So the other day, I finally saw Men In Black III, and there was one location that stood out:
Located in Chinatown, Wu’s is THE Chinese restaurant all directors beg us to find.
From the paper lanterns and intricate woodwork…
…to the numerous fish tanks and detailed wallpaper.
Throw in the hanging ducks in the window, and you’ve got every director’s ideal Chinese restaurant filming location.
And of course, I immediately knew that Wu’s was fake, built from scratch on a soundstage.
Why? Because this location does not exist in Manhattan.
Literally every time I get asked to find a Chinese restaurant, it’s the same description. “I want a place with really over-the-top Chinese decor,” our director will say. “Remember that one in Seinfeld? That’d be great.”
“The key is red wallpaper,” our director will tell us. “We need a place with red wallpaper. With designs on the wallpaper too, maybe in gold.”
“But red is key. Oh, and some woodwork. You know, like in Glengarry Glen Ross? That’d be perfect.”
“Hey, and be on the lookout for dragons. Golden dragons would be awesome. Remember the movie The Fisher King?”
“But really, just go for that classic over-the-top look. You’ve probably never seen Mickey Blue Eyes, but wasn’t there something in that like what I’m describing? You know what I mean?”
I know exactly what he means. There’s only one problem: this is what your average Chinatown restaurant looks like.
And another. White walls, a few bits of ornamentation on a wall or two, some chandeliers…and that’s it. Seriously, this is the norm.
But try and convince a director of this, and they will look at you like you just moved to the city last week. “Are you SERIOUSLY telling me,” they will ask incredulously, “that there isn’t a single Chinese restaurant in all of Manhattan with red wallpaper and crazy ornamentation???”
Yes. That is what I’m telling you. And if you don’t believe me, you’d probably have a heart attack if I told you a good number of New York Chinese restaurants look like this:
This is a major problem you run into while scouting in New York – people assume NYC has EVERYTHING, and when you tell them it doesn’t, they think you’re 1) wrong, and 2) not doing your job.
That isn’t to say that New York doesn’t have some really neat Chinese restaurants. Some of the epic dim sum places sort of have the right decor we’re being asked for – but they’re ridiculously massive in size and very pricey to film in, if they’d even consider it.
So that’s a definite no. Having shown the reality of most Chinese restaurants, you move on to options that, while not entirely meeting their description, still have some really fantastic character. I love this restaurant, especially the enormous tree in the back.
Ditto this place, which has a lot of great character without descending into the orientalism-on-steroids restaurant I’m being asked to find.
Or hey, what about this one up by Columbia? Sure it’s simple, but it at least has that intricate wallpaper (though not red). Maybe throw a few golden dragon statues in and we’re good?
Directors will not like any of this. “Why is there a tree in that first place? And why don’t any of them have red wallpaper? Keep looking!!!”
But we will inevitably come up short. As a last ditch effort, directors will occasionally suggest we scout the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, confident that a place in business since 1927 MUST have the character we’re looking for (and proof we don’t know what we’re talking about). Alas, while I love Nom Wah, the interior looks more like a diner than a Chinese restaurant.
Directors will usually be very frustrated at this point. “But it has to be out there! That classic over-the-top Chinese restaurant you used to go to on the highway as a kid!!”
And therein lies the problem. We’re not on a highway; we’re in New York.
I don’t know anything about the history of Chinese restaurant decor in America, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, early on, part of the draw was in presenting patrons with an EPCOT-like level of intense orientalism. Not only are you dining, you’re also going on an exotic vacation.
Here’s a 1906 picture of a Chinatown restaurant called Chinese Tuxedo, which is EXACTLY what our director is looking for.
Ephemeral New York dug up a great quote from a 1920 restaurant review guide which describes this kind of establishment:
“Few homegrown Chinese take nourishment in these places, because they feel kind of out of place and they hate to break in on the nice white people from uptown and Brooklyn. But the waiters are all Chinese, for the same reason that the walls have Chinese dragon tapestry. The lights are shrouded in fantastic shades, and the place is redolent with the perfume of fire cracker punk, which exhales a not unpleasant odor.”
Another perfect option for our director is this defunct New York classic – Port Arthur, in business through 1959:
But those days are gone. Chinese restaurants don’t need crazy decor anymore to convince New Yorkers that the cuisine is worthwhile. And while I really wish just one holdover from the 1940s or 1950s had survived into the modern age as a historical relic, they’re kaput, and no amount of scouting will bring them back.
It’s usually about this time that the director finally accepts the truth, and the decision is made to either go with one of the options we’ve scouted (with some added set dressing), or build it on a stage.
I don’t blame directors for hating the plainer options I’ve shown above – white walls and minimal decor look absolutely terrible on film, and you’d never film in such a place.
But I really wish they’d realize that the reason they think New York is filled with MIB-style Chinese restaurants is not because of reality, but because of what they’ve seen in the movies and on TV. For a city that has nearly everything, there’s a LOT of alternatives to choose from, and I really hate having to fake the few things it doesn’t have just to do the same cliche over and over and over and over…
But you know what? My fortune cookie portends a future where this search will come up again and again. I guess I should forget it. It’s Chinatown.
Love to hear any memories you have bygone NY Chinese restaurants!
PS – Oh, and as a sidenote, I’ve never eaten in a NYC Chinese restaurant with a guy like this.