When is a decayed building sign from a long-gone Chinese restaurant more than that? Put another way, what inspires people to spend $77,000 in a terrible recession to re-erect an obsolete chop suey sign?
If you're one of the owners of Ping restaurant or a leader with the Portland Development Commission, the decision was much less counter-intuitive that in might seem.
"It’s something more than simply a funny iconic part of tourism," says John Jay, a co-owner of Ping (located at the base of the building previously housing Hung Far Low) and the Executive Creative Director at Weiden + Kennedy ad agency. "Sometimes we need these icons, these visual symbols to say there is something happening here. That symbol for us is a very much a glue or a magnet that’s attracting future generations and the past."
The Hung Far Low Building was completed in 1917. It was first a millinery factory and shop. While the Chinese were forbidden by law from owning property, it was secretly purchased by one of Chinatown's most influential residents, Wong On. He created the Hung Far Low Restaurant in 1928 and operated on the second floor until its move to SE 82nd Avenue in 2005. The sign was removed during the 2008-09 renovation of the Hung Far Low building, which now houses Ping. Portland citizens rallied to restore the 2000-pound landmark, raising more than $8,600. PDC closed the remaining gap with approximately $45,000 in grant funding.
For years people have enjoyed how the name seems to euphemistically allude to sizable male endowment. It was (and is) a pop cultural icon of Portland, both for the joke and for its role as the primary visual symbol of the city's Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood - even more so than the Chinatown gate on Burnside.
As it happens, Hung Far Low translates as "almond blossom fragrance" in the Chinese dialect of Taisan, which once ruled the streets of Chinatowns in midcentury America but has now been supplanted by Mandarin (and English).
Yet, the sign's return comes at a time when many Chinatown restaurants and businesses have moved to 82nd Avenue. Is this an effort to bring back the past or to mythologize it?
"Obviously we would invite any of the families or business to return, but that’s not the sole purpose," says Jay, who partnered in Ping with Kurt Huffman, Andy Ricker and wife Janet Jay. "Our goal is a new vision that is not simply restoring a neighborhood. The world right now is being inspired right now in many ways from contemporary culture coming from Asia. We hope it’s not just a return of Chinatown but an evolution of a neighborhood that speaks to greater Asia."
I've interviewed John Jay numerous times before, including for this 2007 profile for Oregon Business magazine. Although he is often on the road at W+K's offices in Tokyo, Shanghai and New Dehli, Jay is passionate about Portland as a creative capital and the source of youthful outsider energy that the rest of the world is already well enamored with. He's got his hands in numerous different projects, such as Ping, as an adviser to Pacific Northwest College of Art, his curating an art show last year in conjunction with the Portland Art Museum's "China Design Now", and his efforts to bring Asian market Uwajimaya to Old Town/Chinatown. Jay also comes from humble origins in Columbus, Ohio at a time when Chinese culture and cuisine was a point of entry to millions of Americans to Asia. It was very important in restoring the Hung Far Low sign, for example, that the original phrase "chop suey" be restored, because that dish was a staple of 1950s and '60s Chinese-American cuisine.
"I grew up in a Chinese laundry with immigrant parents," Jay adds. "There is a certain energy and magnetism that sign causes us to have warm feelings about. I think today Chinatowns all over America are very diverse. They have Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. The sign is a bridge. I always say...i just spoke to graduating seniors of Chinese descent from Portland high schools. It sounds a bit cliché, but I told them to remember the shoulders you’re standing on."
When I heard that PDC committed $45,000 to the sign's restoration, part of me felt skeptical. In this kind of terrible economy, couldn't that money have gone to something more (if you'll pardon the pun) constructive? At the same time, when one sees the sign back in its place, which it has been since its return on September 2 with an outdoor celebration (including Hung Far Low owner Bruce Wong and his family), it's hard to feel anything but glad to see it's back. I think it's true that sometimes a sign is more than a sign, just like aging architecture is worth something more than the sum of its square footage and land value. Surely some will shake their heads at spending $77,000 to restore the sign from a restaurant that is no longer there and say it's another case of Quirky Portland. But if celebrating local symbols that combine pop cultural and world cultural history is wrong, let's not race to be right.