When the city's beloved Chinatown Fair arcade shuttered in February 2011, beset by rising rents and a shifting gaming industry, it disbanded a tightly-knit group of people who found both solace and acceptance among its packed rows of game towers. The arcade and its impact on its community, both the one inside its walls and the neighborhood it stands in, is the subject of new documentary The Lost Arcade by Kurt Vincent and Irene Chin. This isn't a story about loss; rather, it's a story about second chances. Chinatown Fair reopened in 2012 under a different business model that stripped it of its status as the last coin-operated arcade in Manhattan, but it's still a functioning arcade nonetheless. We caught up with Irene Chin before the film's November 14 premiere at IFC Center as part of DOC NYC to chat about The Lost Arcade and the legacy of one of Chinatown's most fabled institutions.
Chinatown Fair opened at 8 Mott Street in 1944, two years after New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia banned pinball for its tenuous connection with gambling and 32 years before that ban would be overturned. The popular association of the American arcade with other immoral behavior like loitering pushed Chinatown Fair towards its 2011 demise, but as Chin notes in our conversation, what was actually happening at Chinatown Fair could not have been more different.
The arcade's owners became confidants and caretakers for a few of the teens who assembled in front of the games' glowing screens. The Lost Arcade, shot over a period of four years, follows several Chinatown Fair regulars and documents just how the institution played a roll in their lives. For some, it was a place to get lost, for others, it was the place where they were found. It was a haven for those who needed it most.
Chin says the arcade's longevityit was open under its original business model for nearly 70 yearshas a lot to do with its positioning on a less-trafficked stretch of Mott Street. Its popularity was fixed by its legacy. The Verge writes,
Prior to its closing last year, Chinatown Fair had been a quaint vestige of the long-gone era of face-to-face arcade gaming, offering a mix of time-honored classics and freshly-imported Japanese cabinets that regularly attracted tourists, locals, and a sizable community of competitive gamers to its dimly-lit halls. Powered by an impassioned community and hosting heated tournaments year round, CTF became a training ground for some of the most skilled players in the world, like NYC's several-times Street Fighter world champion Justin Wong. Its very existence was an anachronism; the lone hold-out of a culture that had been long since overshadowed by the meteoric rise of home consoles, and all but extinguished by the proliferation of matchmaking online gaming services. "A lot of [the arcade's] history is uncharted," Chin says, calling to mind the institution's erstwhole dancing chicken attraction, "but there's a lot of stories." The Lost Arcade tells a few of them.