Art & Advertising: Portland’s Loyalty to a Chop Suey Sign
The American Advertising Museum once took up a storefront in Old Town. Its kitschy collection included Bob’s Big Boy, Buster Brown, Mr. Peanut, and the Jantzen Diving Girl in her red tank suit. I visited in 1999, five years before it was shuttered, and I became infatuated with its collection of Volkswagen magazine ads with the minimalist, two-columns of copy propping up a knocked-out photo of a shiny yellow Beetle. My mother had two of those wonderful things when I was a kid; a VW Bug, and a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine wherein those full-page advertisements regularly showed up.
Old Town still entertains the notion that interrupting ads, goofy spokes- characters, and over-sized outdoor signage can carve themselves places in our nostalgic hearts—as the Hung Far Low sign on Northwest Fourth and Couch has. Today there’s a Pan-Asian restaurant in the building that supports the sign, and its namesake chop suey kitchen is located at Southeast 82nd and Division. Hung Far Low’s two-story-tall type attracts shutterbugs for its unintentional pun more than its stacked typography. The phrase in Cantonese means “Red Flower Restaurant,” and translates to “Almond Blossom Fragrance” in the Chinese dialect of Taisan. Around 1950 some cheeky vandals deemed the innuendo not quite obvious enough and rubbed out the last five letters of the word “cocktails” prompting the then-owner to rework the sign. Norman Wong replaced the defaced portion with the word “Restaurant,” and edited “Chop Suey” to read “Est. 1928.” The whole thing is capped with a flamboyant blue and orange pagoda that reminds me of something one might find in an illustrated children’s book.
Executive Creative Director at Wieden + Kennedy and Co-owner of Ping restaurant, John Jay occupies a corner studio in the area and has referred to the HFL structure as an icon and a symbol—even a bridge between generations. Jay was a key proponent of the restoration, and he speaks in terms that muddle strict distinction between art and advertising.
Only in Portland would the term “Re-Erect Hung Far Low” make any sense, but the HFL sign may owe its existence to amusing wordplay. The restoration and re-installation are four-year-old news, but the pagoda’s presence in one of downtown’s precious hearts and its attractiveness, punny or not, raise the question of its cultural value. The giant advertisement graces a street corner more than six miles away from its Chinese diner, not exactly effective publicity or a useful business landmark; and an icon devoid of function is often considered art. It’s hard to call the Old Town landscape bland with that sign in the picture, as is evidenced by the reliable sightings of tourists with cameras.