The Last Arcade in Chinatown – A Trip To Chinatown Fair

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.

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From Canal Street, head south on Bowery past Chatham Square…

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…and turn right onto the dimly lit, deserted Mott Street.

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It’s at #8 Mott, though you’ll know you’re there simply because it’s the only storefront around with itsĀ  rollgate up, a strange purplish light spilling out onto the street.

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Head through the fingerprint streaked glass doors…

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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For the most part, the games are a quarter or two…

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…and you can find a fair number of classics represented in the front.

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What really amazes me though is the size of the place.

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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.

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I love the NO LOITERING sign hand painted on the half brick, half cement wall. Isn’t this the very nature of arcades?

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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…

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…And check out the strange picture collage of…farm animals.

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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?

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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.

Photo by Michael Yamashita

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:

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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):

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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.

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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.

-SCOUT

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70 comments

  1. Oh man, this is the first place I met a friend off of the internet, in the fall of 2001. I remember the guy I was meeting was late and this was in the days before cell phones were completely ubiquitous, so I went across the street to have lunch. After, I came back and my friend had arrived so we played a few rounds of games. My Dad told me that he went to see the dancing chicken years before and was sad to hear it was no longer there.

  2. Awesome… Totally going to look for this soon.

    A.

  3. Brilliant piece. I remember making the family trek from Lloyd Harbor into Chinatown for our weekly Chinese dinner, then, going to the “arcade” to play video games and watch that chicken.

  4. I remember begging to go to this place whenever my parents would take me on a trip to NYC! I only got to go a couple of times…They used to have lots more classic games; I even remember playing Star Castle here! But I went back a couple of years ago and it was mostly fighting games…

  5. I haven’t been there in some time, but I used to play games there in the late ’90s and early ’00s. It was the very first place I saw “Dance Dance Revolution.” In the time since I used to frequent there, I’ve seen it in an episode of LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT. Goren and Eames bust a murder suspect while he’s playing some game. Very cool.

  6. I think I remember playing or watching someone play this chicken game when I was little. Whenever I mention it now, my parents always say, “That chicken died a long time ago!” as if it was the same chicken playing tic-tac-toe all those years.

    The first time I read about this game, it was in the book “Tea That Burns,” a history of Chinatown by Bruce Hall. If you do a google book search, you’ll find other mentions of the tic-tac-toe chicken.

  7. I’ve remember going there when I was a kid. It is right near Mosco St. The tic-tac-toe chicken was always a strange thrill.

  8. I remember the Tic Tac Toe chicken! I used to take out-of-town friends to this arcade to play against it and they always found the experience memorable. I think there is a reward system for most Tic-Tac-Toe chicken machines, rather than the negative motivations of electric shocks. Still, hanging out in a box in an arcade can’t be as much fun as being outdoors. Calvin Trillin wrote a great piece about it in The New Yorker:

    http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1999/02/08/1999_02_08_038_TNY_LIBRY_000017482

  9. hah! this is nuts, i was JUST watching “love affair” a few days ago, and i’m fairly certain this is the same arcade robert de niro and meryl streep visited, where they played a game with the tic-tac-toe chicken! i distinctly remember the “thinkin’ booth” note taped to the cage, too. i wondered if this place was still around, and even thought of scouting NY and how cool it’d be to read about it on this site!!

  10. awesome find! beautiful story about lily the chicken!

  11. My mom & dad used to take me & my brother there after we ate at Hop Kee’s. What a great place, I thought that place wouldve been long gone by now.

  12. Wow, great research! I like the way the story turns even more peculiar when you introduce the picture collage.

  13. I haven’t seen an old school arcade room like that one in years. In the block that I live ( Bronx ) there use to be one ( not here anymore ) in the 90′s that I use to visit daily to play games like miss pac-man and others. If I ever make a trip down to chinatown I’ll try and check it out.

    Thank YOU!

  14. My goodness, this arcade is STILL there??? My jaw dropped when I saw those pics! I used to go to Murray Bergtraum High School right across from Police Plaza and me & many of my friends would go to this arcade after school…this would’ve been ’88-’89 (just before moving to Florida to finish H.S.). I recall the dancing chicken being there around that time. This arcade was never “seedy” or “ghetto” like so many in Brooklyn back in those days. When I was in NYC/Chinatown 2 years ago, I was trying to find it, but it had been so long I got turned around here & there & thought for sure this place was long gone! Thanks for the memories! *tear*

  15. I love the streets in chinatown , there the only streets that giuliani, and goddam bloomberg havent fucked up to make it more friendly to transplants , its the only place where i can still go and visit places of my youth and nothing has changed

  16. I love the happy ending story of Lily the chicken; thank you for reminding me!

  17. Here is an argument that the decline of arcades was merely part of a general withdrawal from public spaces.

  18. In 1976 or so, I went here for a high school class trip. I remember exactly three things about the trip:

    A bum lying on a pile of rags.

    The copy of Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact I picked up from a news stand before getting on the bus. It had the short story version of “Ender’s Game.”

    THIS ARCADE!

    It was in much, much better shape. At the time, there was a little Chinatown museum attached to the place. It was closed on the day we went. It was near the rear and to the left . . . up a flight of stairs?

    The dancing chicken and the tic-tac-toe chicken were both there. I do NOT think that the dancing chicken was forced to perform via electricity. When the music started she jumped on a spinning yellow turntable; I believe that the fast, awkward waddle that resulted was the “dance.” When the music was over she headed for a food pellet dispenser. The tic-tac-toe chicken performed behind a “Thinking Box” which basically hid what she was doing. My theory at the time was that a simple computer was doing the actual work.

    A teenage wannabe-tough guy, a white kid with shabby curly hair and a leather jacket, offered me and my fellow students switchblades.

  19. Right down the street at 17 Mott St is Wo Hop. I had to throw a plug in there because its a dive but remains one of my favorite places to eat in the city. I love Mott Street, it’s a great street to just walk down and look around.

  20. Reminds me of the final scene in Stroszek: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUcTvhyof8I

  21. I’ve been there so many times its of Canal of course. Mott st. believe all the way down. Past Woo hop Restaurant. you can also get some small shirts or hats whatever if you can hustle or haggle the asian ladies, I never see Arcades anymore.. i guess with technology whats the use of putting in tokens into a machine when i can just go to my ps3 or xbox.. smh still like the feeling of beating someone and making them feel like they wasted a 1$

  22. Great post! It’s so cool to know that stuff like this still exist!

  23. I’ve lived here all 28 years of my life, and this place is one of my favorite secret throwbacks. Glad to know it’s still around. That picture of the chicken with the cow is just too much…

  24. ROCK ON old school arcade

  25. Polybius lives… here.

  26. You mention it’s one of the last arcades in New York, where are the others? I can only think of three: this one, Dave and Busters on 42nd, and Barcade in Brooklyn (as well as a few Chuck E. Cheese in Queens and Brooklyn).

  27. oh wow. i wish i live in New York City so i could go to the arcade in Chinatown. the photos are amazing. thanks for this amazing treasure discovery.

  28. I remember the original, larger place across the street. They had a captive Dragon in the basement that you could see by putting some money into a slot that would open up a window you could look down.

  29. Love this place! I grew up in the projects a couple of blocks away, and spent many a day cutting school (for some reason, the truant officer shied away from staking out this place, would’ve been a goldmine for collecting hooky-players!), and just spending what little money I had on pinball machines, etc.
    It’s changed alot, but I’m thankful it’s still there.

  30. in the novel “the chicken of Port Arthur” of Tony Chiu, some of the best scenes are in exactly that arcade!

  31. In the 70′s-80′s used to have cockfights and other illegal animal games

  32. I grew up playing with that chicken. We would have dinner at Nom Wah tea parlor, get a fish shaped cookie from Golden Fung Wah bakery, and then go to the arcade. I was bummed when they got rid of the chicken. However, I discovered in a trip to Mexico that the maker of the of the chicken tic tac toe machine had others. There was a bunny that rode a tiny fire engine and turned on the siren, a duck that came out behind a curtain, turned on a lamp and played a tiny piano, and there was a guinea pig but I dont remember what he did. And more tic tac toe chickens. I was probably the most excited 6 year old you have ever seen with a handful of pesos.

  33. Wonderful story! I recently found out that my favorite neighborhood arcade in New Orleans from when I was a kid actually managed to survive into the 21st century, and finally closed just a couple of years ago. Brought a tear to my eye.

    I love learning about places like this… old, odd businesses that have survived for decades against all odds. I live in California now and have only been to New York once, but I’m definitely putting this arcade on my list of places to visit next time I’m there (assuming it’s still there). Thanks for the nostalgia!

  34. very cool. id love to check that place out. the chicken thing is crazy!

  35. So apparently if you’re in your 20s and you enjoy classic video games, you’re a hipster and not merely nostalgic…

  36. I was visiting my older brother who lives in Brooklyn and he took me to this wonderful place. It wasn’t nostalgic for me like it is for him (he’s 29 and I’m 16) but I had so much fun there.

  37. This arcade is legendary in the US fighting game community, some of the world’s top players (Justin Wong, Arturo Sanchez, Sanford Kelly, many more) still play here and it’s one of the last bastions of the arcade fighting game scene in the US.

    Even though online play is so accessible (and popular now with the Street Fighter 4 series reviving the scene worldwide) the majority of top US players (and ALL top Japanese players) still prefer to play in the arcade and it’s influence is obvious in the US pro fighting game scene’s ‘street’ culture, as compared to the nerdier style of most other competitive computer gaming scenes.

  38. my dad used to go to this arcade when he was in his 20′s.
    I guess he never told me about the “dancing chicken” because I was really into animal rights back then.
    I’ve never actually went into this place ever since I was a little kid passing by on my way to Chinese school.
    maybe I’ll finally take a step into my father’s past…

  39. Haven’t been there since Fall of 1999. I still remember playing Virtual Fighter 2 there.

  40. I remember the old Chinatown Fair at 7-9 Mott. As a kid it was amazing! No video games then, but there were rides and skee-ball. The best part was a kind of peep show in the back; you would put in a nickel, the shade would open and you would see a dragon in a dimly lit cave! The head moved and the eyes lit up and it roared!There were even bat flying around. I really miss those days!

  41. Last time I went in there I tried to take a photo but was quickly accosted by some young locals. It was probably the late 80s, and maybe there were still illegal “games” going on in the back?

    Our family always ate at Sun Lok Kee right across the street. That place is gone. Then we’d go to that huge supermarket next door, which I’m pretty sure was the original Chinatown Fair location. Cuh-RAZY items for sale in big dirty barrels on the floor, cheap teas in great colorful tins, so much fun. That place is gone as well.

    Rock on, Chinatown Fair!

  42. :D
    I used to go there during my lunch breaks. I remember the dancing chicken. Ouch. I had no idea that’s how it worked, I never actually saw her “dancing”. Glad she retired and is sending postcards.
    I’m also glad to hear that they do now have some up to date games that aren’t just 1st person shooters.

    It’s such a dingey, worn-out character of a place that you simply must visit if you haven;t already been there!

  43. I’m surprised you didn’t include Old Dirty Bastard’s music video featuring the Chinatown Fair – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdfwzlpK0P8&feature=player_embedded

    I remember being excited at seeing this video as an eight grader and going, “OMG!!!! I PLAY GAMES THERE!!”

  44. Unfortunately, Chinatown Fair will have to CLOSE on February 23rd or so, as it appears the lease for Chinatown Fair has run out.

    RIP Chinatown Fair

  45. According to Gothamist, it’s not closing, that’s just rumor:

    http://gothamist.com/2011/02/20/is_chinatown_fair_nycs_last_arcade.php

  46. Awesome story. Thank you.

  47. Great memories of fierce tekken 3 and street fighter 3 matches after my weekly visits to jnl and penguin village. Thanks for the story.

  48. The Gothamist reported over the weekend that Chinatown Fair maybe closing (could be more than just a rumor):

    http://gothamist.com/2011/02/20/is_chinatown_fair_nycs_last_arcade.php

    Fondly recall eating huge portions of cheap Chinese food at Lin’s Garden and then going over to see the dancing chicken or to play tic-tac-toe. In retrospect (and now being a bit older) I feel sorry for the birds. Glad the last came to a happen end.

  49. I remember this place well. I still go to Chinatown very often but now steer clear of the arcade. I used to go here after classes and $1 dumplings (which are around the corner btw).

    Ms. Pacman and DDR used to be my main games. Based on your pictures, it has changed up a bit, but not too much. I’m glad it’s still there and thriving.

  50. Awesome report and photos. Especially the info about the chicken. According to Samuel, the proprietor, the arcade’s last night is tonight, 02.26.10. In about 30 minutes as a matter of fact, he will roll down the gate for good, at least on Mott St.

    BTW, The New York Times article you reference is not from a couple of years ago, but from August of 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/05/fashion/05Chinatown.html

  51. I stumbled upon this arcade early last summer, and for a second I felt as if I was transported to the early 90′s, it was fantastic!

  52. Great place in the 80′s but as an Asian teen there was a lot of gang activity. Saw a kid getting roughed up in back once. The last straw was when two thugs tried to get me to the back.

  53. I just read in The Gothamist that is has closed.

  54. Bowery Boogie has articles about it saying it might be closing (posted February 20), it IS closing (February 27), and it is in fact closed (February 28). So unfortunate, but apparently they’re moving to Williamsburg.

    • made a mistake in my above comment: they reported it closed on February 27, and posted some interesting photos of its being dismantled on Feb 28th. definitely worth a look

  55. A really cool post. The entire expereince looks real. It clears the air and makes you feel part of the fair.

  56. Does it close??

    If that is true, I feel so sad. Anyone know where can I play the ddr except B&D and Toysrus??

  57. i remember this place crap i went here from 1990 to 2000 it was the spot no cops would bother me and my lil crew of friends from cutting class and getting some gaming on i will miss this place as i was hoping to take my son and teach him the ropes thanks for the memories

  58. I remember this “Penny Arcade” (as it was referred to at the time) from the 1940s when I was a child living on Mott Street (near Hester) and attending Transfiguration School on Mott Street a few doors north of the arcade.

    There was a chicken in a booth at the entrance–a very tired, sick-looking chicken, that “danced” or something and was rewarded with a couple of kernels of corn. That novelty wore off quickly; I felt sorry for the chicken and knew it was wrong.

    I don’t have a clear memory of the games and amusements except for the Dragon Pit in the back of the establishment, and I’m so glad someone on here remembers it as I do. My father took me in there several times when I was very young. You paid a fee, got to look through a window, and saw a large mechanical dragon in a deep, dark pit (must have been basement level) that had glowy eyes and moved and roared. I probably remember it larger than it was because I was such a young child.

  59. P.S. I just remembered more about the chicken. I don’t think it danced. It pulled levers and you received a little piece of paper with your “fortune” on it. Whereupon some grains of corn would come out of a slot as a reward for the chicken.

  60. I am planning my first trip to NY in march with my girlfriend and this was the first place to visit on my list. After a quick search to find the exact address I found this site that has photos showing its now closed? Very annoying as I have wanted to visit this place since you first posted this article

    http://www.nychinatown.org/storefronts/mott/8mott.html

    nick

    >=(

  61. Any news on relocation/reopenIng?

  62. DEAR ARCADE,
    I DID READ ABOUT GAMES IN STREET FIGHTER SERIES AND GAMES IN TEKKEN SERIES INCLUDED X-MEN VERSUS STREET FIGHTER, MARVEL SUPER HEROES VERSUS STREET FIGHTER, POCKET FIGHTER, STREET FIGHTER 1, STREET FIGHTER 2 WORLD WARRIOR, STREET FIGHTER 2 CHAMPION EDITION, STREET FIGHTER 2 TURBO HYPER FIGHTING, STREET FIGHTER 2 HYPER FIGHTING ANNIVERSARY EDITION, STREET FIGHTER 2 RED LABEL RAINWAVE EDITION, STREET FIGHTER 2 YELLOW LABEL RAINBOW WAVE EDITION, STREET FIGHTER ACCELCATOR PART 1, 2, SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2 NEW CHALLENGERS, SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2 TURBO, SUPER STREET FIGHTER TURBO GRAND X MASTER CHALLENGE, SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2 TURBO REVIVAL, SUPER STREET FIGHTER 2 TURBO HD REMIX, STREET FIGHTER MOVIE, STREET FIGHTER ALPHA WARRIOR OF DREAM’s, STREET FIGHTER ALPHA 2, STREET FIGHTER ALPHA 3, STREET FIGHTER EX, STREET FIGHTER EX PLUS, STREET FIGHTER EX 2, STREET FIGHTER EX 2 PLUS, STREET FIGHTER EX 3, STREET FIGHTER 3 A NEW OF GENERATION, STREET FIGHTER 3 DOUBLE IMPACT GIANT ATTACK, STREET FIGHTER 3 THIRD STRIKE OF FUTURE FIGHT FOR FUTURE, STREET FIGHTER 4, SUPER STREET FIGHTER 4 ARCADE 3D EDITION, TEKKEN 1, 2, 3, TEKKEN VERSUS STREET FIGHTER, STREET FIGHTER VERSUS TEKKEN, TEKKEN TAG TOURNAMENT 1, 2, TEKKEN 4, TEKKEN 5, DR. 6, BLOODLINE REBELLION BY CAPCOM AND NAMCO.
    THANKS,
    AARON

  63. Aaron Burstein

    Dear Chinatown arcade,
    What kind of shooting games do you have?
    Thanks,
    Aaron

  64. Chinatown Fair is open again!

  65. They closed it and I would imagine stripped it bare. I heard they reopened it but what was great was the decor so I can’t imagine it’s anything to see, does anyone know if the original signs outside are still there?

  66. I took a bunch of photos if you want to use them here

  67. Any word on if it’s still there?? Google Maps street view shows its gate down with an “available retail space” sign on it.

  68. Oh no! Looks like this place is now closed. :( Another great nyc gem bites the dust.

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