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Illumination: Recreating Sai Woo’s neon rooster

Photo courtesy Ocean Peak Studios

By Peter Saunders
TDH Experiential Fabricators recently designed, built and artificially weathered a vintage-style neon sign for Sai Woo, a restored restaurant in Vancouver’s Chinatown. A faithful recreation of the site’s iconic original sign, which depicted a rooster with flapping wings, the project was achieved based only on a few seconds of grainy film footage shot nearly 60 years ago of a Chinatown parade passing by the building.

Restoring a restaurant
The original Sai Woo opened at 158 East Pender Street in 1925 and operated until 1959. When restaurant owner Salli Pateman recently took over the 557-m2 (6,000-sf) space—which had hosted a series of other eateries over the years since, including New Town Bakery from 1980 to 2010—the only visual she had seen of its original appearance was a municipal archives photo from 1936. It showed a group of staff and customers standing on the curb in front of the restaurant’s façade, recognizable by the words ‘Sai Woo Chop Suey’ in the windows, but not including a main sign above them.

“That photo cemented the choice of this particular Chinatown location for me when I wanted to open my next restaurant,” she explains. “I named my new venture Sai Woo in honour of that legacy.”

After finding the space in January 2013, Pateman signed her lease in May and began the long process of refurbishment to bring the heritage building up to code, working with Falken Reynolds Interiors, DoMain Creative Design Services and Milltown Contracting to turn it into a clean, modern facility.

“That work took almost two years because the building was in such a state of disrepair,” she says. “It was a huge ordeal that involved removing layers and layers of carpeting, linoleum and even sections of the wooden floor that were no longer structurally sound. We cleared out the asbestos and raised the foundation by two inches. In total, we filled 40 industrial bins with garbage that had to be hauled away before we could open.”

Andrew Hibbs, who owns Endeavour Neon and works regularly with TDH, is reportedly Vancouver’s youngest neon bender.
Photo be Jennilee Marigomen

Fortunately, a sufficient number of the restaurant’s reclaimed Douglas fir floorboards turned out to be salvageable.

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“Now, when you walk into the restaurant, you’re actually walking on the original floor from 1925,” Pateman says.

Tracking down a design
The new Sai Woo opened in March 2015 to strong reviews for both the interior design and the menu—but without the iconic sign, as Pateman was still trying to find some hint
as to what it actually looked like.

“I had been unable to find any other images of the restaurant, so I spoke to a friend in Calgary who’s a really good researcher,” she says. “Just a little while later, she sent me a YouTube clip of the footage of the parade—and there was the rooster. She said, ‘look, it’s your building!’ I was so excited, I knew I had to bring that sign back.”

She offered $500 to anyone who could find the lost sign, but while many responses came in with related information, it was ultimately to no avail. She gave up four months into the search.

“I was a bit bummed out about it,” she says, “but then I learned about TDH, which had been doing neon signs forever, including some in Chinatown.”

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