It is sort of amusing when someone becomes poetic about a passion that you yourself do not happen to share. Their mind goes to a particular place and they try to explain in carefully chosen words just how this particular activity weathers the storms of their very soul. I know that I am guilty of this when I talk about movies. In the opening of Kurt Vincent’s documentary The Lost Arcade, a kid tries to explain to us how a particular video arcade has brought joy to his life. “Last night,” he says, “I dreamt I went to Chinatown Fair again” and we follow him on a dreamlike trek to get to his destination.
The destination is Chinatown Fair, currently purported to be the last video game arcade in Manhattan. Centered in the heart of Chinatown, for 30 years it was the hub of community of all races, creeds and diverse backgrounds coming together to (the movie says) challenge one another in friendly competition. Begun in the mid-80s by a Pakistani immigrant named Sam Palmer it achieved a tiny nugget of worldwide fame with its dancing chicken that appeared on Letterman and when it turned up in the 1984 Robert DeNiro/Meryl Streep romance Falling in Love. In the years before home video game systems dominated the market, video arcades dotted the landscape, particularly in New York – there were at least four in Times Square. Yet, even with the landscape saturated, Chinatown Fair became maintained a loyal fanbase that came through night after night after night even if the non-Chinese patrons found themselves hassled by the local gangs.
Then it happened, time marched on and the video game market moved into America’s living room thanks to Nintendo. Video arcades closed down one by one until only Chinatown Fair remained. Eventually Sam was forced to close his doors when the video game companies announced that they would no longer be making large video game cabinet models. The closing of Chinatown Fair was bittersweet.
The Lost Arcade isn’t really about video games; it’s about the community that it spawned. It’s more about the people whose deep love for a place like Chinatown Fair made it the place to be for those who couldn’t really afford to go anywhere else. The outer framework of the film is the story of what happened to Chinatown Fair but we become more interested in those people. One homeless guy, Akuma Kokura spent so much time there that Sam eventually gave him a job. At that moment, he was living off the quarters that he found under the machine. For him, it was a safe haven, the only place in the world that made sense.
What is interesting about The Lost Arcade is the way in which it evolves. Sam closes Chinatown Fair and his young employee Henry opens his own business Next Level, that isn’t a carbon copy but a more modern place that resembles a public LAN party. Then Chinatown Fair is reborn by a proprietor named Lonnie who is well-meaning but turns the old arcade into a low-rent Chuck E. Cheese – the broken look on Akuma’s face when he sees the redesign is both funny and sad. And from there the story keeps going. The filmmakers set out to develop a story about the closing of a famous video arcade but they found that the story kept going and keeps going. At points you think that the story is ending but then a new development pops up. It’s like a news story with consent updates and that makes it kind of thrilling.
The Lost Arcade is not the most profound or important documentary you’ll ever see. It perhaps sees Chinatown Fair with rose-colored glasses. It’s hard to believe that the place was always so friendly and nice especially in New York – after 30 years there wasn’t one fight in the place? Plus there is a surprisingly lack of female patrons in the old archival footage. Why did they stay away? Did they feel threatened? There’s a brief interview with a young woman after Lonnie takes over but it feels a bit glossed over. It also avoids the outer world invasion by the technological advancements. We’re told a bit about how Capcom created problems for the video arcade business by announcing that it’s “Street Fighter IV” would not be released in a cabinet model, but what is the executive decision? What was going on behind the scenes that made decisions like that? Were they aware that they were killing a homespun industry?
Even still this is an interesting curio about the ways in which popular culture builds community especially among those who have nowhere else to go. It seems silly that a kid would wax poetic about a video arcade that made up the better arenas of his dreams, but this is a movie about passion. It illustrates why a place like Chinatown Fair meant so much to so many people. It bred a passion for video games but also for community, for being part of something, somewhere that gave their lives meaning, if only for a short time.