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Chinatown Ghost Story 

A history of grand movie theaters haunts a commercialized neighborhood

Wednesday, Dec 11 1996
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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.)

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Tara Shioya

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