The Playful Chinese Chicken

My friend Tomas Cookman, the genio behind Nacional Records, recently told me he grew up in New York City’s Chinatown.

So of course, I had to ask: Did you know the chicken?

I didn’t mean mu shu chicken or chicken chow mein.

I meant the chicken of a Mott St. arcade, the chicken made semi-famous by journalist Calvin Trillin that would play tic-tac-toe against visitors for 50 cents – and win every match.

Willy prepares for another game of tic-tac-toe / Michael S. Yamashita – CORBIS

“Yes, I remember that chicken well,” said Tomas. “I always wondered why the humane society did not come save it.”

Coin-operated animal acts were quite popular from the mid-‘70s to early ‘80s, Trillin wrote in the New Yorker, especially at mom-and-pop amusement parks.  And Mott St. had been home to game-playing chickens since at least the early ‘60s, according to one historian quoted in the New York Times.

Calvin Trillin’s New Yorker article – “The Chicken Vanishes” / New Yorker

As it turns out, the tic-tac-toe chicken known to Trillin and Tomas, named Willy, was trained by graduate students of B.F. Skinner, one of the giants of behavioral psychology.   Willy died in 1993, but was replaced.  Then one day in 1999, the whole attraction disappeared.

But wait, there’s more.

Tomas tells me that the arcade was the main hangout of the Ghost Shadows gang – “pretty scary stuff.”  The group, comprised of immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, “terrorized Chinatown for more than two decades,” according to the New York Times.  Its turf wars against five other Asian gangs were notorious for violence and bloodshed.

Things are different now.  The gangs are gone.  The chicken never returned.  And other things are changing too.

Tomas tells me:

“A few years ago I walked by it (sin pollo) and there were kids of color and many non-Chinese hanging.  That would never have happened back in the day.

…And so NY continues changing.”



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