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Through the 1940s, Jue made more than a dozen 16mm films in San Francisco (the first color films in Chinese), using Chinatown's alleys, storefronts, and private homes as sets. Low budget and technically less than perfect, the films drew loyal audiences nevertheless. Among the more popular were his Chinese renditions of American movies.
"There was a Chinese Laurel and Hardy and a Chinese Charlie Chaplin," recalls the late filmmaker's son, Frank Jue, 71, who worked part time as a projectionist at his father's theater in the '40s and '50s. "There was even a Chinese Wolfman." (Frank notes that his father's original screenplays, particularly his stories of Chinese immigrant life in San Francisco, were generally superior to the American knockoffs.)
During World War II, Jue's films were even more popular because they were among the only original films being made in Cantonese. The Japanese had occupied Canton in 1938 and bombed Hong Kong after Pearl Harbor, which had effectively frozen the Cantonese-language movie industry. The few movies that were made in China were unavailable to overseas audiences, because the war had stopped the movement of people and goods across the Pacific.
The Chinese movie theaters made do with what was available, and began showing second- or third-run American movies as well. The Grandview had Joseph Sunn Jue's movies, but the Sun Sing and the Great China showed copies of old Chinese movies that had been kept in San Francisco.
After the war, Joseph Sunn Jue went to Hong Kong, where he would make nearly 100 more movies before returning to the United States in the 1960s. Ironically, that's when audiences at the Chinese movies began to decline in San Francisco. Chinatown was changing. Over the first half of the century, the immigrant population -- the movie theaters' main source of business -- had declined. In 1910, American-born Chinese made up only 10 percent of the Chinese population in San Francisco; 30 years later, that figure had grown to more than 50 percent.
Second-generation Chinese-Americans generally stayed away from the Chinese movie theaters, going only on occasion and in the company of an older relative. They preferred American movies instead. On weekend afternoons, Chinatown kids would flock to the two theaters on the outskirts of the neighborhood -- the Verdi on Broadway, and the Times (originally the Acme) around the corner on Stockton Street -- to see Tom Mix, Gene Autry, or the latest installment of Captain Marvel.
"We would rather go to see the Three Musketeers, or John Wayne," says architect Philip Choy. "Or Flash Gordon, with Buster Crabbe. Kids growing up in Chinatown were basically Western in culture. Things Western were always more popular. It was part of the assimilation process."
For a nickel, young movie buffs could see a newsreel, cartoons, and a feature at the Verdi. The Times, much less elegant than its art deco competitor, was always a better deal -- a dime got you two features, plus the rest. (Although the theater is no longer standing, its memory lives on among those who frequented it. Former patrons still remember the Times as the Gow Sut Hay Yuen, or "the flea theater" -- because patrons invariably left the theater scratching.)
As young adults in the 1950s and later, the second-generation Chinese-Americans preferred to go downtown instead. "Kids our age didn't go to Chinese movies," says Frank Jue. "We were trying to be more American."
Assimilation was occurring on a broader scale as well. Chinese-Americans began to move outside Chinatown, buying homes in the Sunset district and other neighborhoods. Before the war, landlords in most areas of San Francisco would not rent or sell to Asians and other people of "ethnic" persuasions. After the war, as doors opened for Chinese and other nonwhites -- whether in employment or in housing -- Chinatown's importance as a cultural hub waned.
As Chinatown ceased to be the nucleus of activity for Chinese-Americans, business at the Chinese theaters declined. True, thousands of new immigrants began moving into Chinatown as the federal government relaxed its immigration laws in the mid-1960s. But few of the newcomers had time or money to spend at the movies.
If you lived in Chinatown 50 years ago, you wouldn't dare misbehave because someone would tell your mother. Everybody in Chinatown knew each other. People felt safe walking around late at night, and leaving their doors unlocked.
But by the 1960s, the neighborhood had changed. Longtime residents say the later waves of immigration marked a turning point in Chinatown's history. Gangs like the infamous Wah Ching (literally, "the young Chinese,") formed in the 1960s among the immigrant youth who had few job or language skills. Extortion and street crime began to occur, and Chinatown locals increasingly stayed off the streets at night.
In 1977, the Golden Dragon massacre dealt another blow to the Chinese movie business. Late one night, members of the Wah Ching gang opened fire at the Stockton Street restaurant, killing five and injuring 11 others. The Chinese community was shaken. Restaurants that were once open as late as 3 and 4 a.m. began closing early to avoid trouble.
Fewer people out at night meant fewer people at the movies, but the theaters hung on. In the 1960s and early 1970s, two new Chinese movie houses opened. Chinese entrepreneurs took over two old English-language movie theaters, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the then-new kung fu movies. The old Verdi on Broadway became the World Theater, the Palace on Powell Street became the Pagoda Palace.