This morning we got our hands on a screener of The Lost Arcade, showing today at 12:45 p.m. as part of the Doc NYC Festival. Yup, it’s super short notice, but having just finished watching the documentary about the rise and fall of Chinatown Fair, it’s our duty to implore you to get over to IFC Center for the screening.
The Lost Arcade, directed by Kurt Vincent and produced by Irene Chin, recounts the Mott Street gaming center’s history, from its start in 1944 as a penny arcade below the swank Port Arthur Chinese restaurant to its closing in 2011 to its lackluster reopening.
During the late ’70s and early ’80s, CF struggled to compete with Times Square arcades like Playland (Gem Spa, in the East Village, also had an arcade until the late ’90s) and in 1982, it was put up for sale. That’s when Sam Palmer, a Pakistani entrepreneur, decided to buy it after having a dream about a store spitting money onto the street.
Palmer didn’t even know what video games were when he had the vision. “I never knew that people put money in and they play the game,” he tells the camera.
But after taking over the business, he became a father figure for some of the city kids who flocked to it. One of them, Henry Cen, began coming to CF when he was nine and eventually scored a job there, first sweeping the floors and then becoming a manager. Another employee, Akuma Hokura, was homeless, having run away from a foster home, when Palmer took him under his wing.
The two (Cen is Chinese, Hokura is black) represent the diverse range of people who gravitated to the arcade, even at a time when the neighborhood was sketchy. “If you were not Chinese and not in Chinatown Fair,” says another employee, “You were targeted by every gang in Chinatown.”
But CF was a community – or, more accurately, a group of communities that included the rhythm gamers, shooters, racers, and fighters.
The fighters began flocking to CF in earnest after the Times Square arcades closed due to the prevalence of home video consoles and unsustainable rents (not as much of an issue in Chinatown, where rent remained cheap). Eventually, the arcade earned a reputation. “Chinatown Fair had this rumor go around that, like, the best players play at Chinatown,” Cen says. “But then, of course, the best players play at Chinatown because there’s no other arcade to play at. But then people would start coming down and they would start seeing it was true.”
But, wait. We’re forgetting the other thing that made CF famous. Florence the dancing chicken, a live chicken that was “trained in the Pavlovian manner” to dance inside of a display case. The tic-tac-toe-playing chicken even made it onto Letterman. (Rest assured, there’s lots of fun footage of this; it’s not an urban legend, people.) Of course, times changed, and animal activists eventually saw to it that the chicken was relocated to a farm upstate.
Chinatown Fair’s regulars would eventually face relocation as well. Cen did his best to keep the business going; when Capcom announced that it wasn’t bothering to release an arcade version of the latest Street Fighter, Cen built a custom cabinet for the game and people lined up for the opportunity to play it eight months before its home release. But such ingenuity could only do so much. Eventually, Palmer decided to close the business.
The story has a bittersweet denouement. Cen opens another arcade, Next Level, in Brooklyn, and a new owner, Lonnie Sobel, reboots Chinatown Fair as a more “family friendly” place. But with its emphasis on streaming, the slicker Next Level isn’t what Chinatown Fair was. “It’s not a family fun center,” Cen admits. “You’re not here to get tickets and laugh and spend time with the family; you’re here to train and get better, you’re here for competition.”
Nor is the new Chinatown Fair what Chinatown Fair was. You can see the sadness and anger on Hokura’s face when he comes back for a visit and finds his old stomping grounds—his home, really—stocked with Wheel of Fortune-type games. “You used to come for competition, to face some of the best players in New York City,” he laments. “And now you come here and you spin to win.”
Needless to say, the Coney Island-esque business model doesn’t play well in Chinatown, and six months after opening Sobel is hurting.
But not everyone minds the cleaner, safer reincarnation. “Sure, I would like to see some of the old people that used to come here, but that’s not the reality,” says one patron. “If you really think about it, there’s no drama here, there’s no arguing about boyfriends or stupid stuff or what happened at this party.”
Clearly, we’re meant to see Chinatown Fair’s history as a microcosm of New York gentrification. Do we prefer the diverse, rough-around-the-edges, somewhat dangerous New York where community thrived or the safe, clean, cookie-cutter New York where everyone waits for a brunch table while looking at their phones?
It’s well worth catching the screening at IFC and then walking down to Chinatown Fair to ponder that question.
“Chinatown Fair,” Nov 18., 12:45pm, at IFC Center, 323 6th Ave., West Village; tickets $17.