Sai Woo’s neon sign returns to Chinatown

Sign sheds light on restaurant’s long history


Salli Pateman had to navigate an impossible web of stress, asbestos and decay for close to five years before seeing the proverbial light.

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As owner of the Sai Woo restaurant on Pender Street, Pateman got her moment in the sun Saturday, July 29, when the Chinatown mainstay installed a re-imagined neon sign that harkens back 60 years.

The eight foot, yellow, green and red rooster was lit up before a crowd of more than 250 people at the unveiling ceremony, and it’s the first time the cock of the block has been a fixture in Chinatown since 1959.

“When the light went on, it was just so amazing,” Pateman said. “We played the chicken song and everybody did the chicken dance. It was so fun. Very full and very busy.”

The fun was almost for not just hours before the long-anticipated event. As structural engineers initially tried to hang the rooster, the building’s walls weren’t able absorb or disperse the weight. Cue the scrambling, phone calls and a plea for thicker cables. As that was playing out, Pateman’s invited guests and clientele were contacting her non-stop about the evening’s details, available room and the RSVP list. A razor-thin margin of time ended up separating fun from fail.

“The whole time I’m think it’s not going to be a very fabulous unveiling party when we don’t have anything to unveil,” Pateman said. “There were hours passing where we didn’t know if they were going to be able to figure it out or not.”

Pateman’s sign saga dates back long before last week. The building opened in 1925 and has been an eatery in some shape or from since that time. Neon signs were all the rage throughout the downtown core up until the 1970s, when they were deemed “light pollution” and removed en masse.

Pateman took over Sai Woo in mid-2013, and spent two years bringing the building up to code: clearing asbestos, renovations out the wazoo and raising the foundation by two inches. Forty industrial garbage bins were filled and hauled out before doors opened in late March 2015.

The rooster sign was absent in physical form and from memory. Early last year Pateman’s friend found a one-second clip from an old parade video from 1958 that showed the Sai Woo at that time, complete with the sign. A four-month search began that saw Pateman contact well-known Vancouver development and business players — Bob Rennie and Jim Pattison among others — and a cash reward was offered up.

No dice. Back to the drawing board.  

Enter Troy Hibbs and Surrey-based TDH Experiential Fabricators, which was tasked with re-creating the rooster based on a one-second video still.

“It’s not like we had HD, beautiful quality video,” Hibbs said. “It’s very grainy and missing a lot of detail, so we really had to study the other signs as well to see what the applications were at the time to make sure we were hitting the mark to recreate it.”

As Hibbs’ team worked at building the sign, Pateman worked on building capital. A Kickstarter campaign was launched and had a one-month window to raise the required $18,000. With seven days to go, the campaign was still $5,000 short; on deadline day, Pateman was $522 short.

Neighbourhood friend and Modernized Tailors owner Steven Wong stepped up in the clutch with just hours to go before the campaign ended. He hand delivered the necessary cash as a tribute to his late father, Bill, who died a week before his donation. Wong’s dad frequently dined at Sai Woo in its previous iteration.

“I almost tear up just thinking about it,” Pateman said. “Hopefully this sign is a sign of other people bring us back to that neon glam era and hopefully more people will start using signage again down here. It is such a great way of honouring the neighbourhood and going back to the very beginning of Chinatown.”



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