Music Palace and the Demise of Chinese Video Stores

I don’t know why, but suddenly I became nostalgic for Chinese video stores, specifically “Polygon Video” in Plymouth Road Mall close to where I presently live. You could pay $20 and get 60 rentals from their incredible selection of bootlegged Chinese VHS tapes. They had just about everything you could think of, plus some incredible gems if you just picked at random off the shelf. I was lucky enough once to pick the fantastic mainland Chinese film, The Black Cannon Incident, a satire of an authoritarian but inefficient Chinese government. Of course, absolutely nothing can compare to Tsui Hark’s early cannibal feature “We are going to eat you”.

New York City’s Chinatown used to provide home for one of the greatest movie theaters I’ve ever been to, Music Palace. Built in the 19th century for traveling Chinese theater groups, Music Palace eventually morphed into being a full time Cantonese movie theater. It closed down in 1999, around the same time that Polygon Video also shut it’s doors. I was only able to go to a feature at Music Palace once (with my buddy Justin), can’t remember the film we saw, but was blown away by the ambiance.

The cement floor sagged in the middle of the theater, a section whose seats were noticeably empty. Old people played Mah-Jong loudly in a room behind the screen, while others just slept through the movie, enjoying the air conditioning in the sweltering August heat. A small stand in front sold Kappa Ebisen chips and dried squid, while kids ran around the theater batshit and unattended.

It was an amazing place and I’m sorry that there is nothing like it in 2011. Asian American and immigrant culture has largely been confined to the home. While grocery stores exist, community areas like family run video stores and treasures like Music Palace are sadly dead, and even more sadly, nothing can replace it. Cheap technology has confined people to their homes, and made entertainment movie making into a cookie cutter enterprise, living to a universal Hollywood standard. It is interesting to me that technology, while providing readily available tools for human expression, has instead made the world complacent.

Not to say that all is dire in 2011, documentary film-making has reared it’s powerful head and given a voice to those who have never had one. We live in the golden age of documentary film. Sadly, though, we are past the era where greats like Music Palace have reigned. Places like Music Palace and Polygon Video really made America a special place to me. I had to travel all the way to Africa to find something similar in the small DVD theaters that dot the entire country. I’m still waiting for the first Malawian film. To this day, I think that the only exclusively Malawian film production has been a 16 minute porn movie.

Film-maker Eric Lin made a short 35 mm document of Music Palace before it shut it’s doors for good. Unfortunately, the film cannot be seen online anywhere, but he at least made parts of it available in a short trailer. It looks like a fantastic work. Click in the picture to watch the trailer.

Click on picture to watch the trailer for Music Palace.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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