xiucai (秀才) civil servant. It played an important role in educating local elites.
In 1895, Prince Kitashirakawa Yoshihisa quartered Japanese troops at Magpie House during the First Sino-Japanese War, turning the academy into the seat of the regional colonial government.
After World War II, Magpie House became a township memorial park and the township office built the Far Eastern Theater on the site in 1956. The project was 20 percent funded by the township and the remainder was funded by private investors.
For a time, the Far Eastern Theater was the only cinema in the county, but closed its doors in 1997 due to a decline in the movie theater industry.
In response to the township’s plan to knock down the theater for redevelopment, locals in 2014 applied for the site to be awarded heritage status, which the bureau granted two years later.
Disagreeing with the bureau’s decision, the Peitou Township Office that year filed an administrative lawsuit and gathered 10,000 signatures for a petition against the theater’s preservation.
During the first trial, the High Administrative Court ruled against the township and the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed the township’s appeal during the second trial.
The township filed its last appeal in February.
In court documents, the township said that a fire had destroyed much of the theater’s interior and there is nothing special about it, as it is a concrete-and-pebble-finish structure.
The Hsu garden and academy no longer exist. Had they survived, the privately owned structures were not connected to prominent historical figures and therefore held no special significance, it said.
The Supreme Administrative Court rejected the township’s appeal, saying that it had failed to support its arguments with testimony from academics.
The courts had already stated the reasons for ruling against the township, and it did not present new factual or legal issues at the third trial, it said.
Although the Qing Dynasty estate no longer exists, the preservation of the theater as a heritage site would enable county authorities to commemorate its historical relevance, the court said.
Peitou Township Mayor Yang Li-hsiang (楊麗香) said the township has to accept the court’s judgement and the responsibility of utilizing the site now falls on the county government.
“There are no winners or losers in cultural heritage preservation,” bureau director Chou Fu-i (周馥儀) said.
The bureau is to begin deliberations on how to refurbish the theater. Options include an arts and culture center or a theater for elderly people, she said, adding that the bureau will involve the local community fully before making a decision.
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