Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
If Portland Oregon has a Genius Loci, or personification, it would be that cool girl on the other side of the bar. She wears her hair long and strait. Her black hipster glasses loosely balance on her nose, so that her ghostly grey eyes peer over the rims. When she laughs she has two laughs, one is a loud ha-ha, you said something you think is funny and I am suppose to respond in a way that makes you feel good. The other is a soft and sincere he-he, for wow that really is funny. All the other guys in the bar tell her lame jokes but only you seem to know the difference or even care if she is sincerely laughing or not.
If you try to talk to her she will set politely on the stool next to you and listen, as she sips some sort of homebrewed ale that is paler than her alabaster skin. Whatever you do just don’t bore her. If you can’t hold her interest then when you look away she is gone. The idea of not being with her becomes abhorrent. You open yourself up to her, lay your heart on the line in hopes she will open up to you.
You ask her about her tats, they are not just skin art, each tells an intimate and personal story. If you strike her fancy she reveals their meanings in a husky yet almost sacred whisper. As you invest time in her she rewards you with bit and pieces of her tragically hip past, before the last call is made you realize that you are in love with her.
This pretty much sums up my eleven month long love affair with a town. She is cool and hip, yet accessible while staying mercurial. Smart and on occasion pretentious, but her attitude comes off as a charmingly quirk not mean spirited. It only deepened when she told me the tale of the infamous Hung far Low sign.
OK, so let’s start this off, first of all yes I get it. Hung Far Low, is a double entendre. We all get the joke, but originally in the Chinese dialect of Taisan, it meant ‘almond blossom fragrance’, and that may or may not been the original concept behind the name, when the restaurant was started way back in 1928. But it had gained new interpretation in the seventies, when the words on the sign were covered in neon except the ‘tail’ part of the word ‘cocktail’
In the nineties Seattle was the king of the indy grunge moment. Portland was the king’s slightly veiled step-sister. Kurt Cobain, and others who are now regulated to pop culture obscurity, would play gigs in Portland that would run late into the night. After the gig ravenous stars and fans would go out to get something to eat. Hung Far Low was one of the few places still open that late, so for a while it enjoyed a renaissance of Gen-X popularity.
Eventually the restaurant would move across town to a one story building, that would not support the mammoth sign, so they had to leave it behind. A few years later Hung Far Low would close it doors for good. I recently read reports form tourists who say that they went there and that the food at Hung Far Low was awful. I don’t know what restaurant they were eating at but it wasn’t HFL, currently it is only a sign.
Portland’s Chinatown is a bit of a misnomer, as in that no actual Chinese people live there. It is not a vivacious living Chinatown like in San Francisco or Los Angeles, rather it is a gate, a garden, maybe a dozen shops and restaurants and that is probably a high number, and of course the Hung Far Low Sign. At one time this was the ‘bad’ side of Stump Town. So in the nineties the city did what cities do when they have a problem, they throw money at it. An urban renewal project basically priced the criminals out of the area.
After years of abandonment the sign was starting to fall down. The city was going to remove and trash it. But the people of Portland rallied to save their personal dirty joke. Money was raised and appropriated to keep and maintain it. So the people of Portland forced the city to buy it and restore it. Municipal laws however would prevent a new sign of that size form being erected so it the original had to be painstakingly refurbished. It is said over a hundred pounds of rust was removed from the sign during the clean up.
So now my dream girl Portland proudly wears the Hung Far Low sign like a silver charm on a bracelet. When the rains of sorrow fall, she taps it, with her finger and watches it sway under her wrist. She thinks of a joke that a blond rock star with a death wish once told her, and laughs her authentic he-he giggle. Then she smiles because the charm reminds her of a time that feels like it was so very long ago, but in truth was only her last dream.