Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Palimpsest Palaces
By Celina Su


With testimonies from Wah-Ming Chang (italicized paragraphs 1 and 3) and the staff of the Music Palace (italicized paragraph 2 transcribed from Eric Lin’s short documentary, with a trailer here).


Developers and planners try to make the city anew, to profit off the new venture and the new image, but despite their best efforts, they do not achieve total erasure. There are dust lines left behind from the furniture or appliances, brick foundations between the steel beams, old scribblings or serrated stairlines where the wall paints stopped. After all, these spaces have reincarnated so many times before: Tenement apartments become dance spaces without barres or mirrors, in the dank basement of a bank on Market Street, in anonymous green-carpeted rooms on Mott Street. A theatre under the Manhattan Bridge first produces Yiddish vaudeville, then stages Cantonese opera, then projects Jet Li films to the Anjelika crowd, then gets demolished to make room for a shopping mall peddling cell phone accessories…. Though at night, the dim sum palace across the street hosts dance parties once a month or so— this time, complete with fog machine.

There were three main theaters that my family and I would go to: the Music Palace on Bowery, the Sun Sing on East Broadway, and the third one by the Manhattan Bridge whose name I’ve since forgotten and which is now a Buddhist temple, I think. All of them had played crazy martial arts movies, ghost stories, and soft-core porn (there was some kind of two-for-one ticket thing to do with the latter).

Sun Sing and the Music Palace were the last Chinese-language movie theatres in New York City. Sun Sing started off as the Florence New Strand theatre in 1921, showing Yiddish-language shows. In 1940, a professional opera troupe from Hong Kong arrived in New York and got stranded here when World War 2 broke out. They took over the theatre and performed every night, with Claude Levi Strauss in the audience in 1941. The Florence became the New Canton Theatre in 1942. Life Magazine highlighted the Sun Sing that year, just as the opera company made its last appearance.

The theatre became a cinema and was renamed again as the Sun Sing Theatre in 1950. At a time when non-whites felt less welcome in many parts of the city, these theatres served as important community spaces for the local Chinese community. Beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the theatre began to reach out to non-Chinese audiences, with Chinese-language subtitles on top and English-language subtitles on the bottom. The theatre closed in 1993.

In 1975, there were at least five Chinese-language movie theatres highlighted in New York Magazine: two on East Broadway, two on Canal, and the last holdout, the Music Palace. The Music Palace closed in 1998.

It’s a lonely job, but it’s a nice job. I like being the guy up in the booth. Haunted Karaoke. Fascination Amour. Kickboxer’s Tears. There used to be a lot more theatres. There were at least twenty more theatres out there. Now… this is the only one. One reason business is bad is because of pirated tapes. Chinatown is a very odd place. When the US is doing well economically, it does not help Chinatown at all. The factories are shutting down one by one. Everything is reversed. A Vitasoy is 75 cents. In the past, no seats were available. You had to stand to watch. We probably had one thousand people at a time. When you are here alone, without your family, you either rest or go to work, working overtime. You just have to buy one ticket, and you can stay here all day.

And what becomes of the spaces that once held these theatres? The Pagoda became an HSBC bank branch, the Sun Sing became a mall. One of the Music Palace’s new owners, William Su, told Sing Tao Daily in 2005 that he found and put aside between 400 and 500 old film reels before the building was demolished. The 18-story Wyndham Garden hotel replacing the Music Palace also displaced about 50 low- and moderate-income residents next door, who are now fighting for compensation.

Our routine was to buy a packet of watermelon seeds and eat the entire bag while watching the films, and the seed husks would crunch beneath our feet when we left. Mom spent most of the time chasing me throughout the theater because I wouldn’t sit still. One movie that’s stayed with me was of Sally Yeh being gang-raped and then exacting a total and utter martial-arts revenge on the gang. (I think she fails at the first attempt, gets assaulted again, and then rises up again and finally kills them all in the end.)


In this video, Wah-Ming Chang talks about another set of lost spaces, the practice and recital spaces for her traditional Chinese dance classes on weekends. The most prominent one was the Bowery Savings Bank, which became Capitale, an events space, in 2002.


All photos via Creative Commons or with explicit permission. Sun Sing pictures via Cinema Treasures (as accessed in June 2011), Life Magazine pictures via Google Books, Music Palace pictures courtesy of Richard K. Chin (all rights reserved).

One Response to Palimpsest Palaces

  1. lena says:

    C– Thanks for this post!

    Like Wah-Ming, I definitely have some memories of the Music Palace and Sun Sing. I like to think of them in another way too, following Vijay Prashad’s suggestion (about kung fu) that we consider it a space of anti-imperial and polycultural potential or as Sam Delany has talked about pre-Disney/development Times Square as a space of cross-class, race, and generational contact. In fact, yes, these Chinatown theaters were incredibly accessible, cacophonous places, full of the problems and life that this neighborhood was. I wonder now, where and how new places have emerged in their stead and where and how the old leisure spots have fared as the neighborhood has continued to gentrify: karaoke bars, tenement homes, gambling parlors, Foxwoods, bubble tea-houses, fashion industry loft parties? Has this kind of leisure spot gone upscale, become more segregated, been displaced to other boroughs? And what traces remain?

    The Music Palace, with its amazing mural (on the building’s side) painted years ago by neighborhood youth and artists including Tomie Arai, definitely has its afterlives though. The kind of political and social possibilities once raised in and by those spaces is, I think, now being realized in much of the tenant and anti-gentrification activism (even at the very site where MP stood!) of groups across Chinatown and LES. Also, I know that one of the main reasons why Paul Kazee, a white guy and Music Palace regular in its final years, and others founded the NY Asian Film Festival was to recreate a space where kung fu and other Asian movies would be featured.

    I would venture to guess that for most people living in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the 1970s or 1980s, the neighborhood was not romance and possibility. But, besides the fantasy of what Chinatown was or could have been, there is also something powerful about these memories and these spaces, what remains and what gets smoothed over.

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