|Sai Woo Chop Suey - Vancouver | Will Rafuse | 36 x 36 | Oil on canvas | 2018|
By: Cheryl Chan - VANCOUVER SUN
Published on: August 4, 2017 | Last Updated: August 4, 2017 8:00 AM PDT
For the first time in almost 60 years, the distinctive green-and-yellow neon rooster once again reigns over Sai Woo in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
The only image restaurant owner Salli Pateman had of the original sign that used to grace the original Sai Woo on 158 East Pender St. was a brief clip on a YouTube video that her friend sent her of a Chinatown parade in 1958.
“We rebuilt this sign literally from a one-and-a-half to two-second frame,” said Pateman, with a laugh.
Resurrecting the sign was important to Pateman, who saw it as a way to pay homage to the building and neighbourhood. It would also be a memento of the past, mixed with the new, which is mirrored in the 6,000-square-foot modern Chinese eatery she opened in 2015 and named Sai Woo after the original chop-suey house that occupied the same location from 1925-1959.
Pateman tried to find the sign, launching a public appeal with a $500 reward earlier this year. She got tips and stories, but no solid leads. She turned to Kickstarter to raise the $18,000 it would cost to create a replica of the sign, offering $1 restaurant credit for every $1 donated.
On the last day of the all-or-nothing campaign, she was short $522. That final donation came from Stephen Wong, whose father, Chinatown legend Bill Wong of Modernize Tailors, used to eat at the original Sai Woo. The younger Wong said he wanted to donate the remaining funds in honour of his dad, who died in April at age 97.
“We were both so emotional that we were able to make it happen,” recalled Pateman. “It’s special that the last bit we needed came from within the community.”
Troy Hibbs of TDH Experiential Fabricators said the most challenging part of making the 6×8-foot sign was the lack of detail in the grainy screenshot image.
His team researched the area, its history and how signs were made in that era. They hand-painted the letters, used air-brushing techniques and put the sign through an aging process in order to mimic the vintage quality of the sign.
“In LED, it would look very different than what you see now. You won’t have that wow factor to it,” said Hibbs.
Decades after LED technology killed off the neon-sign industry, there are signs that neon is coming back into vogue.
TDH made the Time is Precious neon sign on the Kit and Ace building in Gastown, and the neon signs outside Chinatown restaurants Bao Bei and Juniper. It also recently retrofitted an old Midas sign on a Lululemon store in Kitsilano.
Another historic neon sign is also set to be reborn down the street on East Pender: When Chinatown landmark Foo’s Ho Ho opens next year it’ll be lit up by a three-storey neon sign on the side of the building.
Since the Sai Woo sign was installed Saturday evening, it has lit up Pender Street like a beacon. The restaurant’s entrance is small and could easily be missed by passersby, said Pateman. Now people stop constantly and take photos and admire the sign.
“Hopefully, this is the catalyst for that neon era to come back to this street,” she said.
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