December 01, 2006


The Music Palace was the last Chinese movie theater in New York City

I wrote this article a few years ago for AsianAvenue.com and thought it might be fitting to post it here for those of you with an interest in the Chinese cinema circuit in America. The info is a little out of date (eg the ImaginAsian has since screened some Chinese movies) but the historical information is as relevant as ever.

The Music Palace was the last Chinese movie theater in New York City, and it sat on the Bowery like a great, rotting shipwreck for almost forty years. Pleasantly dank in the summer, painfully cold in the winter, its interior was a dark cavern lit only by the flickering light of the projector. Double features cost $6, and what you did inside the theater was your own business. The air was full of the sound of people fishing out their box lunches and beers, lighting cigarettes and reading newspapers.

In 2000, the Music Palace showed its last double feature and closed its doors for good, and it’s only one name in a litany of the dead Chinese movie theaters: Great Star, Pagoda, Kuo Hwa, Garfield, Sun Sing, Jade, Essex, Wah Dor, Rosemary. The Chinese movie circuit used to stretch across the United States with between 50 and 100 Chinese movie theaters in the US and Canada playing first run flicks from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Mainland. Now there’s only half of one left: the Four Star theater in San Francisco. One screen of the Four Star shows second run Hollywood movies, the other shows first run Hong Kong movies and revivals. And if their landlord has his way, in a few months the Four Star will be no more.

Four Star theater in San Francisco

Frank Lee Jr. owns and operates the Four Star which he opened in 1992. He’s the son of Frank Lee Sr. who ran fifty movie theaters in Chinatowns across the country during the go-go days of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

“My father opened his first theater, the Bella Union, in 1964 in San Francisco,” says Lee. “Then he opened theaters in New York, LA, Vancouver and Toronto. At that time, any major city with a Chinatown had a theater. Business started picking up in the late 60’s because of the Taiwanese films, the Jimmy Wang Yu stuff, then the Brigitte Lin movies.

“In the early 70’s, after the Vietnam War ended, there was a wave of Vietnamese immigrants who came over to this country and they loved Shaw Brothers stuff -- Ti Lung, Chang Cheh -- and they started opening Chinese cinemas.  Every weekend our theaters did great business. There wasn’t much for Chinese to do, back then. There was no Chinese TV, no videos, no karaoke. The only form of entertainment for Chinese were movies. It was so lucrative; we had midnight shows, double features. It was just madness. But those times are gone.”

Lee opened the Four Star with the intention of only running Hong Kong movies, but that wasn’t making financial sense. He tried several configurations before settling on a mix of Mainland Chinese arthouse films, mainstream and indie American fare, and first run Hong Kong movies, which seemed to work. “But I really did want to stick to Asian films 100% in the beginning,” he says.

Lee signed a 13—year lease with the owner of the theater in 1992, and made extensive renovations. In 2001, the Canaan Lutheran Church paid $1.5 million for the building, and although Lee matched the bid, the owner sold to the Church. With Lee’s lease expiring in May of 2005 he tried to negotiate a renewal of his lease with the Canaan church, which refused.

Unable to come to an agreement, Lee went to the media and the resultant outcry has given the Four Star a brief respite. Five days after an article about the theater ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, concerned city supervisors contacted Lee, and a 45-day moratorium on theaters being demolished in San Francisco was recently passed. One city supervisor has also drafted a permanent piece of legislation that would prohibit the demolition of neighborhood theaters unless the owner has a pressing reason, and the plan must pass through strict city and neighborhood planning channels. Lee says he feels relief, but that it’s not over yet. “I feel better, but this is only round one of a much longer battle.”

Among Lee’s supporters is Jon Soo, head of theatrical distribution for Tai Seng, the last Chinese film distributor in North America. “We’re behind Frank all the way, because he’s the last one left.” Soo says. “The Four Star is a landmark. It’s the last place to watch Chinese movies in America.”

Grand View Chinese movie theater

From dozens of theaters in the 1970’s and 80’s, to one screen in one theater in 2004, it’s taken thirty years for a vital part of the Chinese American experience to be completely eradicated. It’s a typical immigrant assimilation story, but that doesn’t make it any less depressing.

“These days, the younger folks’ interests have shifted. These kids are interested in what’s cool right now, and that’s Korea, not Hong Kong,” says Soo.

“I was born and raised in Singapore. I remember I’d tag along with my mom and watch Chinese movies with her in the back stalls for fifty cents, and I’m still loyal to these movies. But Hong Kong had a very down period in the mid-90’s when you didn’t see a lot of good stuff coming out, and the younger generations didn’t grow up thinking of Hong Kong movies as quality films.”

It’s bleakly ironic that the destruction of the Chinese movie circuit in America is happening at the same time that Chinese movies are having a huge impact on Hollywood. Modern American action movies routinely ape Hong Kong action conventions, and actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li are marquee names. Zhang Yimou’s HERO made over $50 million at the box office, and no film festival is considered complete without a full complement of Asian films.

There’s even an all-Asian cable channel, ImaginAsian TV, that’s getting ready to launch next year. ImaginAsian currently owns and operates the ImaginAsian Theater in New York City. The theater shows only Asian movies, but ironically while they’ve shown Japanese, Korean and Philippino films since they opened six months ago, they haven’t screened a single Chinese movie.

And so, the burden seems to rest on Frank Lee.

“A lot of these films don’t make much money,” Lee says. “I show them for the sake of showing them, and there’s never come a moment when I wanted to pack it up. Never. Especially now that there’s only us. It definitely makes my wife and I feel like we have to fight harder for the Four Star, since we’re the last one in North America. But we can’t stop. It’s in our blood.”

Sun Sing Chinese movie theater

December 1, 2006 at 07:16 AM in News | Permalink


I really wish the Four Star screened more Chinese films than they currently do. If Frank's played a first-run Hong Kong film (any Hong Kong film?) there since Chinese New Year, I can't remember what it might have been. And he even cancelled the Asian Film Festival he usually runs every summer this year. I'm sure there are perfectly understandable reasons for all of this but I have to say it's disheartening.

Posted by: Frisco Brian | Dec 1, 2006 4:54:48 PM

Well Brian’s right, the Four Star has not played any Chinese films since Lunar New Year and Frank did cancel this year’s Asian Film Festival. Because of the threat of losing the theater the Lee’s have not been willing to invest any resources. However thanks to the neighborhood theater legislation there is finally reason to hope that the current owners will accept the Lee’s latest offer to purchase the property. Once the Lee’s have a reason to invest Frank says that he'll begin the festival calendars again. Unfortunately the Chinese films still don’t draw even moderately sized audiences. Hell, even the supposedly “red hot” Korean films Frank showed at the Four Star and at his Marina district theater, The Presidio, in February drew ridiculously tiny crowds, and that was an awesome festival.

Posted by: Jennifer | Dec 2, 2006 9:40:56 AM

Thanks for the perspective, Jennifer! I hope everything works out in the Lees' favor and we can start to enjoy Chinese films again on the Four Star screen on a regular or semi-regular basis.

It was a blast seeing the Japanese film REINCARNATION there a couple weeks ago as part of the 8 Days of Horror festival though. And I'm glad to see another Japanese film (TRAIN MAN) scheduled to open there December 15th.

I'm sorry to hear that the SFKAFF festival drew so poorly. That's gotta be a tough slot, in the midst of perhaps the most competetive film festival season in town (right after Berlin & Beyond and Noir City, and during IndieFest).

Posted by: Frisco Brian | Dec 2, 2006 3:09:05 PM

I'd been trying to keep track of the Four Star's fortunes since I left San Francisco, so I'm glad they're still in existence and might just win the day, but either way, this is a pretty depressing article Grady. I still can't describe my enthusiasm when I found out upon arriving in the city how excited I was when I realized there was a bona fide theater showing actual film prints of the Hong Kong films I knew and loved. Shame that the same can't be said of Chicago, except for the occasional art-house show. Unless someone else knows better?

Posted by: Five Venoms | Dec 3, 2006 8:54:53 PM

God, I miss all those old Chinese theaters that left SF in the 90s. I saw tons of HK flicks while old dudes were smoking, kids were eating dried orange peels and yapping on their cell phones... ah, it was heaven! There used to be a cool Japanese theater near skid row in LA. I think it went out of business in the 80s but the storefront may still be there.

Posted by: hwarang | Dec 4, 2006 2:42:44 PM

The Four Star has been saved! I read in today's San Francisco Chronicle that the Canaan Lutheran Church finally capitulated to the Lees and allowed them to purchase it. Good news.

Posted by: Adam Douglas | Dec 8, 2006 6:54:48 AM

Here's a link to the story about the 4-Star being saved:


Posted by: Adam Douglas | Dec 8, 2006 6:59:30 AM

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