THE LOST ARCADE is the story of Chinatown Fair, the legendary arcade located in the heart of New York’s Chinatown. The documentary explores how the arcade became a shelter to a community as diverse as the city surrounding it and changed lives in doing so.
Within their own microcosm, they acquired self-esteem from competitive gaming and formed friendships across all racial boundaries. Director Kurt Vincent shows how they try to maintain this spirit: regular customer Henry Cen starts a modernised arcade in Brooklyn, while a relative outsider tries to breathe new life into Chinatown Fair.
THE LOST ARCADE screens at the 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam on Friday, February 5 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. We caught up Kurt Vincent and Producer Irene Chin on-site in Rotterdam to discuss the film, the changing dynamics of New York, it’s 8 bit soundtrack, and more.
How were you first introduced to Chinatown Fair? Why did you feel this was a story you wanted to tell at the feature length level?
Irene Chin: It’s hidden at the end of Mott St, which is the main thoroughfare for Chinatown. One night, we stumbled on it really late. It was a cold winter night. We walked in and thought it was weird because there were a bunch of teenagers at this after hours place. We also felt this overwhelming feeling of camaraderie and positivity.
Kurt Vincent: We heard it was closing shortly after that first visit. Chinatown Fair was the last of its kind, at least in New York, if not in America. I think when something is about to be lost it is often worth documenting.
IC: As soon as we got there, the kid’s immediately opened up and told us what the place meant to them. They are all neighborhood kids drawn to the space because of different reasons, but all centered on the community support they found.
When you looked at the location and heard the stories, what was your preliminary approach to constructing the narrative? Did that approach change at all?
KV: Originally, we didn’t approach it from a narrative perspective, but rather to embody the atmosphere and spirit of Chinatown Fair. But, as its story grew in our eyes, it became much more narrative focused. It naturally developed into a story about the death, rebirth, and evolution of these communities so I think that narrative formed naturally.
IC: We had to leave out a lot. One thing was how it was a home to a transgender community who mentioned it was one of the only places they felt accepted. It was a story we tried to include, but we ultimately couldn’t.
Places like this closing in New York is quite a common story, off the top of your heads, do you know of some other similar places in NYC that closed?
KV: Well, a famous bar in the Lower East Side: Mars Bar. Max Fisher’s also closed.
KV: Max’s Kansas City…the thing is, all these places are bars, Chinatown Fair wasn’t.
Yeah, Barcade in Williamsburg keeps popping in my mind, but as you said, it’s a bar not an actual arcade.
KV: That is one of the reasons we were so interested in the story because there aren’t places like this for youth, especially underprivileged youth who do not have the resources for athletic leagues or music lessons. A lot of these kids had nowhere else to go. There used to be way more places like this but, as culture shifted and rent has increased, there are less and less.
At this point, these kind of stories don’t even take me by surprise. With the crazy rents in New York, there are so many places like this.
When you were in there, were there ever some stories you heard that particularly stayed in your mind, whether they made it into the final cut or not?
IC: There was one story. All the Chinatown gangs used to hang out there and would recruit members. Gangs like the Flying Dragons, who would bring heroin in from Hong Kong. Apparently, it was a very dangerous place in the 90s. There was a story about someone getting their ear kicked off. It didn’t make it into the film, but there was a violent aspect to it.
KV: It was self-policed. There was a kid who got attacked that was disrespecting someone. Respect was very important in that community, especially the fighting game community, which was the biggest one at Chinatown Fair. Playing honorably in Street Fighter was very important. If you played in a way deemed dishonorable by your opponent, you would be dealt with in the real world. It’s very New York.
How involved in gaming culture are you?
KV: None! We are completely outside the culture. In a lot of ways, it gave us a unique perspective to tell this story. If it were made by anyone in the community this would be a very different movie.
How did you get the film funded? What was your Kickstarter strategy?
KV: We knew there were a lot of people that loved arcades in America. Our story, while focused on one, was about the loss of the culture in general. We tried to appeal to people to have a personal connection to that. We would reach out to blogs, and get picked up. Then, major gaming blogs covered it.
IC: Yeah, we sent a million e-mails out.
How would you say those platforms will play into the life of the film now? Do you have a distribution strategy?
IC: Right now we are still doing festivals. I think there will be a small theatrical release in America too. Once we go digital, I think the gaming sites will be integral to the success of the movie living on.
Where to after Rotterdam?
IC: We don’t know. We are still waiting to hear back from a few places.
How has your time been at this festival so far?
KV: It’s been great! We had our premiere screening, which was sold out, so it was an interesting way to gauge the response from foreign audiences for the first time.
IC: We premiered at Doc NYC and the entire Chinatown Fair crew came out. It was a home crowd and was awesome. We wondered how it would be like in Europe, but it’s been really sweet.
KV: We just found out we are in the top 10 audience award here!
How did you want to approach the audio aspect?
IC: We wanted to make a cinematic documentary, not interested in just capturing reality, but rather the poetic and emotional truth. Music from the beginning was important to that. We were lucky to team up with Gil Talmi, who grew up in the Netherlands alongside the birth of the synthesizer. To us, the arcade experience is digital but also tactile. Gil quickly tapped into that, showing digital vs. analog aspects.
He got a bunch of old school analog synths and went to work creating an incredible tapestry of original compositions with them. One was a chip someone built from a Commodore 64. That sound is heard throughout the movie. It’s incredible how the right music can make a movie sing.
I read an interesting article this morning that Michael Jackson did some of the music to the original Sonic the Hedgehog games on Sega.
IC: What! That’s amazing.