Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new documentary explores the relationships built—and rebooted—in urban arcades.
As far as battlefields go, it was an unassuming arena: red brick walls, tile floor, and metal folding chairs, collectively conjuring the sense of a school cafeteria or dingy basement rec room. But for nearly half a century, Chinatown Fair hosted some of New York City’s most cunning video game players.
White stenciled lettering on the wall read “No Loitering.” But, says the filmmaker Kurt Vincent in The Lost Arcade, his new documentary about Chinatown Fair, that’s precisely what people did: “they were hanging out, waiting for their turn to play.”
Vincent began shooting his film soon after the arcade announced it was going under. To an outsider, it looks like a bustling scene. The camera pans across throngs of teens clustered around game cabinets, egging on Street Fighter competitors. Then there are the dancers, bowing after a taffy-legged routine on Dance Dance Revolution. Close-up shots show a ballet of fingers darting over buttons and driving joysticks, backed by a beeping, dinging electronic score.
The movie delivers a history lesson about a culture shift in New York, when home consoles supplanted the arcades that flourished near Times Square and Penn Station throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. The film maps the sites of the former Gem Spa and Playland—now a souvenir shop and a deli. As the Midtown arcades were edged out by rising rents, Chinatown Fair was able to stay open, often nearly until dawn. When the field was dense with other arcades, Chinatown Fair “wasn’t popping,” says Henry Cen, a former manager at Chinatown Fair. But when the other shops closed, Chinatown Fair saw its presence grow. Even when players could hook up a console and play at home, explains one video game historian in the film, they wanted the sense of camaraderie: that real-time thrill of being pitted against each other, fueling rivalries and friendships.
The movie, at its best, is not only a eulogy for the arcade, but also an elegy for the neighborhood spots that become public spaces—those worn-in bars, restaurants, or shops that feel like living rooms, or second skin.
Chinatown Fair became a home base for many of its regulars. Akura Hokura, a former employee, describes in the film how arcades became his lifeline. After running away from a foster home, he slept on a pull-out couch in Playland and combed through the machines looking for cast-off quarters. As an adult, he got a job at Chinatown Fair and felt buoyed by the owner’s trust in him.
After so many decades, the death knell came in 2007, when Street Fighter IV was set to be released for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3; it wasn’t slated to be released for cabinets. Undeterred, Cen made his own, with parts he imported from China. He assembled the units in his garage; for eight months, before the game was available for home play, his scrappy solution helped keep the shop afloat. But it wasn’t enough.
In 2011, the owners locked up, and the communities that had formed there were faced with the prospect of scattering. Some scrawled epitaphs—and epitets, too—on the grate: “deez nutz,” of course, but also the much more affecting lament that “our scene is dying,” in unavoidable orange marker.
Vincent holds the camera on a figure of a man sweeping in front of the store, grate pulled closed, “for sale” sign hung above it, as pedestrians hurry past, already oblivious to the changing of the guard.
But regulars felt the absence acutely. Soon, Cen opened Next Level arcade in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. He brought some of the consoles from Chinatown Fair, and parroted the red paint on the walls, but his layout and offerings adapted to the times. “Nostalgia is not really quite that profitable,” he says in the film. Next Level is a training center—and community hub—for serious gamers. It hosts weekly tournaments, which are live-streamed to an audience of up to 10,000 viewers. Commentators give a play-by-play from the sidelines, and bystanders gather to watch. There’s whooping and hollering and shrieking, as well as no-chill fandom when a high-profile player is in the house.
And in 2012, Chinatown Fair reopened, too, this time under new management as a “family fun center” along the lines of Dave & Buster’s—absent some of the beloved cabinets, and the two live chickens that had, for decades, bested guests at games of tick-tack-toe. In the film, the new owner, Lonnie Sobel, directs the renovations. Vincent zooms in on workers painting over the red walls, coating each brick with a sherbet hue. It’s a poignant testament to erasure in a city that’s constantly changing.
Vincent trails former regulars on their first visit back. Some blink at the basketball games and knock hockey. Hokura peers through the window and rubs his face, shakes his head. “That’s exactly how I felt,” a bystander calls.
Six months after the renovation, profits had slid by half, Sobel says in the film. The shop had lost some of its loyal following, but it seemed to be building another one: in the film, a teenage girl says she felt safer and more comfortable in the new environment.
But Hokura is happier in Brooklyn, where he works at Next Level with Cen, emceeing tournaments, handing out equipment, and working alongside the tables where Cen has set up hot pots. He says he wants to work there until his hair is gray: “Arthritis in my left hand, still beating people.”
The film lags in parts, and seems a bit out of order—just when you think it’s over, there’s another twist in the winding plot. It shines when it trains its lens on communities: how they grow, flicker, and reboot.
The Lost Arcade opens in New York in August, and arrives on streaming services in September.