49, Writer Who Illuminated Dark Places
Actor and Historian of Chinatown and Hudson, N.Y.
STEPHEN MILLER Staff Reporter of the Sun
Bruce Edward Hall, an actor
and author whose historical writings delved into such areas as the dark alleys
of Chinatown and upstate Hudson in its fleshpot years, died of cancer October
31, age 49.
In “Diamond Street: The Story of the
Little Town With the Big Red Light District” (1994), Hall recounted two
centuries of institutionalized ribaldry in the port town of Hudson, where the
local economy thrived on prostitution, gambling, and booze. Quaker whalers
helped establish brothels there for their lonely crews in the 1700s.The party
ended in 1950, when Governor Thomas Dewey sent in state troopers to raid illegal
businesses and arrest the local police force. Hall interviewed Hudson residents
who were nostalgic about the boom years. By the mid-1980s, when Hall purchased
and renovated a Victorian home in Hudson, the town was a dilapidated, depressed
Some of Hall’s ancestors helped found New
York’s Chinatown, and Hall used this heritage to illuminate the murky history of
tongs and teahouses in his 1999 book “Tea That Burns.”The book’s title came from
the Chinese term for the hooch Hall’s grandfather, the euphoniously named bookie
Hock Shop, vended during Prohibition years.
Hall’s great-grandfather, Hor Poa, emigrated
from China in the 1873, coming to America as a merchant. He ended up living on
Mott Street, where he became influential in Chinatown politics. The family
changed its name from “Hor” to “Hall” when Hall’s father left Chinatown for the
suburbs, where Hall was born and raised.When it came time to write about his
heritage, he combined the wonder of an outsider — confronted with a profusion of
colorful silks and kites and fetid opium dens — with the sure knowledge of an
insider who knows, quite literally, where the bodies are buried.
After studying drama at Syracuse University,
Hall worked for 13 years as an actor and puppeteer on “Romper Room,” the
televised kindergarten classroom. He played Up-Up, a puppet in a
jack-in-the-box, and Kimble, with a big furry costume. In 1994, as the show was
nearing the end of its 40 years on the air, Hall wrote with affection of “one of
the last vestiges of homegrown, make-it-up-as-you-go television.”The very first
week the show was on the air in 1953, he reported,“A child interrupted story
time to announce, “I have to go potty! And I’m doing it right now!” As
production ended, he wrote, “On the very last show, a child threw up on camera.”
Despite further forays into acting, including work with Jim Henson and the
Muppets, his future lay in writing.
extensively about Chinatown for New York magazines, and enjoyed confronting
readers with such strange mixtures of Chinese and European culture as squid and
curly fries, and a bridal shop offering wedding parties the option of dressing
up like Spaniards.
In a 2001 article in Time
Out, he wrote about a semi-secret tunnel at the base of the Bowery that has
served over the years as a stop on the underground railroad, a connection
between a Chinese opera house and the actors’ residence, and a tong battleground
where “at least four people were killed, and the police never did find the
gunmen, who escaped down the tunnels, dragging their shrieking wounded behind
them.” Its latest incarnation is as the Wing Fat Shopping Arcade.
A natural showman who moved easily between
cultures,he conducted walking tours of Chinatown. He was also a frequent
lecturer at libraries and other public forums. In 1999, he won an award from the
American Travel Writers Foundation for an article in American Heritage magazine
titled, “A Walk Through Chinatown with My Great Grandfather.”
Among the many details he uncovered in tracking
Hor Poa’s career was a maze of storerooms, cubby-hole offices with massive
Victorian safes, and even sleeping lofts that his great-grandfather constructed
at Quong Yuen Shing & Company, a shop located at 32 Mott St. The intricate
woodwork had been imported from China and installed by his great-grandfather,
who signed his work. Remarkably, the store lasted from the 1890s until just last
month, when its proprietor was finally evicted. The proprietor blamed the
downturn in business in Chinatown since September 11, 2001.
At the time of his death, Hall was mining
another aspect of his autobiography for material, working on a book to be titled
“Gay Kings (and a Queen), Lives of the Gay Monarchs of England.” A children’s
book,“Henry and the Mott Street Demons,” is due out next year.
Bruce Edward Hall
Born April 14, 1954, in Woodbury, N.J.; died
October 31 in Manhattan, of cancer; survived by his parents, Jane Ann and
Herbert Hall, siblings Amy Hall, Judy Cox, and Stephen Hall, and his companion,