Projects> CHINATOWN: LI PO LOUNGE

Photo: David Boyer 1958, National Geographic/Getty Images. Crowds watching a dragon parade on Grant Avenue in San Francisco, CA  In this 1958 view, the Li Po porcelain sign has a pink arrow and a pink cocktail glass projecting over the sidewalk.

Photo from the Internet Archive. A page from a souvenir book shows the decorative lantern street light design as a new addition to Grant Avenue for the 1925 California Diamond Jubilee celebration in San Francisco. The Li Po neon lantern has a similar hexagon shape.

This film still of Lady from Shanghai is from a wonderful website of film locations reelsf.com. Behind a blonde Rita Hayworth are both the Li Po lantern neon sign and the  “Cocktails” porcelain neon sign with arrow on top.

Photo: Randall Ann Homan 2018.
Li Po neon signs are once again illuminating
Grant Avenue in San Francisco, CA.

Photos: Randall Ann Homan 2018.
Arrow Sign Company's Ricardo Bravo painting
the Li Po lantern sign with One-Shot paint.

Li Po is one of the most unique neon signs in San Francisco, we are excited that it has been restored for future generations to enjoy. It has always been a highlight on our Chinatown neon walking tour. People are fascinated by the sign’s artistic design and Li Po’s colorful history as a local watering hole and underground music/literary venue.

 

Bravo to Li Po for restoring their unique and beautiful vintage neon signs!The sign and Li Po’s history are illuminated once again through a restoration project partnership with the Li Po  Lounge and the SF Shines matching grant program. The restoration work was done by Oakland-based Arrow Sign Company.

 

It was an honor for San Francisco Neon to be invited by  SF Shines to advise on the historical color matching and sign restoration process. Arrow Sign Company kept everyone in the loop so we could create a photo documentation project on Flickr of the Li Po neon restoration at almost every step of the process. During the restoration process we were finalizing a guidebook for saving neon signs. Working on the Li Po restoration project gave us more insight into all the little details that make for a brilliant neon restoration of these two vintage signs.

 

SF Neon was invited to do an historical color consult for the restoration of both Li Po signs.  We recommended neon red in clear glass outlining the lantern, argon blue in clear glass for COCKTAILS, Novial gold glass for the words LI PO, emerald green glass for the arrow. For more details see our color consult document.

 

The Li Po lantern neon sign is one the most unique signs in San Francisco. Most Chinese lanterns in this neighborhood are an elliptical shape, the Li Po neon lantern is a hexagon shape. It is easy to see that the Li Po lantern design is very similar to the decorative street lights on Grant Avenue in Chinatown. It got us wondering, which came first, the decorative streetlights or Li Po neon lantern? We discovered a cool souvenir book on the Internet Archive, it shows the decorative  street lights, installed on Grant Avenue as part of the celebration of the 1925 California Diamond Jubilee.

 

The name Li Po  is one of several pen names of a famous Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty (700s), who wrote prolifically about many things, including the pleasures of drinking wine. (Side note: the Museum of Neon Art  has a Li Po sign in their collection from an LA restaurant. It depicts an inebriated Li Po riding his donkey backwards. We found a video clip of the animated neon Li Po on a donkey in a 1953  Ida Lupino movie.

 

We don't know exactly when the lantern sign was built: sometime after the Li Po Lounge opened in 1937 and before 1947. You can see both signs in the background in a scene from the Orson Welles film Lady from Shanghai .We cannot find any earlier photos of the sign (still looking).

 

The sign has been in various states of repair over the decades, and the tube colors have changed from time to time.  Merideth Grierson photographed the Li Po sign in 1984, the arrow on top of porcelain cabinet was pink, but later photos show it changed to green and aqua. The arrowhead also changed to a smaller shape  sometime after 1984.

 

All glass tubes were replaced for both the lantern and the porcelain signs, tube bending by Robert McKeever of Arrow Sign Co. Most tubes were broken or in very poor condition. Ricky Tayas, the sign technician for Arrow, said the tassels/bells looked like they were made of wood. They were cleaned and repainted with metallic gold One-Shot paint. There were no maker labels evident to give us any clues on who designed and built the Li Po signs. All new wiring and transformers, old transformers were failing. The lantern sign cabinet has an interesting construction in that one face of the sign on the back swings open like a door, designed to clear the neon tubing.

 

A promising candidate for the next neon restoration project in Chinatown is Kaye’s Footwear on Grant Ave. The cabinet and glass tubes appear to be in great shape. The new tenant flipped the switch to show us that most of the sign lights up, it just needs one, maybe two, new transformers. The new tenant in this storefront is very motivated to have the Kaye's sign in working order to attract customers to their end of the block (it is now a gift store now, not a shoe store).