Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres

Chi-hui Yang


The Castro, New Mission, Grand View, Fox, Four Star…names which conjure the rich history of San Francisco movie theatres and at the same contemporary discussions around the future of single screen theatres and the role of film houses in a city’s social fabric.

This fall features the long-awaited publishing of R.A. McBride’s Left in the Dark, a lush, 168-page book of photography and accompanying essays, edited by Julie Lindow, which documents this storied, vibrant and changing history. An examination of movie-going and exhibition, architecture, public space and community, Left in the Dark features 59 of McBride’s full-color photographs, as well as eleven essays, from writers such as Rebecca Solnit, Eddie Muller and Melinda Stone.

As a sneak preview of the book, included here are three of McBride’s photographs and an excerpt from my essay, “BEYOND KEARNY AND GRANT: The Chinatown Theatres,” which chronicles the fantastic history of San Francisco’s Chinatown movie theatres.

Click here for more information about the book, how to purchase it, and details on book launch parties in San Francisco throughout the month of October.



On May 25, 1999, San Francisco filmmaker and exhibitor Lambert Yam received a phone call about a mysterious-looking dumpster outside of Oakland’s Golden Bull Restaurant that looked as if it was full of film-related materials. Yam, the influential CEO and programmer of Chinatown’s World Theater sped across the Bay Bridge with Brian Lau, the then director of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.   What they found was an astonishing treasure trove: dumpsters and dumpsters filled with hundreds of 35mm prints of Chinese-language films with titles ranging from MONKEY KING to THE AFTERMATH OF A RED PAGODA FIRE.

After careful inspection and a bit of investigation, Yam would discover that the piles of celluloid tossed out in Oakland (almost five hundred prints total) were the property of the family of Joseph Sunn Jue. A pioneering producer and exhibitor, Jue had founded the Grandview Motion Picture company in the 1930s, which produced Chinese-language films and then the Grandview Theatre in 1940, Chinatown’s first modern movie theatre.  With the sale of the Grandview in 1975, Jue’s passing in 1987, and the closure of the Theatre in 1989, his family, former owners of the Golden Bull, had inherited hundreds of prints, and stored them in the restaurant’s basement. When the restaurant was sold in 1997, the prints were left behind for lack of storage facilities and soon forgotten. In May, 1999, a leaking pipe brought the prints to the attention of the restaurant’s new owner - now they sat in a garbage heap on 14th Street.

Thanks to that casual phone tip, Jue’s films were rediscovered along with the vibrant and bittersweet history of San Francisco’s Chinatown movie theatres, production, and distribution companies. The story takes us back 150 years and encompasses Chinese immigration to the U.S., the growth of an enormous Chinese language film circuit, and the rise and fall of the Hong Kong film industry -- all together a rather complex tapestry of social, economic, and political histories.  With the increasing drive toward home-bound entertainment, and the decline of public cultural experiences, these stories become even more inspiring.

From "BEYOND KEARNY AND GRANT: The Chinatown Theatres"


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