Kim Sing Theater & L.A.'s Chinatown

Hurray!  The former Kim Sing Chinese Theater is protected from demolition.  Some years ago, the building was privately bought and converted to a design and living space.  The marquee and exterior have historic building preservation status.

But what is lacking are stories from the Chinese American community, and Los Angeles community as a whole, as to how the theater played in our lives.  I decided to send out an email blast in September, 2010 that included my commentary:

"As many of you are aware, the building exterior, especially the marquee, has been retained while the interior was gutted and renovated by its owner, as the article below from the October 1, 2006 Los Angeles Times described. When I read the article 4 years ago, I thought of the absence of stories by Chinese Angelenos to support the fact that the theater was one of the primary cultural spots for Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans to head to for leisure. Bravo that the exterior of the building is protected from alteration. But where are the stories?

I am requesting for persons to submit their recollections about the theater, attending the theater, etc., so that I may compile them on a page on my blog.

I recall accompanying my parents there in the 1960s. While my parents sat and watched, my brothers and I roamed the lobby as restless kids do. I remember looking at the posters of Chinese beauty contestants. It was the theater, the corner grocery store at Ord and Spring (now CBS Seafood Restaurant) and the Lung Kong Tin Yee Association that our family mostly frequented."

The theater stood on the outskirts and away from the main business and shopping areas of Chinatown.  Yet, it was one of the regular destinations, among other spots in Chinatown, as these following responders can attest:

From J.L.:

hi betty, in response to the theatres in Chinatown..............I used to see movies at the one on North Broadway one block north of Lung Gong........and the other on Spring street...............I think it was the Ting Sing theater...........I use to go there with friends from the westside to watch the Kung Fu movies with the one arm swordsman.............I think his name was Wan Que............the market on Ord St. you were referring to was Kwong Ack Wah..........the proprietor was GEE BAK.............the nice man that gave kids candy.........

he had the coolest walkin refrigerator on hot days............did you know we used to rollerskate at the Alpine rec center in the old days...

sorry,........that I did not frequent the Kim Sing.............but I went to Lung Kong for the Chinese operas and the annual dinners for the whole clan.

From W.L.:

I remember the sticky floors, Chinese beef jerky, the moist and dried plums we'd eat like candy and orange soda for some reason...but that includes the other Chinese theaters we frequented as kids. The one just off Sunset and Spring St and the one off N. Broadway and Cottage Home St.

From H.L.N.:

Reading your blog on Kim Sing Theater brings back lots and lots of old memories. Yes, in the 60's, my parents did their weekly Chinese grocery shopping on the weekends. It went something like this: Saturday, dinner in either Yee Mee Low, Phoenix Restaurant, or that other place I can't remember. They were all near Philipe's Sandwich, there was a roast duck and pork place on that particular street. I bet your mom knows!! I even remember YOU working in Chinatown. Before Dad passed, he and I went into that place you used to work. We had coffee and a pastry. And I remembered you!

Dinner and a movie. The movies were a choice of Kim Sing, or used to be two others too. Near Philipe's also. And another where Empress Pavilion is now. Do you remember Yee Sing Chong Market? My Mom's old family Dr. Samuel Yen Eng.

Sunday: grocery shopping, movie and dinner. I remember Kim Sing, because Anna and I would also wander the lobby because we could not sit still. I remember starring at the movie posters, thinking it's an entire World in there. In those days, it was always a double feature.

Did you get to know the owner's daughters? One was May-may and geez, can't remember the older sister. Anyway, we used to wander around to the camera room. I'll never forget the paint on the walls was thick and I used to wonder why. Now, I think it's because they just kept it fresh looking. Yes, it must've been an old building. I remember like four openings above the first row of chairs as you enter the seating area. Bathrooms were on the left wall and pay phones with the folding doors beyond that. Past the four openings, was the doorway to the other side of the seating.

On occasion, Anna and I would explore the neighbor business. It was a Mexican market. When I smell peppers and some kinds of tortillas cooking, it brings my memories back to that market. It was always dark in there for some there was only one light bulb illuminating the entire market. In reality, it was probably the size of a 7-11 is now. When you're young and little, even small spaces seem larger in your memory.

Lots of times, I would go with my Dad to see American movies. Mom and Anna usually went the Chinese route. But have ya considered the theater houses in downtown too? I remember seeing Bonnie and Clyde, The Cyclops, Sinbad, and One Million Years B.C. (with Raquel Welch) and many, many others. I used to love when that velvet curtain came down at the end of the show. Dad used to buy Milk Duds for me and let me hide under his coat when there were scary movies. I loved it.
From C.O.:
What a surprise to get this email... My sister, another friend and I used to go see martial arts movies at Kim Sing all the time in the 70s and 80s. Starting with the kung fu movies which vilified the Manchus and fought with patriotic fighters often trained by Shaolin Temple monks to sword-fighting movies that were more romanticized (like Sentimental Swordsmen), we saw a heck of a lot of movies during those days. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon brought back a lot of memories for us—the effects and photography were just a lot nicer and better.

Kim Sing was an outlet for the Shaw Brothers production company movies. Less popular for us were the ones by Golden Harvest shown at the theater just west of Broadway on the northern end of Chinatown. Sing Lee on Spring Street was okay but mostly played modern themed movies but once in a while came out with a good martial arts movie.

When my sister and I actually took kung fu lessons, it wasn’t uncommon to go and see other class members at Kim Sing. At the time, Chinese martial arts movies were popular among high school and college students--I recall seeing former UCLA and NBA basketball player Kiki Vandeweghe there with friends while he was a student.

We’d sometimes sit and watch 2 showings of the films—talk about a long afternoon at the movies... It was great when 2 good movies were paired together. Often it was a martial arts period film and then a modern movie.

We had our favorite actors and knew some of their background. Some were actual participants in the Asian martial arts competitions (Chen Kuan Tai was a champion in 1969) and a few came up through the ranks of studio sponsored classes.

Some other favorites: Fu Sheng, Ti Lung, can’t remember other names who played supporting roles or villains but will recognize faces ... Some of the names of fighting styles were interesting: drunken monkey, white eyebrow (!)

Below is a response I received September 11, 2010 from D.Y., for whom the theater had a profound impact on life growing up nearby:

Going to see the Chinese movies at Kim Sing Theater was the only entertainment my family had while I was growing up in LA Chinatown in the 1960’s. We lived on Alpine Street at Yale Street, near South China Bakery (you must remember their almond cookies which were the best in my humble opinion.)  Every Sunday afternoon, after all housework and homework were done, my mom, my two younger sisters, and I would walk up Alpine to Kim Sing to catch the 2:30 (or was it 2:00?) afternoon show. Our friends, the Chengs who lived on Hill Place would wait for us at the steps of the Croatian Church on Grand Avenue so that we could go to movies together. My mom would pay the 75 cents adult ticket while we three kids got in free. There was an understanding between the theater owner and its patrons that kids were to make purchases at the snack counter to make up for the free admissions. I would get a bottle of Orange Crush soda, while my sisters would get either 7 Up or Coca Cola and we usually got the salted shredded red ginger strips and the salted dried plums or maybe some MM’s (no popcorn here). My mom would sometimes bring dried water melon seeds to crack and snack on as did the other movie goers. That theater floor must have been a mess by closing time!  It was always a double feature so we wouldn’t leave the theater after 6 pm to go home for dinner.

Unlike you and some of the other Chinese American kids, my sisters and I actually stayed with our mom and watched the movies. We loved the fantasy ones which had “magic” (special effects) in them – fairies, genies, sorcerers, giants. Our second favorites were the marital arts ones which we called “fighting” movies back then. Mr. Cho Dat Wah and Ms. Yee So Chow were the best screen couple when it came to sword fights. Can anybody else remember their four part movie, “Buddha’s Palm”?  Hong Kong movie makers were making sequels decades before Hollywood did. Then there were the comedies, particularly those featuring the rotund but extremely talented couple of Mr. Leung Sing Bo and Ms. Tam Lan Hing. Romance movies with dashing Patrick Tse Yin and sensuous Patsy Kar Ling finally showed a Chinese couple kissing on screen! Then there were dramas with Mr. Ng Choi Fan and Ms. Pak Yin who made movies commenting on the evils of feudal thinking or on social ills. Bruce Lee co-starred in their Hong Kong movie “The Orphan” before coming to the US in 1958. I remember watching it at Kim Sing. Now you can only view this movie at the Hong Kong Film Archives. And lastly, the costume films which included opera singing which usually starred Ms. Yim Kim Fei and Ms. Pak Suet Seen were somewhat less enjoyable, but we loved watching them anyways. As you may remember, these films were usually only in black and white, so when there was one in color, it was a special event!

I actually watched more Chinese movies (hundreds) than my friends who are from Hong Kong. My parents never took us to see American movies with the exception of Disney cartoons. I knew more about the Chinese movie stars than the American ones until I was in high school. I saw the Chinese version of “Little Women” years before seeing the original American movie. Looking back now, I can honestly say that by watching Chinese movies while growing up made a positive impact on me. Firstly, I learned standardized Hong Kong Cantonese. Secondly, with the absence of Asians in the movies and televisions, I grew up watching Chinese playing “normal” roles whereas in American media, we were usually stereotypes and unbecoming ones at that. With Chinese movies, while there were evil villains, clowns, geeks, wanton women, there were also handsome and brave Chinese men and beautiful and strong Chinese women. I also learned from these movies about moral values, the importance of family, loyalty, friendship, justice, and though not true in real life, that good guys always win by the end of the movie. But more importantly, going to Kim Sing to watch movies with my family was one ritual that was purely for leisure and enjoyment.  We could forget about school, work, and our own woes and worries and laugh or cry together for a few hours every Sunday afternoon.

Thanks for bringing up Kim Sing Theater. It brings back a lot of good memories.

I told D.Y. that in the 1970s I worked in Chinatown at a store called Mama Quon's, owned by the Quon Brothers of the Grand Star Restaurant.  D.Y. added on September 13th:

One of the blogs on Kim Sing mentioned the daughters of the theater owners. I believe the older sister’s name was May while the younger sister was Mamie. They were surnamed Wong. I remember May manning the ticket booth and there was also a Mrs. Tom, a middle aged lady who was always knitting while she sat in the ticket booth.

The other theaters were Sing Lee on Spring Street and Gum (Kim) Do on the corner of Cottage Home and Broadway.

Also, someone mentioned going to dinner at Yee Mee Loo at the corner of Ord and Spring Streets. My dad worked there as cook from its conception in the 1940’s until he retired in 1970.

Mama Quon was a local legend, so I remember her well. By any chance, did you know the Hong family that owned Hong Kong Low Restaurant? Or the Louie family that owned the House of Louie Gift Store? One of the brothers, Raymond Louie was my algebra teacher at Nightingale Jr. High while one of sister-in-law, Catherine Louie was a business teacher and later a counselor at Belmont High. Phoenix Bakery is another Chinatown institution. Gosh, there are some old places that are still around while others are gone – Yee Sing Chong, Grandview Gardens, Kwan Lee Lung, Johnny’s Liquor store, Lime House (replaced by CBS Seafood) on Ord, Sam Sing Meat Market (where they had “Blackie” the gilded pig in their window), etc. I haven’t check to see if Moytel on Yale St. is still around or not.

Years earlier, during World War II, the theater nor the neighborhood was known as Chinese.  A historical account, Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon, chronicles the troubles of Mexican American youth and their participation in the "zoot suit riots."  The book recalls the summer of 1942 when sailors from the Naval Armory at Chavez Ravine nearby swept through the Alpine/Figueroa neighborhood looking for "Alpine boys."  The Carmen Theater operated at that corner and was infiltrated one night as sailors barged in and beat several young boys inside who were wearing the provocative zoot suits.

A.W. told me on Sunday, September 19th, about his visits to the Kim Sing Theater during those years when martial arts films were screened.  He said he would attend every weekend and often it would be standing room only in the theater of those viewing the Shaw Brothers' movies.  A.W. said that before that the theater's business was very slow, and movie-going attendance really picked up after martial arts films were shown.

I chatted with G.H. at the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California's exhibit table on Saturday, October 23rd at the Fifth Annual Los Angeles Archives Bazaar .  He point out that Kim Sing Theater was the first to screen a Communist Chinese film, Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.  (According to Wikipedia, the film, made in 1970, was based on a contemporary Chinese opera.  The film was shown over and over again to inculcate and indoctrinate the people towards Communist ideology.)  President Richard Nixon opened China's participation with the U.S. and the world after 1972, so I gather that the film's release in Los Angeles was enabled by Nixon's efforts.  Learning of this, I also gather that it was a rather avant-garde move by Kim Sing, especially as the Chinese community was probably very conservative.