A Journey Through Chinatown

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Movie House, and an Era, Go Dark in Chinatown

June 14, 1998. New York Times

The used to come for the stilted Cantonese dialogue and overwrought action sequences. Gnawing on dried squid or watermelon seeds in the dark, they lived vicariously for two hours and forgot their own arduous lives.

For decades, Chinese immigrants flocked to Chinatown's eight or so Chinese-language movie theaters because the movies delivered about the only entertainment around and because the theaters afforded a sense of community and comfort.

But soon, New York City's last Chinese-language theater, the Music Palace, will take its final bow, its faded three-story structure to be demolished and replaced by a gleaming office building.

The growing popularity of videotapes is partly to blame, along with Chinese cable television programs and other options for staying in touch with the homeland. But the theater's passing is also a small milestone in the story of the Chinese in America, a shift toward the mainstream that recalls the experience of Italians, European Jews, Puerto Ricans and other newcomers who once had thriving theaters, too.

These days, the disheveled, graffiti-scarred mien of the Music Palace, on the Bowery at the corner of Hester Street, suggests an institution that is well past its prime. Inside, the movies beam out of a 50-year-old projector, playing to 700 lonely seats that are tattered, creaky and the color of red bean paste.

Only 20 people showed up for a recent double feature: ''The Group,'' a contrived action-comedy about six orphans who rob an armored car to give money to starving Somali children, and ''Raped by an Angel 2: The Uniform Fan,'' a contrived erotic thriller about a dentist who performs more than oral surgery on unsuspecting patients.

''Twenty-five years, ago, the seats would be full, and we would stand in the back,'' said Josephine Ho, 48, who sat alone in Row N, munching a sandwich. ''Now, it's usually empty, and that's too bad. I'm going to regret it when this one closes.'' Like many newcomers, immigrants from China once relied on movies in their native tongue as a bridge between old country and new. As the immigrants became more familiar with their adopted country, their adopted country became more comfortable with them. And eventually, the specialty theaters lost much of their relevance.

''For many of these immigrant groups, these movie houses were a way to touch back home, to get caught up and lost in the old fantasies,'' said Charlie Chin, a historian and former community education director of the Museum of the Chinese of the Americas in New York. ''But as things became possible for these groups to enter the mainstream, there was less and less need for these services.''

Across the nation, Chinese theaters have dwindled from more than two dozen in New York, San Francisco, Los Angels and other cities to only three or four now.

In New York, the Music Palace is the last breath of a tradition that began at the end of the 19th century with live-performance theaters in Chinatown serving up variety shows and Chinese opera.

By the 1930's, some theaters also accommodated community events and screenings of movies from Hong Kong, usually romances or martial-arts dramas. They thrilled Chinatown's mostly bachelor society, and quickly became a part of one's day-off routine: buying groceries, visiting the offices of the family association, eating with friends, watching a movie.

''This was it,'' Mr. Chin said. ''There was nothing else to do, nowhere else to go. Remember, until the 1960's, in many places, you'd be looked at with curiosity or suspicion if you went to an area that was considered off-limits to non-whites.''

As Chinese culture became more integrated into mainstream American culture, a small but loyal contingent of fans from other quarters also patronized the movies, which had subtitles in English and Chinese (for non-Cantonese speakers). These included black Muslims who appreciated movies with non-white heroes, Caucasian martial arts students and a handful of film cognoscenti.

But in the 1970's, the theaters began to lose some luster, their reputations besmirched by gang-related violence. Other options emerged, from singing in karaoke bars to gambling in Atlantic City to absorbing news and entertainment from Chinese-language programs on cable television. And as some Hong Kong movies gravitated toward art houses and multiplexes, the Chinese theaters were often left with middling films, said Sushan Chin, an archivist with the museum of the Chinese of the Americas.

The theaters were further squeezed by videotapes, which were not only cheaper but also offered a greater variety of movies, from standard popcorn fare with nonstop action to more sophisticated dramas.

One by one, the movie houses disappeared. The Pagoda was demolished in 1992 and replaced by the Glory China Tower office building. The Sun Sing, which closed in 1993, is still vacant. The Rosemary closed in 1996; it is now a Buddhist shrine.

It has been the same story elsewhere.

San Francisco used to have at least five theaters that showed Chinese movies exclusively; now, there is one, the World Theater. In the late 70's and early 80's, Chinese movies were distributed to theaters in Chicago; Boston; Honolulu; San Jose, Calif.; Philadelphia; Houston; Phoenix; Denver; Oakland, Calif., and Seattle, among other places, said Shu-wei Luan, manager of the Garfield Theater in Alhambra, Calif. All have since closed.

At Ms. Luan's theater, each screening used to play to more than 100 people, mostly from Hong Kong or southern China. But with the Hong Kong movie industry slumping of late and more immigrants coming from Taiwan and China, where Mandarin predominates, the demand for Cantonese-language movies has dropped sharply. Now, Ms. Luan sometimes closes early because no one shows up.

''With the new immigrants, after they learn English, they want to go to the American theaters,'' Ms. Luan, said, sighing. She anticipates that her own theater will not last another year. ''Chinese theaters can't survive.''

There are still a few Chinese theaters in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Toronto, thanks to a recent influx of immigrants from Hong Kong. But in general, the sunset of the theaters reads like a modern remake of the rise and fall of other immigrant theaters in the 20th century.

In the early 1900's, Italian immigrants flocked to theaters in Little Italy to watch silent movies that featured someone reading the subtitles aloud to the audience, said Robert Sklar, a professor of cinema studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

By the 1920's, though, the silent movies outlived their usefulness as the number of Italian immigrants settling in the city declined sharply and those who were already here began to fan out across the metropolitan region.

Yiddish and Spanish-language movies followed a similar arc. In the 1930's, Yiddish movies - descendants of a vibrant live-theater tradition - could be found in abundance on the Lower East Side, offering Jewish immigrants entertainment, escape and pride, said J. Hoberman, senior film critic of The Village Voice and author of a book on Yiddish films.

But no more. And though Yiddish theater still survives, it has been shrunk by acculturation, suburbanization and the ascension of Hebrew.

For Puerto Ricans, movies houses that specialized in Spanish-language movies form Mexico, Argentina and Spain flourished in Spanish Harlem after World War II, coinciding with a surge in immigration, said Gabriel Haslip-Viera, acting director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. Those theaters, too, largely evaporated - from perhaps 10 at the peak to only a handful now - as Spanish-language films gained mainstream popularity.

''I remember as a kid in the 40's and 50's being dragged by my parents to some of these movies in musty, marginal, not very nice places,'' Mr. Haslip-Viera said. ''It reinforced the sense of connection to the culture they drew up with. But with the generations, you began to see a falling away in the level of interest.''

So it has gone with the Music Palace, which is housed in what was once a pair of 1890's-vintage commercial buildings, one of the designed by the esteemed firm of McKim, Mead and White. These days, the theater still has a bit of ossified charm: a double feature costs only $6; the bathrooms are tucked behind the screen, and the concession stand concedes little to Western snacking habits, selling dried cuttlefish, pork jerky, shrimp crackers and soy milk.

But the theater is often an echo chamber. An average of only 170 people a day pass through its doors, compared with the standing-room-only crowds of more than 700 - per movie - through the 1980's, said Oscar Watt, managing director of Gordon's Films International, which operates the theater for a Hong Kong-based subsidiary of Shaw Brothers Ltd., a major movie company in Hong Kong.

''We are breaking even, but that's not good enough to be in business,'' he said. ''It's really sad to see that a big Chinese community like New York won't have a movie house.''

Mr. Watt says that it could be a year before the theater closes. But T. C. Ho, an architect who has been commissioned by the owners to design a new building, says that the end could come as soon as this summer. Already, Mr. Ho has sketched a six-story, glass-and-brick building that would house a supermarket on the first two floors.

Most moviegoers seem resigned that the Music Palace will eventually fold. But shortly before a recent screening of ''Anna Magdalena,'' a melodrama about unrequited love, Johann Sebastian Bach and flying ghosts, one moviegoer, David Lee, said he hoped the theater would survive.

''I think it's important to maintain Chinese culture and language,'' said Mr. Lee, who immigrated to America 10 years ago from Hunan Province in China. ''We need more of these theaters.''

He settled into his seat, his Chinese newspaper and snacks in hand. He was one of eight people in the theater. Each had come alone, and each was waiting for the movies to begin, one more time.


Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

music palace theater photos by rkchin

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