Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Postcards from Chinatown

With the recent disappearance of the pair of neon signs that once hung over the defunct Jade Mountain restaurant on Second Avenue, one of the great typologies of old neon – Chinese restaurant signs – is poised for complete extinction, at least within the five boroughs. 

Last of its kind: the old CHOW MEIN sign at Jade Mountain dated to 1960.  It was made by the Laster Neon Engineering Co.  (T. Rinaldi)

For whatever reason, proprietors of Chinese restaurants have had an especially intense love affair with electric signs going back even before the advent of neon.  A writer in 1922 commented on two chop suey restaurants on 42nd Street whose extravagant signs stirred impassioned cries for anti-sign ordinances.  Joseph Mitchell wrote of a “galaxy of neon signs” in Chinatown in 1940. 

Old Postcards show Chinatown alight in neon.  (T. Rinaldi)

By the 1920s, electric signs peddling CHOP SUEY and CHOW MEIN became fixtures of the urban landscape in New York and other American cities.  (These dishes each have interesting cultural histories of their own.)   Edward Hopper immortalized this phenomenon in his 1929 painting Chop Suey.  Historians often write of the “neon sign” in this painting; in fact Hopper depicts a sign lit by exposed incandescent bulbs.  At the time Hopper painted this, incandescent bulb signs were rapidly disappearing to make way for new neon signs.  An exposed bulb sign in 1929 would have represented something tired and obsolete, on the brink of extinction – perfectly in step with Hopper’s visual iconography.

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929. (Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth)

American sign painters developed distinctive letterforms for Chop Suey joints and other Chinese-themed enterprises, using Roman characters styled after different iterations of East Asian calligraphy.  This practice began in the days of simple hand-painted signs, and was adapted for electric signs by the 1920s.  In the following decade, neon proved particularly well suited for such stylized alphabets.  These letterforms also turned up in applications such as title sequence graphics and lobby cards for various Asian-themed films, from Charlie Chan serials to the 1947 film Singapore starring Ava Gardner and Fred MacMurray. (For the real low-down on this subject, see this superb essay by Paul Shaw.)

Sign design suggestions, from a booklet published c. 1923 by the Reynolds Electric Co. (Signs of the Times)

Sign painter extraordinaire Alf Becker created these alphabets styled after East Asian calligraphy.  “American Orient” (left) ran in the October, 1934 issue of Signs of the Times, and appeared in Becker’s One Hundred Alphabets, published in 1941.  “Oriental” ran in the July, 1953 issue of Signs of the Times. (Signs of the Times)

The special affinity for neon signs among proprietors of Chinese restaurants yielded some of New York’s most distinctive storefronts of the mid-century decades.  Sadly, virtually none of these survive today. Like other businesses, many Chinese restaurants turned away from neon signs after the 1960s, replacing them with back-lit acrylic panel signs and vinyl awnings.  Neon window signs remain common among these businesses, but the flamboyant and distinctive outdoor signs that were such a signature feature of these establishments before the 1960s have nearly all vanished.  Old CHOW MEIN and CHOP SUEY signs of the kind depicted by Hopper were mostly long-gone by the time 8-tracks came out. 


The Port Arthur, formerly on Mott Street in Chinatown.  (William Chu / jpgmag.com)

Until recently, an especially evocative relic sign remained in place on the façade of the old Harlem Renaissance Ballroom building, on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard at 138th Street.  The small, three-sided marquee dated to 1937.  Abandoned along with the rest of the ballroom complex for 30 years or more, it seems to have finally succumbed during the building’s partial demolition in 2010. 

An unknown sign company installed this painted sheet metal awning on the façade of Harlem’s Renaissance Ballroom in 1937.  (T. Rinaldi)
Two other signs survive in Brooklyn.  Like the Renaissance Ballroom marquee, both of these are relics, having long outlived the businesses they once advertised.  One recalls a vanished chop suey joint that once did business on Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  The other marks the spot of a defunct establishment called the Wu Han, on Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville. 

Relic signs from long vanished Chinese establishments on Nostrand Avenue (left; Royal Neon Sign Co., c. 1953) and on Pitkin Avenue (right; Cornell Neon Sign Co., c. 1950) are probably the last of their kind in New York. (T. Rinaldi)

With the disappearance of the Jade Mountain sign, these are possibly the last examples of mid-century Chinese-themed neon that remain in-situ in New York today.  Even in their forlorn state, both are museum quality treasures of commercial archeology.  But time is not on their side.  Hopefully a good home will find them before they go the way of untold hoards of signs like the one that caught Edward Hopper’s eye back in 1929, leaving only postcards from Chinatown to recall that they were ever here.


Sketch of Jade Mountain’s CHOW MEIN sign that accompanied the buildings department application for its installation in 1960. (NYC Dept. of Buildings)

No comments:

Post a Comment