Was Empire Garden a Porn Palace?

A quick look at the history of this unique location in Boston's Chinatown.

Welcome to “One Last Question,” a new series where research editor Matthew Reed Baker tackles your most Bostonian conundrums. Have a question? Email him at [email protected].


Photographs by City of Boston Archives, Emily Sotomayor

Question:

I just started a new job downtown near Chinatown, and every day I walk past this Chinese restaurant on Washington Street that looks like an old theater. Which made me wonder: Back in the Combat Zone days, was this one of the neighborhood’s famous porn palaces?

—V.C., West Roxbury

Answer: 

Oh, you mean Empire Garden! It does indeed sit in the heart of the former Combat Zone, which spanned Washington Street between Essex and Kneeland. As most Bostonians know, that neighborhood started to hit peak sleaze in the 1960s: When Scollay Square was demolished to make room for Government Center, the center of vice in the city moved over here, and by 1974, the Boston Redevelopment Authority officially zoned this area a red-light district. These days, only Centerfolds and the Glass Slipper on nearby LaGrange Street still offer exotic dancers, but you can get “EXOTIC COCKTAILS” at Empire Garden—or so says its big red marquee.

The Combat Zone was home to plenty of X-rated establishments in its heyday, including the notorious Pilgrim and Naked I theaters, which were once one block over. So I understand why you would think the building at 690 Washington Street was one of them, but in fact, it has a different, even more unusual history.

Built in 1903 as the Globe Theatre, the venue hosted vaudeville for decades. In 1947, it became Loew’s Center Theatre, and soon was a double-feature movie house. As far as I can find, the raciest things ever shown here were burlesque revues for the troops during World War II and soft-core nudie flicks like The Scarlet Negligée in the late 1960s. In its final incarnation as the Pagoda, it screened Hong Kong action films. The last Chinese-language cinema in the city, the theater closed in 1995, and eventually owner David Wong turned it into Empire Garden.

In the end, all of my research made this editor hungry, so I went there for lunch on a drizzly day last month. The theater has since been split in two: The orchestra floor is unrecognizable as the Jia Ho SuperMarket, but Empire Garden, which occupies the former mezzanine, is the true definition of “faded opulence.” There, with dim sum carts arriving with brisk efficiency, I dined on dumplings and sweet sesame buns while surrounded by murals, gilt alcoves, and a grand proscenium. And as for those exotic cocktails, you can’t go wrong with the scorpion bowl.

 

Have a question for Matthew Reed Baker? Email him at [email protected].