Tonight, a new documentary about the life and death of a legendary Lower East Side arcade, Chinatown Fair, will be screened at The Metrograph, kicking off The Lost Arcade‘s first theatrical run. We first told you about the film– the passion project of Kurt Vincent (director) and Irene Chin (producer) who raised money through a Kickstarter campaign– when it premiered at the NYC DOC festival last fall. To celebrate the theatrical arrival of The Lost Arcade, we’ve got exclusives from the filmmakers: a clip from the doc (see above) and shots taken inside the otherworldly Chinatown Fair by photographer Chris Bernabeo.
It’s certainly worthy of the beloved arcade it portrays, but the film goes well beyond being a story about gamer nostalgia– in fact, The Lost Arcade has just as much to say about the changing shape of New York City, and how the corporations and wealthy newcomers inheriting the once-gritty streets are squashing the chaotic heap of humanity and noise that made this city great in the first place.
You might be thinking– wait a minute, “lost” arcade? But Chinatown Fair is still open, right? Well, yes and no. If you’ve somehow got a dark spot on your brain casting a shadow over the last few years, then perhaps you’ve forgotten that the original Chinatown Fair closed in early 2011 over a “rent dispute.” Or maybe you were one of those loyal regulars, still traumatized from the somewhat unexpected closure of your hangout spot, and you’ve simply blocked it all out. Whatever the case, Chinatown Fair as it once was– the last great old-school arcade celebrated in The Lost Arcade– is no more.
Opened in the 1940s as a subterranean penny arcade below a Chinese restaurant, Chinatown Fair somehow made it through the ’60s, (when, presumably kids were too busy taking LSD and making revolution to bother with games) and even survived through the ’80s, when Space Invader and Atari led the home video game explosion.
For a long time, the Lower East Side arcade was a relic to bygone pastimes– as the rickety old signage indicates, tic-tac-toe playing chickens were actually, no lie, a form of entertainment at the Fair from the very beginning. Anyone who managed to beat the chicken (a rare occurrence) won a bag full of fortune cookies. Amazingly, you could compete against a chicken in a game of x-x-o until the early ’90s, when the last hen retired (no, really– the Times said so).
Henry Cen (who’s featured in the doc) was a Lower East Side local who grew up playing games in Chinatown Fair after school and eventually became a manager at the arcade. After its closing, Cen went on to open an arcade of his own called Next Level in Sunset Park. But let’s be real– South Brooklyn ain’t the Lower East Side.
However, as you’ll see in The Lost Arcade, nothing was quite as disappointing as the reopening of Chinatown Fair under new ownership. After the OG arcade closed in 2011, the original owners gutted the place and skedaddled. A little more than a year later, in summer 2012, a game-operator industry veteran of 40 years from Jersey City named Lonnie Sobel opened a brand new “arcade” under the same name and all. Chinatown Fair was back, or so it seemed.
However, regulars found the place unrecognizable. The Verge covered the disappointing grand reopening in 2012, which they said “vaguely resembled a funeral.” The article quotes a “veteran” Chinatown Fair patron, who declared amidst a crowd of pissed off regulars: “They should have let it stay dead.”
Sobel’s crimes? No more coin-drops, he’d installed swipe-card only access. No more old school games like Street Fighter, instead Cen’s picks included family-friendly “carnival style redemption games” e.g., those stupid crane machines that never let you win ever. According to old timers, the rebirth was a total and utter failure and a boring way for Sobel to rake in the cash. (The new subtitle, “family fun center” should have given it away.) The ticket-prizes and stupid games were terrible enough, but perhaps the worst of the new arrivals was an Xbox.
Sobel reportedly said that the old games were out because “they don’t make any money.” He’d probably have made more friends if he’d strangled a baby with a Nintendo chord. But the Chinatown Fair 2.0 is still around and Sobel eventually conceded and bought a few old-school games like Centipede and Donkey Kong. So there’s that.
On the surface, Chinatown Fair looks pretty gritty and old-school– our photo shoot with the Brooklyn electro-punk duo, Love Spread, attests to that. But spend more than a few minutes there and you’ll understand why looks can be deceiving.
As The Lost Arcade demonstrates, the dwindling arcade scene, which is now “on the edge of extinction” not only means a decline in real-cool times, but the loss of important social centers. Chinatown Fair especially, located smack dab in the middle of an incredibly diverse neighborhood, with immigrants and people from all over, truly needed a zone where kids of all backgrounds could be kids. Arcades like this one, where the fun was cheap and abundant, acted as the great equalizer. Rich kids and poor kids could afford the same thing, except maybe the former could spring for a few more goes on those $1 racing games.
Old school video games can be intensely social activities, and to play them actually requires you to get out of the house and away from the TV (albeit in front of another screen). As the various arcade old timers explain in the film– Chinatown Fair was the perfect place to meet up with friends, there was no need to call ahead or make solid plans, you knew where to find them. Sure, Barcade and that Greenpoint laundromat with a pinball goldmine hidden in the back room are carrying on a semblance of the tradition, but they’re hardly places for wayward teenagers cutting class, and you’d never get away with calling them democratic.
The sort of ecstatic randomness, incredible diversity, and authentic weirdness found every day in the old Chinatown Fair is no longer part of a city increasingly made up of only predictable, sanitized corporate spaces. Will these things disappear completely from our city? If so, at what cost? Mourn the loss of Chinatown Fair and hope for a better future with The Lost Arcade.
“The Lost Arcade” opens at the Metrograph on Friday August 12: 3 pm, 5 pm, 7 pm and 9 pm. Following the 7 pm screening, there will be a director Q+A, plus drinks.