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JULY 31, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 4

The Last Picture Show
In New York City's Chinatown, the one remaining movie house closes, stirring memory and regret

On the side wall of the music Palace Theatre in Manhattan's busy, old-worldish Chinatown is painted a six-meter-high mural titled The Wall of History for the Working People of China. A huge dragon-snake curls into an S around images of strife and striving: a man and a woman wading through rough seas toward a beckoning hand draped with the American flag; a man's fist smashing a tenement window. The mural gives food for thought about the vagaries of immigrant assimilation. And so does a sign on the movie theater's faCade. It reads: building for sale.

COVER: The Triumph of Style
We don't want more; we don't even want better. We want things whose looks can kill. A new generation of designers brings style to everything from toothbrushes to computers

JAPAN: Once Were Giants
A week after the fall of Sogo, the Seibu department store chain runs into financial trouble. The good news: Japan may finally have learned that propping up ailing behemoths is a bad idea
Spilled Milk: A food scare points to regulatory apathy

CHINA: Muzzle Defense
Spooked by rising social unrest, Beijing tries to silence critics
Hong Kong: Did the government lean on a pollster?

CINEMA: Show's Over
An era ends with the closing of the last Chinese movie theater in New York City's Chinatown



TRAVEL WATCH: How to See Paradise with the Help of a Paddle

On the last day of last month, Chinatown's last movie house had its last picture show. The theater closed without warning; its tiny band of devotees had no chance to attend the wake. So they posted elegies on the Web. One mourner, Brian Quinn of, wrote: "I'll miss the worn-out, dirty seats; the sticky floor; the homeless guy with the cat up front; the short security guard with his partial uniform; the coughing, hacking old guys in the back; the little kids running around during Jackie Chan films; double features with a group of friends, lots of beer, and a bag full of snacks; and so much more." Quinn might have been noting the poignant inevitability of urban renewal: the destruction of the tatty, cherished past to make way for the future conditional. But he was also alluding to the fact that Hong Kong cinema, for two decades one of the most vital in the world, has lost its luster with the Chinese diaspora.

As recently as the late '80s, this Chinatown boasted as many as eight movie houses. This was where the locals—and a few kung fu fans and intrepid art-house scholars —could savor the flavor of Hong Kong movie artistry: Chan's sprung-rhythm stunts, volcanic gun dramas with a young Chow Yun-fat, martial-arts fantasies that had Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh flying on wires—the whole gorgeous works. Then, as with so many urban theaters that were too big to maintain, too small to dice into plexes, the Chinatown houses started closing. The clientele aged and stayed home, sometimes buying pirated videos of Hong Kong films from street vendors. Life went on without one prime old ethnic pleasure.

On that last day at the Music Palace—for a $6 admission, cheap by New York standards—you could see a double bill of two films that had long been available in video format: City Hunter, a lesser Chan adventure from 1993, and the 1991 sex drama Liu Jai: Home for Intimate Ghosts (which featured, if muscle memory serves, a slyly sensual turn by leading lady Lam Man-yuen). But even when the Music Palace showed first-run movies, usually a month or two after they'd opened in Hong Kong, attendance was sparse. That final program was a symptom of the long illness that wracked Chinese cinemas around the world. Video killed the movie theaters.

Stand across the Bowery, face the theater and see an obsolete form of entertainment flanked by its successors and executioners. One door to the right is the Kong Man Center, offering dvds, vcds and cds of Chinese movie and pop stars. Across Hester Street to the left is Wah Men Products, which rents Hong Kong videos out of a basement shop. The place is as bustling as the Music Palace was bereft. Often dozens of customers push toward the counter for the attention of a few female staffers. You pay $100 cash for a membership entitling you to 75 videos. You tell the saleswoman what tapes you want (typically five are requested at a time). She, having memorized thousands of code numbers, promptly writes down the codes for your items. You push through the mob, go home and dupe the videos. No one speaks a word of English.

OK, at least somebody's watching Hong Kong movies. No, it's not that simple. At Wah Men the big items are videos of serials, beauty pageants and pop-star concerts from the Hong Kong TV networks. Like the rest of us, Chinatowners are hooked on TV; but because the Miss Asia 2000 contest and episodes of Princess Returning Pearl aren't easy to find on U.S. TV, they have to rent them.

The customers at Wah Men are still traditionalists, consuming new versions of the Chinese stories they were raised on. Out on the street, the modernists are in charge. The sidewalk video vendors sell what people want: not the latest Nicholas Tse movie, but Mission Impossible 2, X-Men, Chicken Run at five bucks a blurry copy. Here, as everywhere in the world, Hollywood rules.

Chinatown is itself an anachronism—a 19th-century museum visited by 21st-century New Yorkers. (It's not even the largest Chinese section of the city; that's in Flushing, Queens.) It doesn't fit the profile of the young, hip, assimilated Chinese-Americans who are the happy ending to the drama painted on the Wall of History. The new mandarins speak elegant English and take trains from Wall Street to posh suburbs—while their poor relatives still chatter in Cantonese and trudge through hardscrabble lives in an "old neighborhood" that may die off before it gets much older.

The two areas have only one thing in common: in neither place is there a Music Palace Theatre to provide cultural continuity and community. The old Chinese Americans and the new will have to get that, not on film, but on video. And the video they pick up will probably be X-Men.

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