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Categories: CultureTop Stories

The ‘Neon Nightmares’ of Chinatown’s Past

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Riders on the 1 California bus line traveling through Chinatown might catch a glimpse of a relic from the Golden Star Radio, the first Chinese-language radio station in America. It’s a rust-stained neon sign with bilingual lettering perched atop a brick building. And it’s one of the many artifacts from a time when San Francisco used to glow.

In the early 1900s, the Tenderloin and Market Street were decked out in neon, but Chinatown had the highest concentration of the colorful signs, according to local neon historians Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan.

“If you look at old postcards of Chinatown, it’s literally just one neon sign after another,” Homan says. “There was a real night life in Chinatown, on Grant Avenue.” These signs (or what’s left of them) signify the ongoing legacy of the neighborhood’s “double identity.” While tourists might view Chinatown’s neon as a pretty backdrop for pictures, they actually signify a long history of mom and pop shops serving this working-class neighborhood. Small businesses all across the city competed with each other by decorating their storefronts in neon — a symbol of modernization from the 1920s through World War II.

“If you wanted your city and your clientele to see you as progressive or cutting edge, you wanted neon signs,” Barna says. It’s this history that Barna and Homan plan to teach neon enthusiasts about in their two-part online Chinatown Neon tour, a virtual version done in partnership the Chinese Historical Society and the Tenderloin Museum. This online event promises to be even more extensive than their previous, in-person walking tours.

Photo courtesy of SF Neon (sfneon.org)

These tours hope to preserve the history of neon signage, which faded in the 1960s as cheaper competitors made of acrylic sheeting entered the market, and neon came to represent danger and seediness. In 1935, a local paper called The Chinese Digest bemoaned the proliferation of Chinatown’s neon signs in its editorial pages.

“Neon nightmares” the headline read. “Chinatown is suffering another attack of neonlitesos [sic] — an outbreak of scarlet fever, the patient shouting ‘Chop Suey,’ ‘Noodles,’ and ‘Here I am.’ It is highly contagious and will induce blindness and insanity to even innocent bystanders.”

The article even predicted that historians would look back on Chinatown’s past and remember neon as a blight — or “a row of Christmas trees on fire.” It theorized that neon would keep visitors away and force residents to “starvation.”

Photo courtesy of SF Neon (sfneon.org)

But the contemporary outlook on neon is quite different. Now, the craftsmanship of neon is admired by history enthusiasts and young “tube-benders,” and demand has been growing for these handmade signs.

“They serve as an anchor,” Barna says, citing the Castro Theater and the Golden Star Radio signs as examples of neon landmarks. While the Golden Star Radio shuttered in 1979, its history still lives on Clay Street. For 40 years, the station provided Cantonese-language news for Chinese Americans who tuned in. The Tong family, who started the Golden Star Radio to advertise their store’s products, even ended up translating president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats to their followers, filling an important niche for marginalized communities.

“The business is long gone,” Barna says. “But the sign now is representative of that great history.”

SF Neon Chinatown Tours, 7:45-8:45 p.m., Aug. 6 and Aug. 20. sfneon.org
Neon Speaks 2020, Sept. 25-27, Oct. 2-3. sfneon.org

Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com or follow her on Twitter @gracezhali.

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Grace Z. Li

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