Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Arts & Culture
Published on September 26, 2016
Touring Chinatown's Fading Neon Signs, Part 2

A vintage neon sign points the way to the Li Po, one of the oldest bars in Chinatown. (Photos: Dirk Wyse/Hoodline)

As the days and years wear on, many of the once-bright neon signs in San Francisco's Chinatown have burned out and faded—but remained intact, still mounted on their historic buildings.

The first installment of this photo series featured modern photographs of signage advertising long-gone establishments and services. Part 2 focuses on the oldest and most faded neon signs of Chinatown—almost all of them long since dark, although the majority of the businesses they promote remain open.

The signs in this article are shown in order from south to north, starting at the south end of Grant Avenue, San Francisco's oldest street and Chinatown's main drag. 

If you're taking your own walking tour, you'll have to look carefully—even in the bright sunlight of a San Francisco autumn day—to spot some of them. A telephoto lens or short binoculars will take you up close.

City Of Hong Kong Gift Store

Grant Avenue at Vinton Alley

The City of Hong Kong Gift Store sign welcomes visitors to Chinatown—many hailing from Hong Kong themselves.

A closer look at this sign shows its neon tubing remains intact, but the paint is peeling and rust is quickly taking hold. It won't be long until the sign's bare metal is exposed.

Lotus Garden Vegetarian Restaurant

626 Grant Ave.

Just across the street, the sign for this former restaurant has lost all its tubing on both sides, and the south-facing side is fading fast.

Grant Arts & Gift Center

803 Grant Ave.

Look for the peacock perched atop the Grant Arts & Gift Center. It's one of Chinatown's best-preserved (though no longer glowing) retail neon signs.

Pride of craftsmanship is apparent in this beautiful sign, as is quality manufacturing. The tubing for the peacock graphic appears intact.  

Great Wall Restaurant

815 Washington St.

Touting a former restaurant on Washington Street, just off of Grant Avenue, this double-sided neon sign is now in ruins.

The tubing is broken on the bottom and the metal is rusting fast, but the vertical Chinese characters are still intact on the east-facing side.

The sign's west-facing side.

Kow Kong Benevolent Association

756 Washington St. at Wentworth

Above the entrance to the Kow Kong Benevolent Association, this purely decorative neon still shows elegant lines and classic design, though it's long since been dimmed. Note that the neon tubes are built into the brick wall itself, not a sheet-metal box.

The Empress

801-803 Grant Ave.

The Empress' sign is a retail extravaganza, featuring an arrow with chaser lights, a bright red background and incandescent bulbs, as well as neon lettering. The sign is shielded from the weather, so it's still in good shape, but its namesake is no longer—there are two separate shops there now.

The Art Co.

914 Grant Ave.

The sign for this men's clothier, next to the Li Po Lounge, is slowly fading to green-gray and rusting around the edges.

Above Li Po's lantern sign and below the building's fire escape, you can also see the Art Co.'s neon entrance sign, now quietly rusting away.

Lee Family Association

915 Grant Ave.

Look carefully at the top of the Lee Family Association building at 915 Grant Ave., and you can see the white neon tubes that outline the carvings at the top of the façade.

Sun Sing Shopping Center

1027 Grant Ave.

The Sun Sing Shopping Center at 1027 Grant Ave. has seen better days (and nights), and its sign reflects its fade into Chinatown history. This sign once reigned as one of the area's brightest, but now all the tubes are gone and the red painted characters are fading away.

New Look Fashions Center

1035 Grant Ave.

One way to tell if a sign used to glow is to look for the holes where the glass tubing was routed in and out of the box structure, like this sign for New Look Fashions center at 1035 Grant Ave., north of Jackson.

The store is still open, but after decades of sun, fog, rain and wind, the sign's surface is now down to the sheet metal.

Tang Fat Hotel

1338 Stockton St.

To hit the last stop on this walking tour, head west one block on Pacific and turn north (right) to 1338 Stockton. The Tang Fat Hotel is still open for business—but unlike Motel 6, you can't count on them leaving the light on for you.

Even though many of Chinatown's neon signs are now dark ghosts, a few classic vintage signs still glow in their original colors. Part 3 in this series, coming next week, will feature recent photographs of Chinatown's brightest and most beautiful neon signs by night.

If you like this series and are craving even more neon history, check out San Francisco Neon Survivors and Icons, a photo exhibit featuring classic neon signs from across the city. It's showing from now through October on the fourth floor of the San Francisco Main Public Library.