History on the Walls at Old Town’s Society Hotel

New artwork at the Society Hotel celebrates Old Town-Chinatown’s history.

By Margaret Seiler December 9, 2021 Published in the Winter 2021/2022 issue of Portland Monthly

A brick wall in a hotel room with an old-looking sign painted on it for "Live Cantonese Opera: Yat Sing Music Club"

Nick Lee’s distressed-looking “ghost sign” for an opera group that used to practice in the Society’s building, in room 201

During its extended COVID closure last winter, the shuttered Society Hotel was anything but quiet. Plenty was going on at the 140-year-old Chinatown building, from wallpapering the lobby to repainting the rooftop deck to adding a mural to its NW Davis Street exterior. To see some of the most interesting additions, though, you’ll need to check in to one of the hotel’s 12 suites, each sporting a new piece of artwork connecting the modern traveler’s oasis to the neighborhood’s history.

Peter Yue’s ode to the Satyricon, in room 401

For Portlander Peter Yue, whose Liberté creative consultancy was tapped to direct the project, it was a chance to collaborate with other artists, including many artists of color, and to learn even more about the city where he grew up. The hotel’s storied neighborhood has been home to many groups considered at various times “undesirables,” Yue says, from its days as a home to African American railroad workers to its many Japanese residents and businesses before World War II to its long association with Chinese Portlanders and more recent notoriety for rough-around-the-edges rock clubs and unhoused people. “Just learning there were a large amount of Black businesses in Old Town, just north of Glisan, was amazing to me,” Yue says, “really learning about how Chinatown used to stretch down to Second and Washington ... learning about the Satyricon.”

Harrison Freeman’s Homeward Bound in room 313

That legendary punk music venue on NW Sixth Avenue is one of the more recent places celebrated at the Society, with wallpaper Yue based on old concert posters. There’s also a distressed-looking advertisement for the midcentury Yat Sing Music Club by Studio Sign Co’s Nick Lee, who interviewed his own father about hearing the Cantonese opera group rehearsing in the building. In another room, a painting by Harrison Freeman invokes the Society’s past life as a sailors’ lodging.

A wall hanging by Peter Yue honoring the Magic Gardens, in room 207

In one piece by Yue, a woven blanket showing the sign of long-running strip club the Magic Gardens hangs in front of an image of crumpled dollar bills. Yue had his wedding a block away at the House of Louie but had never been inside the Old Town landmark before it closed in 2014: “I remember one time asking my mom what’s in there and my mom was like, ‘You’re not going in there.’” 

“When I took on this project, I didn’t want it to be an oldie, moldy type of museum, but more like taking a little bit of history and turning it on its ear,” Yue says. He imagined out-of-towners and staycationing Portlanders alike having a chance to discover “these little splinters of history.”