03/01/2011

The Case Of The Vanishing Chinatown Arcades

by Matthew Hawkins

With yesterday being the first day of GDC, and me being stuck here back home, figured I?d make the most of my time by seeing what the deal was with Chinatown Fair. In recent weeks, reports began to circulate that the days were numbered for the Big Apple?s final vestige of the golden age of gaming. Last I had heard, the landlords made it clear that they wanted its occupant to scram. The arcade’s owners tried their best to stand their ground, to the point of going to the city and getting some kind of injunction. But it only lasted till the end of the month, which conveniently enough was yesterday.

I asked Steve Totilo over at Kotaku, who was the first to report concrete evidence (somewhat) relating towards CTF?s possible turn for the worse, if today was indeed the last day. His response was basically: “Maybe yes, maybe no. I also heard that it closed down over the weekend. At this point, it’s impossible to know whose telling the truth anymore.” Hardly a shocking response; despite being an institution, very little is known about who ultimately runs the show (all I know about is it?s apparently a band of Pakistani immigrants), with every employee being rather hesitant to be on the record about anything to most folks. For a good while I tried to interview someone, anyone, connected to the management for an article till I flat-out gave up.

Well I guess it was a good idea that I asked Twitter and Facebook if I should bother heading out, because it was Steve Flack who passed along the following…

… Via NYC The Blog, which was there to record the final moments. And what else needs to be said? It truly is the end of the era, and even though Chinatown Fair was hardly my favorite place in the world (to be honest, every time I stepped foot inside, I was often reminded of the various reasons why arcades, at least conventional ones, are a dying animal… which I hope to elaborate upon in that aforementioned article, provided I?m able to find an interested outlet), it’s charm was still completely undeniable.

My last trip to CTF was actually fairly recently; Katie and I had Valentine’s in the area, as previously noted, and I thought it would be fun to swing on by for a bit. And while it was mildly entertaining to gawk at the shirtless, sweaty, muscle-bound black dude dominating the DDR machine (he was ALWAYS there), the stink of b.o. that immediately hit our senses forced a hasty retreat.

Looking back, I regret not giving Super GT (Scud Race here in America) one last spin. I’ll miss that dirty/dingy little corner of Manhattan, even if it was a reminder of a bygone era whose time had obviously come and gone. Yet which still managed to pack the house every single night. It may not have been hallowed ground to myself, but it sure as hell was to countless others. There’s been speculation that it might relocate to Williamsburg; all I can say to that is “lulz.” No offense to pals that live there, but I cannot imagine a more awkward mishmash than CTF regulars rubbing elbows with Barcade patrons, especially on a Friday night at midnight (though it would be kind of hilarious to witness such a train wreck, at least once). IMHO, the most suitable alternate location would have to be in Chinatown in Queens, in Flushing to be exact, for perhaps obvious reasons.

Still, no matter what, it won’t be the same. At this point, all we have left are photos, making that recent and absolutely gorgeous post by Scouting New York all the more timely and important (dare I say poignant), plus stories to swap. The Chinatown Fair Archive recently sprung up, which will hopefully get some much needed love as time marches forward, but until then, my fave online CTF-related destination remains the account of how the Tic-Tac-Toe playing chicken was freed to a farm in Massachusetts.

Plus, for whatever reason, I’ve become obsessed with what clearly non-regulars have to say about the place, like those who frequent the Gothamist and Yelp. My fave comment, found on the former:

“How many of you assholes complaining about this place closing actually went there to play games in the past decade? The Xbox 360 and PS3 have killed the arcade. I’m as a big a video game geek as any of you fuckers, but I havent stepped into an arcade since they closed Playland in timesquare, and I don’t miss it one bit. I like playing games in my own home without worrying about black kids trying to pickpocket me while I play Street Fighter 2.”

LOL, white people! I guess it?s a reminder that, as cringe-worthy and flat-out bizarre some of the regulars were, they were still my people damn it. Yet there is still much left to be said about the place; few know that it used to be a recruitment center/hang out for Chinese gangsters back in the day. Just one of the many aspects of its storied past I hope to bring to light in that piece I?m hoping to do. In the meantime… at least I have one tiny memento from the now good old days…

… BTW, for those who have yet to check it out, I write about Chinatown Fair and the game scene here in NYC as a whole in the second installment of my zine, which is available via Attract Mode! And for those that are familiar with it…

Some might recall a curious combination arcade/pastry shop that I stumbled across late one evening, and which Dave and I checked out for just a few moments, before getting the hell out due to some seriously strange vibes. I also noted that it had mysteriously vanished not long afterwards and basically wondered WTF. The only thing Google was able to dig up was a website that had more questions than answers. Well for starters, the place was again called Cake-O and here’s the website

Make sure you have your audio on to hear the kinda grating and semi-creepy song that auto plays. One click in and we see some homemade dishes, a look inside someone?s home, a pair of Japanese women in kimonos, plus other bits of randomness. Another will take you towards the third page in, which is where things become especially mysterious. Here another batch of confusing pictures, all of which appear to have been captured from inside the place, looking out, and during various times in the evening…

… Along with three videos embedded, each only a few seconds long and in which the camera person is clearly hidden (and again, in the dead of night). BTW, all three has less than a hundred views, despite being on YouTube for over two years, which in itself is rather odd.

Further investigation will take you to a YouTube channel, which is maintained by 411xD, where there’s tons of similar videos, in the sense that they’re all random bits of NYC minutia, most of them are shot incognito, each are just a few seconds long, and have zero descriptions or feedback. A good deal of them feature sanitation vehicles for whatever reason. There’s a few stand-outs of course, such as Girl Abducted In Broad Daylight In NYC, which is not exactly the case. As before, we have no idea what the context truly is, but at least there are a small handful of comments.

Only one person that is actually presented and identified among all the clips, someone calling himself Nzomo. Here we have part two of him talking about his theory behind 9/11, I think? The audio quality is quite low and there’s no part one. And here we have what Nzomo would do if he was mayor, though once again, the audio plus video this time especially poor. Again part 2 of 4, and the other installments are nonexistent. The only thing I can really make out is his view of food preparation… which actually comes up a bit later on.

So who is this guy? Well, he has a website, but it simply directs to Miss New York City, some kind of beauty pageant?.

Kinda NSWF btw; there’s no flat out nudity, but a lot of girls are scantily clad, among other things. Hence the screencaps (also, they’re for when the site mysteriously vanishes). The site is supremely confusing, and everything in general seems… sketchy. Actually, it appears to be a modeling agency, not a beauty contest, one that calls itself GSA. Stands for Glamor Sex Ambition to be exact. My best guess is that the girls are chosen to represent a certain borough, hence the titles they are given: Miss Manhattan, Miss Brooklyn. Plus there?s Miss Big Apple, Teen Miss NYC, and even a MisSsubway. Additionally there are sections detailing the events they either run or participate in, a past guest list, and their political views? Not helping matters is how images are constantly recycled from section to section, with zero consistency. I certainly hope the picture that they use for Teen Miss NYC is indeed not a teen, otherwise… yikes. Oh, one of the few actually unique pages is dedicated towards a word game, which btw can be “purchased” for $400?!?!

In the shop you’ll mostly find a line of clothing, mostly women’s underwear, all of which seems rather exorbitant. The men’s items are even pricier; the hat that Nzomo appears to be wearing in all his videos can be purchased for $139 (not as much as the game, but still). Back to the women?s apparel; some even feature Nzomo?s face prominently, which more or less confirms that he’s one of the brains behind the operation(s). There’s even mention of some kind of bottled water, which appears to be bottled tap H2O from NYC faucets. Not sure if it’s for real or some kind of mock-up (no doubt they are trying to market this thing)…

Things become especially sketchy when one stumbles across the donation page, in which they ask for gifts for the ladies, and even includes a list of recent donations. Feels like an escort service to me. But it’s the blog that I find the most fascinating. Here’s just one random post:

“I
In ?Ghostbusters 2″ the collective ill will of NYC denizens almost brings about the end of the world

II
once saw a man lying crumpled on the floor of a 2 train headed downtown from 96th street. No one batted an eyelash at the lifeless lump of humanity; everyone just pretended he wasn?t there. But his lack of visible breathing + movement disturbed everyone almost subconsciously. This strange silence lasted three stations. Until 34th street when a woman boarded + freaked out.
She turned to the passengers and said ?do you know if this man is OK?? She then shook with this touching supplication + desperation, like she was saying ?please don?t be dead on the floor of this filthy subway car.?

III
May I ask a question?
Why do you live in NYC?
Assuming, of course, that you live here. The milk of human kindness is curdled. Something about this place changes the character of things + people. Like naked ambition + desire + self-gratification don?t permit coexistence with decency and unrequited kindness.”

Miss New York City, along with Cake-O, all lead to one central hub: the 411xD homepage….

Here the mystery goes even deeper, as it has a bunch of profiles, somewhat similar to a social network? one that you have absolutely never heard of. Meet Victoria, who is clearly a model, though whether she’s connected to GSA is not clear, let alone if she even knows that she’s featured on this particular website. Then there’s Debbie, who is… let’s just say she’s rather young and an uncomfortable fit among the rest of the ladies.

Marsha here definitely appears as someone who did not sign on, yet she’s clearly wearing the rather heinous looking threads that can be found somewhere on Miss New York City. She’s also pushing something called Message Flavors (which is trademarked btw… as is EVERYTHING on the site, pretty much) that come in denominations of $1 to $1000. I’m almost inclined to spend just a buck to see what the hell it is, but even though PayPal is secure, not taking the risk. They also happen to accept a completely unheard of (at least to myself) for of electronic payment called Pending Cash. Interesting.

You’ll also find a page for Cake-O (which a shot from inside where Dave and I once stood)…

random musings on government waste, political cartoons, and 9/11 conspiracies (I’m guessing this is what Nzomo was talking about in that video from earlier).

The final connected hub is perhaps the most clandestine in many ways; a resource that details every restaurant in NYC with the filthiest conditions

This is where I really wish everything had been written down as originally intended many months ago (but got sidetracked and thusly had to spend a good solid three hours last night re-familiarizing myself with this massive puzzle). Because back then, it appeared far less official; you had all these accusations leveled at random restaurants, along with the owners, who I guess found out via Google Alerts or something, leaving venomous comments stating that such info was complete bullshit, and also asking why won’t the author reveal themselves. Since then, the info appears to be replaced with official info culled from the NYC Department of Health’s recently established grading system for restaurants. All establishments listed appear to be of the grade “C” variety, which is the lowest one can go before being shut down by the city.

Still, it’s another bit of random that makes the entire Cake-O puzzle all the more compelling. I’m also proud that I discovered yet another locally based, shrouded in secrecy enigma, somewhat along the lines of the Canzo Empyrean. Guess I have a knack for that, huh? So stay tuned my roundtable meeting of the minds featuring Nzomo and Justin Fornal!

  • David

    You’ve stumbled across some sort of sex trade ring.. thing… or something.

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