Giant neon rooster sign sparks nostalgia in Chinatown

Salli Pateman wanted to pay homage to the history of the Chinatown restaurant she bought but when she couldn't track down the original neon sign, she decided to have one made.
Sai Woo Restaurant now has a recreation of the original neon sign 7:18

An archival photo from 1936 of the original Sai Woo restaurant on Pender Street in Vancouver's Chinatown was all it took to convince Salli Pateman to purchase and reopen the historic space.

"That building has always had a restaurant for almost 100 years," said Pateman "That cemented it for me that it needed to be Sai Woo again."

In a quest for authenticity, Pateman has even commissioned a custom replica of the restaurant's historic neon sign.

Chinatown's chop suey

The Sai Sai Woo Chop Suey opened in the building at 158 East Pender in 1925. It was owned by the Chin Wing Chun Society since 1925.

Pateman felt she had to keep the name and as much of the original character as possible, so she restored and incorporated many original features.

"I think [Chinatown] must have been such a social Mecca of dining and gathering and entertaining," she told Gloria Mackarenko, host of Our Vancouver.

Renovations wrapped up and Sai Woo reopened in its contemporary form in 2015 but it wasn't until last year that Pateman learned about the existence of the iconic rooster-clad sign.  

A girlfriend sent her video of  the 1956 Chinatown Parade. There on the screen was the rooster in all of its neon glory.

At first she was confused and asked her friend where the video came from, not realizing that the restaurant on the screen was her own Sai Woo.

"She said, 'It's yours, you idiot,'" Pateman recalled.

After months of searching, Pateman came up dry but was already set on making the sign a part of East Pender once again.

She reached out to TDH Experiential Fabricators, a company run by the Hibbs family.

The art of neon

"Our family's got deep roots and history in neon, so any neon projects we're excited, but this one particularly, just because of the history behind it," said Troy Hibbs.

They set to work recreating the original working from the grainy images of the sign captured in the parade video.

Using decades-old techniques to build the sign, the team aged it to make it look like it had been weathered and worn.

Hibbs said people appreciate the art of hand-shaped neon and feel nostalgic for the time when that part of the city was under a big neon glow.

The re-created neon sign cost $18,000 which was raised through the community and neighbouring businesses. (Salli Pateman)

The sign recreation was an $18,000 project. Luckily, the community got on board and raised the capital through crowdfunding.

"I was almost in tears when the giant rooster was coming down the street and there it was," said Pateman.

The new rooster sign finally buzzed to life in late July.

Watch Salli Pateman and Troy Hibbs in conversation with Gloria Mackarenko of Our Vancouver in the video at the top of the page.

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