Chinatown tea house robbed of movie stardom

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 July, 2008, 12:00am

New York

The sign above the door of Nam Wah Tea Parlour has faded so much that you can't trace its original colour. The shop's name is in calligraphy from right to left, a style rare even in Doyers Street, one of the very traditional alleys in the heart of New York's Chinatown.

Inside, 75-year-old owner Wally Tang often sits in the dim light reading Chinese newspapers. He has owned the shop for more than 50 years, but it looks as if he was there when it opened in the 1920s.

The scene appeals not only to tourists, but to movie directors. The shop has seen many stars and been in many films.

The production companies pay Mr Tang between US$100 and US$2,000 to film in his tea house. So the US$5,000 offer from the production of Brooklyn's Finest, starring Richard Gere, was like a dream to Mr Tang. The crew planned to shoot in his shop for a day, and Mr Tang himself would also appear in the movie, having a conversation with Gere when the police officer he plays has lunch.

But on July 14, two days before the scheduled shooting, Mr Tang was told that the production didn't get a parking permit for its vehicles because of opposition from Chinatown residents, and the shoot was cancelled.

'It was such a disappointment,' Mr Tang said. 'When the crew come here, they are not only going to pay me, they are going to dine and shop in Chinatown - the whole neighbourhood will benefit. I don't understand why people oppose it.'

For Justin Yu, president of the Chinese Community Benevolent Association, the answer is obvious. 'The movie productions park their trucks here, blocking our streets, and the waste fuel emitted by the idling engines pollutes our air. They downgrade the quality of our life.'

Since the state and the city started to offer tax credits to filmmakers in 2004-05, location shooting days have climbed, hitting 34,718 in 2006, double the level in 2002, with a slight dip last year only because of a writers' strike. More productions are coming after further incentives were added in May.

Given its unique appearance, Chinatown is a major magnet. In May and June alone, six productions were shot there. But with the arrival of the stars have come rising complaints from residents and local business owners.

Mr Yu and his predecessor have talked to the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting several times since 2006, but nothing changed until recently, when Mr Yu requested that no parking permits be issued in central Chinatown.

Spokeswoman Marybeth Ihle said the agency was not restricting permits for movie shooting, but starting this month 'has temporarily restricted parking for film productions' in central Chinatown. It will decide within 60 days whether to continue the ban.

'This is like saying you can go swimming in the sea, but you cannot walk across the beach,' Gine Lui, production supervisor of Brooklyn's Finest, said of the parking restriction. 'It's no different from a ban on shooting, because there is no way we can shoot without the service trucks parking nearby.'

Although many business owners supported Mr Yu's organisation, it's not everyone's intention to make Chinatown a 'Forbidden City'.

'If they compensate us, I see no reason we won't welcome them,' said Ken Le, assistant manager of Doyers Vietnamese Restaurant. 'The big companies have been good in the past, only the small productions don't pay. They are the people we don't want.'


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