Ghosts of Chinatown Fair
“If you played Fighting Games, and you were serious? You were there.”
Chinatown Fair, or simply CF, is a mythical city on the hill for fighting game players. For twenty years, it was the epicenter of competitive fighting games on the East Coast. Since the genre’s explosion in the 1990s and through to the 2000s, CF would foster competitive communities for Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Marvel VS Capcom 2, and the early days of Street Fighter IV. Until its closure in February 2011, Chinatown Fair was the temple for nearly every top player in the Northeastern United States. Competition at the arcade was so consistently high that CF Alums continue to have strong tournament showings in modern fighters. Of note, the cutthroat “Winner Stays” nature of arcades developed the unique New York Playstyles of Justin Wong, Arturo Sanchez, and Eddie “Do More” Lee.
NYC’s last arcade might be gone, but it follows everyone who put their quarter up like an aura. If you know to look for it, you can almost tell if someone’s played sets at CF. As a player who’s lost to Justin twice, Arturo once, and nearly everyone who comes out to the basement at Next Level (A Modern Successor to Chinatown Fair), CF Killers are more than a myth.
Chinatown Fair’s players want you dead, and they don’t want luck to get in their way. Their ground game is immaculate, honed from years of tense play. Winning at CF consistently meant leveraging total control of the screen. Risks are always calculated. Losing at Chinatown Fair meant going to the back of the line. On busy days, players could be expected to wait for nearly half an hour before they got back on a popular machine. When Street Fighter IV saw a limited arcade release in 2008, Chinatown Fair was the only place in New York that had it. Lines for that title would stretch out the door, and losing meant waiting over an hour to try again. To this day, when a local steps up, they aren’t in it to lose.
Brooklyn Games and Arcade is a far cry from the crimson walls and cigarette smoke of Chinatown Fair. From the street, it actually doesn’t bear resemblance to an arcade at all. Inside however, is a thriving King of Fighters community and a look at what modern arcades have turned into. Shortly after CF’s closure, its denizens scattered to the winds. There was a documentary and manager Henry Cen opened another competitive venue, but some players were still left behind. Chinatown Fair regulars wax poetic about how amazing it all was- How incredible playing shoulder to shoulder felt. I was inclined to believe the stories I’d hear, but I’d never actually met a CF player who hadn’t made their life revolve around fighting games. Nostalgia can be powerful.
Back to Brooklyn. It’s a colder Thursday than usual, outside and in. I’ve been the only Street Fighter player in the store for three hours. Most of the setups at Brooklyn Games have been brought into the 21st century: The SEGA Versus City machine upstairs has traded its 3rd Strike board for a MiSTer, a hardware emulator that aims to be leagues more accurate than MAME. With a button combination, anyone on the machine can pick from hundreds of backups, indistinguishable from their original boards.
In between high score attempts on Final Fight, I’ll pull up my favorite version of Street Fighter II to decompress. From where I’m sitting, I can’t see the door, and Player Two’s controls are attached to a second screen on the other side of this 400-Pound Cabinet.
HERE COMES A NEW CHALLENGER!
My rival jiggles the lever, bouncing their cursor around the character select screen. They ponder Ken, then rocket over to Blanka, both very strong picks in this version of the game. Regardless of their choice, it’ll be an uphill battle for my Zangief.
Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting might be the most brutal game in its genre. HF doesn’t have long combos, a large roster, or many mechanics. What it does have is big damage. Jumps are deadly in this game, so having good ground to air counters is hugely important. If your opponent makes a good read, one deep hit from above can spell disaster. Stun is also a factor. Taking too many hits in a short period leaves you dizzy and completely vulnerable. It’s very rare that a stun doesn’t end the round outright, and in some situations getting stunned can be random.
I’m not to muse over character tiers, but the Blanka/Zangief Matchup is a nightmare. On the ground, Blanka has beefy punches and can fish for a leg sweep from long range. If he scares you into doing nothing, his speedy movement compliments his mixups. As Zangief, a big part of the fight is putting your opponent on the defensive. But a lumbering walk, no projectile, and stubbier attacks mean I need to pick moves very carefully, and work to set my opponent up for a few big throws.
Zangief also lacks a tool that became a fighting game institution: The Dragon Punch. A deadly special move, the best characters in Street Fighter II have an invincible uppercut that knocks opponents out of the air. For Zangief, his options against an airborne opponent are just okay.
Right from the jump, Blanka is unrelenting. The first round starts with a test, an “innocent” stroll into range of my furthest attack. When I don’t answer with the right button, Blanka punches me in the stomach. We poke at each other for a moment, then comes another test. This time, a risky jump. I react in time, and Zangief’s Lariat trades hits with Blanka’s aerial attack. My opponent takes note- They won’t be jumping again for a while.
Competitive Street Fighter is more akin to conversation than argument. The “louder” player rarely wins outright. Reckless offense is not only predictable, but ludicrously unsafe. While it’s easy to embellish the fight to serve the narrative, I can say that I had nothing going for me in that first match. If this was Chinatown Fair, I would’ve been headed to the back of the line.
Kels Blanka is a Union Steamfitter from Staten Island. He started playing at CF in the 1990s and hung around up to its closure in 2011. He doesn’t have a Twitter, a Twitch, or much Social Media presence at all. He loves Capcom VS SNK 2, and he’ll be quick to tell you that.
Kels, in a roundabout way, represents the heart of Chinatown Fair. When Fighting Game Historians look back on the arcade, they’ll rightfully obsess over the pillars in that community and what they’ve gone on to do: The Justin Wongs, Sanford Kellys, and Michael Mendozas. While Kels was just another customer, he and everyone that shared his experience own just as much stake in CF as JWongg, Santhrax, or Yipes.
Everyone that ever came out is a Chinatown Fair player. Whether it was for an afternoon, a week, or twenty years- These players are a part of New York’s Fighting Game Community. Without them, we don’t have a community.
When I hear Kels recall stories from Chinatown, I can’t help but smile. It wasn’t just a place to play Street Fighter, it was home. The arcade created friendships and rivalries that still persist today. Chinatown Fair transcended age, gender, wealth- It was a truly inclusive space for fighting game fans.
“If you could take sets, if you could hang, people would remember your name.”
I wouldn’t say it was safe or clean to pack 120 New Yorkers into a Chinatown storefront. I will say, however, that fighting games would look very different if Chinatown Fair never existed. And as we approach the 10th Anniversary of its closure, I pray every fighting game player finds a place they can call their CF.