ON THE SIDEWALKS at NW 4th and Couch Thursday night, September 2, Old Town's future gathered to welcome home a piece of its bawdy past.
The famed Hung Far Low sign was returning after a two-year banishment, and white-haired Chinese men were gawking upward alongside young white kids. Traditional lion dancers leapt around for the cameras. Meanwhile, just beyond the railing at Ping, Pearl denizens clinked cocktail glasses.
Bruce Wong, a cheerful 79-year-old whose grandfather erected the sign maybe in 1928, was the one who spoke with reporters after the spectacle. But it was renowned chef Kurt Huffman, an owner of Ping, the joint that moved in when the original Hung Far Low split for SE 82nd in 2005, who did the unwrapping.
It was Huffman's group, after all, that had worked with the city and other donors to raise the $77,000 needed to re-erect the icon. More than half, $45,000, came from the Portland Development Commission (PDC). An additional $8,600 came from selling T-shirts and other fundraisers.
That was okay with Wong. He had gotten in touch with Huffman only a few days before. And with his grandfather's sign still missing its neon lights (a flourish that could cost as much as $20,000), and with a community of Chinese at his fingertips, all Wong wanted to do now was help.
"It brings back memories," said Wong. "You get a little watery-eyed, but you can't help it."
When the crumbling sign was first exiled to a Scappoose sign repository in 2008, its disappearance helped spur an enormous community campaign determined to see a piece of Portland history—and endless font of dick jokes—preserved. The sign needed repainting and a new aluminum frame before it could be reattached.
But for all the talk of history on Thursday—very personal history for the Wong family—it was also clear that the sign doesn't really represent Chinatown anymore. If anything, it represents how Portland's official Chinatown has become home to few Chinese citizens or businesses.
Finding the real Chinatown, and the real Hung Far Low, means trekking out to SE 82nd.
While dozens celebrated the grand unveiling downtown, the actual Hung Far Low Restaurant at SE 82nd and Division was almost empty.
The restaurant's owners moved their business during the PDC's years-long urban renewal process, saying the noisy construction and increasing rent hurt their sales. It was a complaint echoed by many other former residents, unimpressed by the PDC's efforts to keep an Asian gloss on the rapidly gentrifying area ["A Tale of Two Chinatowns," News, Dec 28, 2006].
Census data for Portland shows that most of the city's Asian population now lives in its eastern fringes. And the Portland Chinese Chamber of Commerce says most Chinese businesses have left Chinatown behind.
These days, Hung Far Low occupies a squat building with a large parking lot and a bland rectangular sign within view of two other Chinese restaurants and two Asian markets.
Manager Neil Chan, 28, a Portland native and son of the restaurant's owner and cook, said he would try to make it down to see the old sign.
"I think it's awesome that they're putting it back up. It needs to be up there," said Chan, between phone orders. He says sales at Hung Far Low have been stable despite the recession and there's a crowd of regulars that still come in regardless of the move out east.
"I don't consider Chinatown a real Chinatown right now," he said. "Everybody moved out."