Chinatown Ghost Story

In the fall of 1940, filmmaker Joseph Sunn Jue brought a little Hollywood to San Francisco's Chinatown. The neon-banded marquee of his new 300-seat Grandview Theater lit up Jackson Street. Sparkling blue, with dark, plush carpeting and uniformed usherettes, the Grandview was the neighborhood's first modern movie theater.

Today, Jue's theater is a bargain store that sells plastic footwear and made-in-China clothes from dusty cardboard boxes. The building has been gutted — the seats and carpeting removed, the floor leveled. The exterior is industrial gray. Red characters painted over the old marquee outside state that this is now the “Chinatown Discount Center.”

The Grandview didn't die alone. Over the years, other Chinatown movie theaters have suffered a similar fate — closure, then a commercially motivated renovation. Audiences have gradually declined as successive generations of Chinese-Americans became more Americanized, beginning after the Second World War. As late as the 1970s, Chinatown had six movie theaters. Today, the remaining two — the Great Star on Jackson Street and the World on Broadway — are struggling to survive. On an average Saturday night when a top-billed Hong Kong movie is playing, the 700-seat World Theater is half-full at best.

Tai Seng, the largest distributor of Hong Kong films in North America, recently took over management of the two theaters. The company is trying to resuscitate the Chinese movie business in San Francisco by drawing a broader audience — namely, non-Cantonese-speaking moviegoers. Under Tai Seng's direction, the theaters have begun advertising outside Chinatown, in English-language newspapers and in neighborhood coffeehouses. Recorded information is now given in English as well as in Cantonese. Says Tai Seng General Manager Helen Soo: “We've even cleaned up the bathrooms.”

But clean toilets and bilingual marketing may not be enough to bring back business. Neighborhood audiences have diminished steadily over the years, as Chinese-Americans ventured outside Chinatown and assimilated more into the English-speaking mainstream. And, like their mainstream counterparts, Chinese movie theaters now must also compete with television (four Chinese channels broadcast in the Bay Area), videos, and laserdiscs — innovations that did not exist when the theaters began showing films in the 1930s. When movies came to Chinatown more than 50 years ago, the neighborhood was like a village — residents rarely left the area, and they spent most of their work and scarce leisure time within those eight or nine blocks. Walking through the Stockton Street tunnel was like traveling to another country. First-generation Chinese-Americans spoke little English, if any, and Chinese movies were among the few diversions available.

Before motion pictures, beginning in the mid-1800s, Cantonese opera was virtually the only form of entertainment in Chinatown. Opera enthusiasts packed the theaters, and went nightly to see visiting troupes from Canton and Hong Kong. Affluent fans would present stars with plaques made of paper money shaped as flowers, to show their appreciation.

But in the 1930s, opera's popularity began to wane. Chinatown's two main opera theaters — the Sun Sing on Grant Avenue and the Great China (now the Great Star) on Jackson Street — continued to stage operas at night, but began showing movies during the day. As operas were presented less frequently, the theaters eventually added movies at night as well.

Architect and Chinatown historian Philip Choy says the theaters were an important aspect of life in Chinatown, especially for first-generation Chinese-Americans. “Very few people ventured outside Chinatown,” says Choy, 71, who grew up there. “In those days, Chinese people were really not welcome in Western movie theaters. Also, they didn't really understand the language, so there was no point in going to the American movies.”

On a typical weekend night, audiences would line up to see the latest films from Hong Kong and China at the Sun Sing or the Great China. Admission was a dime, which included a newsreel and cartoons in English, and a main attraction in Cantonese. Moviegoers smoked (and spat), and munched on popcorn, melon seeds, and other snacks during the shows.

For many first-generation immigrants, the Chinese movies evoked the familiar in a country where everything was new. Many of the films had typically “Chinese” themes and story lines that resonated with audiences, like the unfaithful husband, the disloyal son, and the country bumpkin. Slapstick comedies starring actors like Hai Chow (called “Shoehorn,” because of his long chin), legendary tales of the Sam Gok, or “Three Kingdoms,” and the inevitable tear-jerkers were equally popular among Chinatown moviegoers.

This was the audience filmmaker Joseph Sunn Jue aimed to please with his movies. Shortly after opening the Grandview in 1940, the then-36-year-old filmmaker set up a movie studio in a dead-end alley off Washington Street. His intent: to make films especially for Chinese audiences.

The Grandview Theater showcased movies produced by the “Grandview Motion Picture Company.” Jue had already made several feature films, first in San Francisco and then in China, by the time he opened the Grandview. Jue's family emigrated from Canton in 1909, when he was 5. The eldest son of a well-established merchant, Jue grew up in San Francisco but left to set up a studio in Kowloon with hopes of making it big in the movie business. He was forced to return to San Francisco in 1939, however, after Japan began bombing China.

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.) [page]

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.

But by the following decade, theater owners had technology to compete with as well. Chinese television programs had appeared in the '70s, and videos followed shortly afterward. The kung fu movies of the 1970s and the rebirth of Hong Kong films in the early 1980s brought brief periods of renaissance to the Chinese theaters, but not enough of a rebirth to sustain business. The theaters, first the Sun Sing, then the Grandview, started closing their doors in the mid-1980s.

The Pagoda Palace followed suit in 1994. It has since been gutted and boarded up, and awaits its transformation to a shopping mall. Chinese entertainment promoter Wade Lai's family ran the Pagoda through the 1970s, and then from the mid-'80s until 1994. When the Lais' lease ran out six years ago, they decided not to renew. “Towards the end we weren't doing that well,” says Lai. “We were doing only 50 to 60 percent of the business we used to.”

Travel agent Russell Chinn has witnessed the gradual disappearance of the neighborhood's theaters. Walking along Grant Avenue, past the storefront clutter of souvenir T-shirts, vinyl luggage, and bamboo back-scratchers, Chinn just shakes his head as he talks about Chinatown's transformation over the years, and the decline of its movie houses. [page]

He points to a three-story, red, pagoda-roofed building across the street, that once housed the Sun Sing Theater. “This was the premier theater in Chinatown,” says Chinn, who has lived in the neighborhood most of his 66 years. “It's a shame what they've done with it.”

A shame indeed. T-shirts and decaled fanny packs dangle from the tiled roof of the former opera palace, now a shopping mall that sells souvenirs by the shelfload. Inside, beyond the racks of shiny polyester kimonos, wind-up cable cars, and fake cloisonne vases, the faded green, gold, and red border of the stage stands as testimony to the theater's once-grand past. Four feet tall and painted gold, a plastic “good luck Happy Buddha” (yours for a mere $2,400) smiles benevolently from what was once front-row center.

Owners of the Sun Sing toyed with restoring the theater in the early 1970s, hoping a redesign would increase attendance at their movies. Architects drafted plans to redo everything from the lobby to the seats. But the owners ultimately decided against it, opting instead to rent out the theater as commercial space. Leasing to retailers offered a more stable solution — one with better financial returns — than continuing to operate the movie theater.

“No one cares about the buildings anymore,” says Chinn. “They just want to rent out the space.” Commercial rents in Chinatown are high — a well-located store costs as much as $5,000 a month — so it's little wonder that commerce has taken precedence over culture.

But management at the remaining Chinatown theaters, the World and the Great Star, believes the two ideas are still compatible. Tai Seng's Helen Soo says making the Chinese theaters more accessible to non-Chinese moviegoers is the key. “We're hoping to make going to see Chinese movies a cultural event, so that people will come to Chinatown to have dinner and then take in a show afterwards,” Soo says. “We hope to attract the hip younger crowd.”

The current clientele at the World and the Great Star is mostly second-generation Chinese-Americans in their late teens and early 20s, who come for the midnight shows, she says. Tai Seng hopes to broaden the theaters' appeal beyond new immigrants and Chinese audiences. Soo points to the UC Theater's hugely popular Wednesday night “Festival Hong Kong” in Berkeley, which draws hundreds of Hong Kong movie fans of all ages and ethnicities.

But whether names like John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Chow Yun Fat are enough to sustain business seven days a week remains to be seen. If attendance at the World and the Great Star has not improved markedly by next September, Tai Seng has said they may disengage from the San Francisco theaters.

Videos and laserdiscs present the Chinese theaters with even fiercer competition, compared to only a few years ago. Hong Kong movies make the transition to video and laserdisc far more rapidly than North American films, because the Asian movie industry is much less restrictive than its North American counterpart. Video piracy is another major competitor.

Nevertheless, entertainment promoter Wade Lai remains optimistic about the future of Chinese movies in San Francisco. Lai has been negotiating with his previous landlord, the owners of the former Pagoda Palace, to include two “minitheaters” and an adjoining cafe in the new complex, which is scheduled to reopen sometime in 1998. He envisions a venue that would show mostly English-dubbed Chinese movies from Hong Kong and Taiwan, with some American movies as well.

Lai says he's waiting for the movie business to revive. “It's cyclical. The Chinese movie business will come back,” he says confidently.

He may be in for a long wait.

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