Note: Chinatown Fair closed for good about two weeks after I posted this article.
It’s in Chinatown, and it’s best to visit late on a Friday or Saturday night.
From Canal Street, head south on Bowery past Chatham Square…
…and turn right onto the dimly lit, deserted Mott Street.
It’s at #8 Mott, though you’ll know you’re there simply because it’s the only storefront around with its rollgate up, a strange purplish light spilling out onto the street.
Head through the fingerprint streaked glass doors…
…and you’ll find yourself in something out of a movie, a brick-walled tunnel of a space lined on both sides with dozens of quarter-fed video games: the last arcade in Chinatown.
This is the real thing. Not a Hollywood set, or a nostalgia-fueled attempt at creating a Tron-like arcade. The letters on the store’s sign are missing not for aesthetic value but because they fell down with age or were stolen, and haven’t been replaced because the owner doesn’t feel it’s worth the trouble.
Same goes for the vertical Video Game Land sign, though I wish to God this would get fixed – nothing would be cooler than turning onto Mott Street and finding a rainbow of flashing lights advertising one of the last old school arcades in the city.
I only learned of Chinatown Fair Arcade recently, when a friend showed me it after a delicious Peking duck dinner one Saturday night. The place was packed with a mix of young teens, 20-something hipsters, and Chinese locals pumping quarters for a few minutes of video gaming.
For the most part, the games are a quarter or two…
…and you can find a fair number of classics represented in the front.
What really amazes me though is the size of the place.
Like a storybook magic store that’s larger inside than appears possible from the street, the arcade seems to stretch farther back than it should – and then takes a left hand turn to go even deeper into the bowels of Chinatown. Here you’ll find more modern fare like Dance Dance Revolution and others.
I love the NO LOITERING sign hand painted on the half brick, half cement wall. Isn’t this the very nature of arcades?
For a truly unique bit of Chinatown Fare history, however, go to the manager’s booth, a treehouse-like mishmash of plywood and metal that somehow manages to stay up…
…And check out the strange picture collage of…farm animals.
What the heck is this doing in an old arcade? The answer is on the sign. See the “World Famous Dancing & Tic-Tac-Toe” line?
That used to read “World Famous Dancing & Tic-Tac-Toe Playing Chicken.”
Since the 1950’s, you could watch a chicken dance at Chinatown Fair for a few coins. Except, it wasn’t exactly dancing. Rather, it was hopping to avoid the electric jolts that were sent into the grate it stood on.
Later, the chicken was placed in a tic-tac-toe machine of similar design, in which jolts caused the chicken to correctly select boxes on a tic-tac-toe board.
Chinatown Fair went through dozens of chickens over the decades until 1998, when a sympathetic poultry lover convinced owner Mr. Samuel to give up the game once and for all.
I begged and begged, “I have to take her today.” He said he needed a moment to pray for the decision he should make–we were both still. Then he turned to me and said: “Take the chicken!” I hugged him I was so grateful.
Pictures were later sent of Lily the chicken in her new home to Mr. Samuel, who hung them over his booth:
It’s hard to find any history on Chinatown Fair. It’s been in business since at least the 1950’s, when it was located across the street at 7-9 Mott Street and featured rides, a lunch counter with ice cream sodas and yes, dancing chickens (picture from Manhattan’s Chinatown):
The NY Times did a story on Chinatown Fair a couple of years ago, but found the owner unwilling to talk.
And you know what? I’m glad.
Honestly, I don’t want to know too much about Chinatown Fair. I want it to remain in my mind the worn arcade that time forgot, the sort of gritty Chinatown establishment where shady characters from a William Gibson novel might hang out on a cold winter night.
It’s heartening to know such a place still exists outside the bounds of imagination.
Special thanks to my friend Garrett for introducing me to Chinatown Fair.
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