A young couple revitalizes a Chinatown treasure, once the stomping grounds of Bruce Lee.Generations ago, rapt crowds once filled five thriving theaters in San Francisco’s Chinatown, enthralled by the latest Hong Kong–made kung-fu flicks or the spectacle of live Chinese opera.
As years passed, though, those establishments shuttered one by one until there was only the Great Star Theater barely hanging on. Opened in 1925, the Jackson Street venue with the luminous red marquee has weathered a revolving door of owners and operators. Each tried to make a go of it, despite the increasingly dismal state of disrepair that left the place with leaks everywhere, sticky floors, broken bathroom sinks, no heating or ventilation, and seats so filthy that patrons took to bringing their own tissues with which to cover them. As if the situation couldn’t deteriorate further, the body of a young woman was even discovered inside in 2015.
For a time, it looked as if it was truly curtains for the last theater in North America’s oldest Chinatown, where martial arts legend Bruce Lee used to watch performances by his father, a Cantonese opera singer. That is, until two Salesforce software engineers, who had never renovated anything, dared to step in during the height of the pandemic to rescue it.
Husband and wife Roger Pincombe and Alice Chu made a commitment that others hadn’t — not merely to patch superficially here and there, but to revitalize the theater in every sense of the word. In November 2020, they signed a 10-year lease; and after raising $50,000 in donations and pouring $100,000 of their own money into refurbishments, they reopened the Great Star in June 2021. They draw no salaries, running the theater as a nonprofit, for which any gains go back into its upkeep and operation.
“They have really put their blood, sweat and tears into it,” says Betty Louie, a retired businesswoman and longtime Chinatown community leader. “I want people to be proud of the theater. It offers something uplifting for the community. It gives people a reason to come back to Chinatown and to remember their roots.”
On the couple’s first date in April 2017, they saw the Vespertine Circus’ production of Charlie & the Chocolate Circus at the Great Star. Despite its sad condition at the time, Chu, 32, from Xuchang in central China, and Pincombe, 33, from Atlanta, fell for the place.
Pincombe, a theater lover who had ushered and volunteered there years ago, sensed that underneath the layers of grime lay a gem. He just didn’t realize the work it would require, including replacing 85 sprinkler heads, overhauling the electrical system, installing ventilation with HEPA filters, reupholstering every seat, and scrubbing the once-black floors to uncover their startling white veneer underneath. New red velvet curtains were hung to improve acoustics, walls were decorated with watercolors painted by Chu’s mother, and a historic altar where Chinese opera singers used to pray was refurbished.
“When we first contemplated doing this, people told us that we were either crazy or brave,” says Pincombe, who serves as the theater’s executive director, while Chu is director of community relations. “But this place is so special. There’s a spirit you feel when you are here. Older Chinese people will stop by and tell us how they remember watching movies here. People have been extremely happy that someone cared so much to put in so much effort.”
Sellout crowds have returned for a range of programs — from gender-breaking Ballet22 performances with men on pointe to the premiere of the documentary Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres to a conversation with film star Daniel Wu, an event that benefited efforts to combat Asian hate crimes.
In 2022, the 438-seat theater will present its maiden Chinese New Year festival, February 4 to 12. And in March — just shy of the five-year anniversary of Chu and Pincombe’s first date — Vespertine will stage The Rocky Horror Circus Show, the Bay Area troupe’s tribute to the cult classic.
Prior to those events, January 7 to 23, the Great Star will have the honor of being one of the venues for the 20th anniversary of SF Sketchfest, hosting such variety shows as Asian AF and comedian Joel Kim Booster’s The Joy F*ck Club. This will mark the nationally recognized comedy festival’s first time performing in Chinatown.
“It’s a cool opportunity to bring more people into Chinatown, who might not normally go there,” says David Owen, cofounder of SF Sketchfest. “I think the performers will love being in the neighborhood. There’s a group of comedians who already make a pilgrimage every year to House of Nanking [restaurant], just around the corner from the Great Star.”
For Louie, the theater’s renaissance represents a beacon of hope in a troubling past two years in which Chinatown businesses have suffered mightily. “It shows our resilience,” she says. “It’s a way of saying that in spite of the pandemic, in spite of Trump, and in spite of the uptick in Asian violence, we as Asians still shine.”