For 30 years Chinatown Fair Video Arcade has stood at 8 Mott Street in New York City's Chinatown, entertaining gamers. Despite its age, it also stands as an environment for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) youth to just be themselves.
While the world of gaming has labored to deal with the gay question, Chinatown Fair counts LGBT teens and adults among some of its most frequent and valued customers. People traverse from machine to machine, unmoved by even the most blatant public shows of affection. The politics of Street Fighter are deemed more pressing then those of society at large.
"It's a friendly environment," said Amir Santiago,18. Along with Gabriel Cortez, 17, and Pedro Villalta, 17, he frequents Chinatown Fair at least three times a week, often coming after all three finish school. Cortez and Villalta come to the arcade to play Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) though it could look more like a practice routine. They both are capable of breezing through songs on the highest difficulty. Santiago admitted that he comes for the fighting games, in particular Tekken 6, but doesn't mind watching his friends play DDR. In between games, Cortez often sits on Santiago's lap. His boyfriend embraces him lovingly. "Teens feel safe to be openly gay here," Cortez later informed me. They're not the only ones to take liberty with the arcade's open environment. Queer and transgender gamers express themselves without inhibition, even during the arcades busiest hours.
"We get all sorts," said Derrick Rodder, 34. "We got dudes that go to raves. We got anime nerds, otaku, and we get professional players." He's been going to Chinatown Fair for 25 years and worked there for the last 10. Like all the other employees of Chinatown Fair, he's paid minimum wage, but his enthusiasm for the arcade hasn't faded. Chinatown Fair isn't flawless. "Sometimes there's drunk people [or an] occasional homeless person. Sometimes kids, you know, are kids. They get into fights, and you have to break it up — just life."
While New York City is a diverse metropolis eight million strong, it's also a profile of American popular opinion, prejudices and morals. Arcades scattered throughout the city are not immune to the delicacies of adolescent homophobia. For example, a gay gamer visiting the now-shuttered arcade in the Port Authority, in the middle of Manhattan, would have risked homophobic harassment from other customers. Coney Island, Brooklyn is still a scene of macho aggression and hatred towards out LGBT individuals. This homophobia seeps into its boardwalk arcade.
The arcade in Chinatown attracts people of all backgrounds, granted they're brave enough to enter a hole in the wall missing several letters off the front sign. Tourist groups occasionally shuffle in the front door, informed by their guide that Chinatown Fair is the oldest arcade in the City. "They're gonna go in," said Santiago. "They're gonna smell the sweat they're gonna see people playing and their gonna leave...It's not that you have to bring certain groups here, it's just you have to know what type of people are not gonna be annoyed or frustrated with the sweat, and the smell, and the heat" said Santiago.
A distinct smell hits you as you reach halfway in, at which point the hall makes a sharp 90 degree turn forming the shape of an "L." It's a mix of soggy socks, musk and puberty, but nothing that takes away from your enjoyment or general comfort that wasn't already shattered by the trash-ridden streets of Chinatown. "If you bring people that are use to arcades being perfect, clean, nice, and fresh they'll just go ewww and then walk out" said Santiago.
Today most arcades in the city are side attractions to batting cages, restaurants or in Coney Islands case an amusement park. "They sell alcohol around Coney Island [arcade]," said Villalta, one of Chinatown Fair's gay patrons. "So people get a little out of their minds and decide to, like, you know, mock you or laugh at you or just jeer you basically. So the environment in here is just more relaxed. Everyone is doing their own thing."