By Shirley N Lew
AsAmNews New York Correspondent
Chinatown Fair, a fixture in New York for five decades, proved to be more than just a video arcade.
Irene Chin and Kurt Vincent were in New York City’s Chinatown in 2011. They waited for their friend in Chinatown Fair late one evening and it was their first time there. What they didn’t expect was that the arcade would spur them to create The Lost Arcade.
When they heard that the arcade was closing later that same year, they wanted to capture its glorious past–the noise, the vibe and the teens that spent countless hours there.
“The arcade is the center of the film and how it built an identity for some of the people, said Chin. “It is a place where teens were hanging out and they were really happy. You don’t see many places like that in New York. That age group is not old enough to go to bars, but they needed a place to hang out with their friends.“
The documentary follows the lives of some people and shares what impact the arcade made on them. Some players came from as far as Staten Island and New Jersey. Why? There isn’t any other place like it. The arcade provided camaraderie of video game addicts and those just needing a place of rest, all the while probably being the most diverse place of business in Chinatown.
“Chinatown Fair helped build an identity and the community,” said Chin. Her father even went there as a young man.
When Chin and Vincent decided to create The Lost Arcade, they first had to get the cooperation of the owner of over three decades, Sam Palmer. Palmer was reluctant at first, but for a mere $100, he agreed.
“He was an amazing person. He was a Christian and he was all bout inclusion, “ Chin describes.
Over the years, the arcade became a refuge for many. Chin said there was a large LGBTQ and indie game community as well as the homeless, but it didn’t seem to have bothered Palmer at all. It became a community center of sorts by accident and offered solace.
“Palmer wouldn’t turn anyone away,” Chin said.
Palmer’s whole livelihood till his passing about two years ago was all about the arcade. He was there all day till closing for decades. He was Pakistani and lived in New Jersey and had a family. It’s unfortunate so little public information is known about him even to this day.
I have been to Chinatown Fair many times as a teenager. Although, my earliest memories as a child were of the original Chinatown Fair that started as a penny arcade on the other side of Mott Street.
Many that heard about this documentary reminisced about the original penny arcade as I did.
Jeff Hom of New York remembers the BB guns and the dragon’s cave.
“I used to cut Chinese school just to play at Chinatown Fair,” said Yogi Tam, now living in Los Angeles.
There were many other games in the original penny arcade such as the Spalding handball roll and a one person ferris wheel ride I recall sitting on many times, but it was the iconic dancing tic tac toe chicken that everyone talks about when you mention Chinatown Fair.
When the arcade moved to the current address and under new ownership, the games of chance were replaced by the musical din of pinball machines and video games. The physical challenges such as Dance Dance Revolution even gave entertainment a new meaning for fun.
Throughout the years, the tic tac toe dancing chicken seemed to be the lone survivor. It remained a conversation piece and icon for the arcade itself for decades. Thousands have come through Chinatown Fair looking for a quick thrill and in the 80’s we’d slap our quarters onto the video game to note we were next to play.
For additional information on The Lost Arcade, visit their webpage.
AsAmNews will take questions from our readers for an upcoming story with the people behind the film. Please submit your questions with the hashtag, #ArcadeQ via Twitter to @ShirleyCNJ or via our Facebook page or wherever this story is posted. Please be sure to use the hashtag.
What are your memories of New York City’s Chinatown Fair?