THE BELLA UNION MOVIE THEATER
For a long time, the building at 825 Kearney Street was a theatre – locals still remember it, but like all other movie theatres that used to operate in Chinatown it has been closed for several years. Since a bit of remodeling it isn’t even recognizable, and is now used as retail space.
大都戲院 'BIG CITY PLAYHOUSE'
1st. incarnation: Shanghai Theater – till 1913.
2nd. incarnation: Kearney Theater – 1913 till late thirties.
3rd. incarnation: The Kearney Burlesque – till 1947 or early 48.
4th. incarnation: The Rex Theater – till late 1948.
5th. incarnation: From 1948 on The Bella Union.
It is by that last name that most Chinatown English-speakers will know it. But to many people, it will always be the Taai Tou Hei Yuen.
Movies from Hong Kong, many in Mandarin. This was before the HK movie industry swung back to using their native tongue.
A previous generation, however, knew it as a place of live entertainment catering to bachelors from Luzon and the Visayas.
OLD PHILIPPINO UNCLES
Unlike the Chinatown theatres that I mentioned in some of my previous posts, I have never been inside. That is something I regret, as a number of people I know have fond memories of seeing movies there as children.
[For more on C'town movie theaters, click here: 戲院.
It will bring up all posts in which Cantonese cinema is mentioned.]
By the time I wanted to go there it had closed – either tail-end of 1985 or the first half of 1986. For another few years it was empty, a fading poster of some mainland movie that looked deliciously tearjerking by the door. That stretch of Kearney Street was rather depressing, as it faced the hole in the ground where the International Hotel once stood.
Manila Town, as the two blocks north from the square were called, had ceased to exist by the eighties.
The lynchpin of that stretch had been the International Hotel, inhabited mostly by elderly retired gentlemen who came to the United States during the era of racial segregation. Hard workers, hard lives. Many had never married.
When the building was bought, the SF city government collaborated with the owners to put all the occupants on the street.
By the mid-eighties most Philippinos had already relocated, though a few eccentric Manongs remained in some of the residential hotels nearby. There were still two or three stores in Chinatown that sold food-stuffs from the islands. Over time they also started disappearing.
Up to the late eighties there was a store on Grant Avenue that carried atsara and banana ketchup, patis, atsuete (annatto seeds, for hueing your food more rubicund), along with bago’ong (“bagaong”), lumpia skins, small redbean-paste confections, noodles, and such like. Plus all the sweet ingredients for halo halo.
It closed a short time after the Loma Prieta earthquake.
Manila Town, such as it presently is, can be found in the vicinity of Moscone Center.
The giant International Hotel hole in the ground existed as a pit of contention for nearly thirty years – through several city governments, and much fighting about development plans, plus changes of ownership.
Now a city college campus is rising on the site, and there’s a Philippino social center on one corner.
California society is different now.
The Manongs have mostly passed away. Their world is gone.
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