Revolving W and Flying Pigs: A Neon Journal of Vancouver Vintage Cafes and Theatres

by Keith McKellar/ Laughing Hand

Victoria: BoneYard Ink Books, 2018

$50 / 9781775357704

Orders: direct from author at

Reviewed by Grahame Ware


Laughing Hand and the Neon Totems: Keith McKellar’s Vancouver, by Grahame Ware.


This publication is an exciting and colourful recasting of Keith McKellar out-of-print, Neon Eulogy (Victoria: Ekstasis Editions, 2001). Revolving W and Flying Pigs is a must-have companion to his first book for those of us who revelled in the time when neon and psychedelia danced viscerally and mindfully in the jewelled, rainy streets of 60s, 70s, and 80s Vancouver. Through his brush and words, a huge chunk of social history is channeled laterally by Keith McKellar, a.k.a. Street Artist and Laughing Hand, a Homeric bard-with-an-ink-brush and a complex and technical colourizing process. His artwork is based on the skeleton of pencil done in situ, which is then built up in the studio by the southpaw sketcher with freehand ink and many more technical stages before arriving at his finished work.

The format for this publication has been bumped up considerably from Neon Eulogy with much more image space and high quality paper. Revolving W and Flying Pigs benefits from a lovely, large, square 11 1/2” format. Replete with colour in all its neon glory — glowing in the dark, furry night – every entry has pictures and text tucked into a capacious page. This excellent production fuses McKellar’s art and lyricism. Wonderful stories and narrative histories buttress it marvellously and make it far from some rare art book.

The genesis of McKellar’s latest book is truly a case of unfinished business. In Neon Eulogy, the dedication was a poem simply titled “W,” a homage to Woodward’s Department Store’s distinctive revolving red sign. In a sense, then, the W is his Muse:


unlit/stilled — foreboding/ melancholy

as a stage clown
used to his dance
black night
bright faced
and blinking

Now a sad face
a naked droop in a dull sky
tattered and peeling
raw and bleeding

brave ‘W’
bleeds in the rain

McKellar, seventeen years later, has kept his word to the W. But he hasn’t merely reconfigured that first book. He’s built upon its foundations to give us new entries for places such as the 2400 Motel Court, Helen’s Neon Girl, Cates Towing, White Lunch Cafeteria, Save-On Meats, plus a new Foreword and Afterword. McKellar is in charge of the entire production as artist, writer, editor, and publisher. For those unfamiliar with Neon Eulogy, sadly the only colour was on the cover. But sad no more be!

B.C. Royal Cafe

Once you dive into Revolving W and Flying Pigs, you will inhale it — possibly after doing the same with a little homegrown whilst adding to the reading ambience with some Don Thompson, Cannonball Adderley, or Powder Blues Band with Tom Lavin playing in the background.

In this publication we have a street-side, street-wise perspective of hotels, cafes, and restaurants of a vintage that was once commonplace and even ubiquitous in Vancouver, especially in Chinatown.

McKellar’s places are, generally speaking, the early 20th century buildings whose sensibilities and personalities acquired a charm in their slow decay and demise. And if the memory has faded and gone cold, McKellar’s book is like a Bristol Cream sherry that warms the cockles of memory and of your history heart. The evocative pictorial quality of the book brings the past back in a rush. These paintings are for history lovers who, jaded with monotonous discourse, like their stories jazzed up with poetic panache. McKellar’s narratives, like those in John Belshaw and Diane Purvey’s Vancouver Noir (Anvil Press 2011) hit all the right notes in spades. But unlike that fine book, this one is not written by teachers of history.

Ovaltine Cafe Interior

The Ovaltine Cafe Interior (p. 12) represents another change from the first book. Gone is the boney southpaw hand of the artist in the lower right hand corner. The menu of the nearest customer is now not merely a menu. Rather, it is script from a late Tang dynasty scroll. The more you linger over the minutiae of McKellar’s paintings, the more you see.

Keith McKellar (Laughing Hand)

Pathos and nostalgia fill the pages with McKellar’s stream of consciousness narrative, reminiscent of the performance-partial Beat poets like Corso and Ginsberg. Curiously, the wiry McKellar bears such a striking resemblance to William S. Burroughs that you could be faulted in thinking that they’re related. And, in a sense, they are.

But the thing is this: McKellar’s writing is clearer and less smacked-up, no APO-33 to imprint the mind as with Burroughs’ entangled peregrinations and thoughts. This book demonstrates McKellar’s independence from any artistic scenes or literary cliques. Despite this, or maybe because of this, he shines. Thankfully, the narratives have a raw and unedited feeling, unlike some literary works that are as polished as agates left tumbling overnight by an absent-minded lapidary.

The fibrous quality of his writing is its strength, not unlike the village-style chop suey, cooked with fire and air, that sustained McKellar while he worked as a public chauffeur. This phase of his life was the quart-of-milk-between-his-legs period. As an alcoholic and tobacco addict, driving cab was a recovery program as much as anything. He did that for nine years before he transformed into an artist.

Of McKellar’s Muse, the once revolving red W sign of Woodward’s, he says this:

Breaking all the rules of the reactionary 60s, the ‘W’ gets up there and does his sensational twirling act before regulations are laid down. “No rooftop signs, no turning allowed. No flashing.” ‘W’ does it all. Red neon runs up the tower sides like showtime legs at night. A symbol of freedom for a standard of life. A pivotal ecological footprint. A handwritten epigraph to the city. Cusp. A true Vancouver wonder …. Perhaps a sad clown … but one with dignity. Replaced by a silly plastic clone (p. 42).

This wouldn’t be the last time corporate Vancouver flexed its Philistine muscles. “Send in the clones!”

McKellar’s entry for The Naam Restaurant is condensed from that in Neon Eulogy but still has some striking imagery: “This last true 60s cultural phenomenon has journeyed (caravan-like) through time to be in our midst, as though some organic hologram. One big, whittled wood carving from an ancient, zen forest of gnarly trees” (p. 60).

The Naam Restaurant. West 4th Avenue

Revolving W and Flying Pigs is an extended elegy and ode to the neon Vancouver of old. McKellar writes with as much authenticity about Vancouver as any poet, as when Peter Trower seeks heat from the Christmas display windows of Eaton’s. This is neon as a semiotic configured, a flashy often kinetic totem that staked out terroir for young Boomers and night-lifers in general. These were the beacons that attracted the culturally and physically hungry nightfall clan. They beamed and flashed, lifted peoples’ spirits, sparked joy across the classes. These signs with neon coursing in their glass arteries declaimed the portal that was both a refuge and a cultural consort.

McKellar’s work is a belated but much-needed tribute to the sky and the dead and departed spirits, emceed in dark and empty alleys in front of derelict buildings, where now the only light and colour is sparked and drawn from the crucible of memory and where the actions of hand and tongue just wait for the latent spark of retrospection.

“Here’s to all that was great way back when!” proclaims Laughing Hand. No shame. No crying. Just a finely-crafted melancholic reminder of what it was really like for him and for the earlier Keith McKellar. The process of his imaginative neon eulogy project transformed McKellar into Laughing Hand, a handle given to him not by any member of his tribe but seemingly from the neon and Vancouver’s dark sky. His is the hand that joyfully remembers and colourfully connects the past with the present. The W bleeds into his persona. This is the moment when he was born as a street artist, laughing at his hand and his ability to do this. This was the authentic personality he’d been striving for as he drove his taxi back and forth across town in his self-directed work cleanse.

I asked Keith what were the sources of his inspirations. An autodidact? “Yes.” Mork from Ork? “No! I credit the 11th century Latin scholar, Hilarius, as my main inspiration.” Curiously, this is the realm of the jongleur (wandering minstrel), a name that was later ascribed to the Goliards. They were known for their satirical poetry written in Latin, the common language that underpinned their education. They were the first to question the concepts of the church in Medieval Christian times. Think Piers Plowman. The late Joachim Foikis, Vancouver’s first and only official Town Fool, would have had something in common with this satirical tradition.

The Yale Hotel

As for McKellar, inspired and transmogrified into Laughing Hand, he would now dress up in some funky clothes and sketch the places he loved and talk to the people who owned and managed them. On the back cover of his book is this blurb of self-description: “Appearing and disappearing in the street as though a Hopi clown off the rooftops, with his show wagon, surviving in the moment of his making the drawings and selling his prints from a string and an umbrella.”

McKellar told me over the phone that Rachel Berman (a.k.a. Susan King), the late illustrator from Victoria, helped get his drafting skills off the ground. She also provided inspiration and insight into own her novel and off-beat illustrations. There is definitely something of her influence in his work.

The dazzling pictorial quality of Revolving W & Flying Pigs wouldn’t be anywhere near the same without McKellar’s verbal imagery, hammered and smithied over his years of driving for Black Top Cabs. His narrative is mercifully devoid of the devices that doomed poetry and stripped it of its wide 60s and 70s audience, imposing a freeze-dried minimalism that was underwhelming in its descriptive range. McKellar’s voice, though, often overstates its laments, a witness bemoaning the end of an era. This may be because there is so much to mourn. With each brush stroke and painting, he wistfully remembers our town with a high-def, fully-dilated eye and with his writing underpinning it. Take for example the entry for the Lucky Times Café:

A cafe takes on the character of the people that visit it. Upstairs the old rooming house called the Cambie Rooms is still standing intact; nearly sculpture, wearing a hundred coats of paint … the crinkle of elderhood, detailed bay windows, intricate stacked corners and ledges. I see an apparition of an occupant in his regular spot at his window after he’s passed away. Through the nightmare tangle of droopy, alley electrical wires, the surreal “W” pokes up phantom and periscope in an ironic twist on the mouth of the sky. Caught orbital dreamer…. We must squint to get a glimmer of its authentic face to see through the disappearing and the disappeared (p. 45).

This is potent imagery, beautifully delivered. McKeller’s is the full-throated voice of the cantor singing the final rites in ways that are neither overtly maudlin nor sentimental in a clunky way because it is all so true and real. He expresses our group sadness. I identify with this book and the times it portrays because I was there. There’s also something quaintly subversive in his art. You can faintly hear the voice of Gil Scott-Heron from 1970, echoed in the pictures’ subtext, that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”

In this gallery book, as in its predecessor, McKellar chants softly, laying down riffs and images like saxophonist Gavin Walker at The Classical Joint. “The Joint” was always a popular spot, often packed and hard to get into. This could cause frustrations. Folkie musician Joe Mock once struck up a spontaneous little ditty when a hassle seemed to be erupting at the door: “Move over (call back)… Move over (call back). Do it riggidy jig … We’ve always got room for Marty … ‘Cos Marty is not very big.” Needless to say, after that, fifty sets of eyeballs cooled out this cat.

The Classical Joint

McKellar’s style fuses sensibilities from an era when there really was a classical joint shared by all, achieved “with a little help from your friends.” His art is a freeze-frame in time; a time when folk and jazz mingled without any stilted self-consciousness, like at the Joint. Paul Horn became Jeremy Steig and then, voilà … Holly Burke! Joni Mitchell, Queen of Folk, appeared in the audience after toddling on down from her home in Sechelt; then jetting down to her Laurel Canyon recording studio where, for another ten years, she threw herself on the jazz pyre. There was nowhere else to go after Blue.

But it wasn’t just music. Integrative art forms and styles were blasting through the neat little walls of convention along with artists of every sort — fearless, sensing, trusting, searching for the deeper and more authentic truth. It wasn’t always pretty. Many promising people crashed and burned. Riding the uncharted waters and ragged waves of the zeitgeist they were choiceless about the outcome.

The nostalgic core of McKellar’s book are the images, flash-frozen in the pulsing arc of the times. The book’s sadness and sense of loss makes us appreciate what we had and makes us feel it all over again. McKellar’s era gave rise to a critical mass for our culture as we now know it. It got the ball rolling. The problem now, of course, is that we’ve gone from too little, to too much, too soon. Capitalism has reared its ugly, freaked-out head of overproduction — at a cost.

With Revolving W and Flying Pigs, McKellar has brought an energy to Vancouver’s social history that few books have. He paid the price along the way but he’s really given us something here. And we haven’t heard the last from McKellar. He has more fascinating projects in the pipeline.

For now, we should all buy his book.


Grahame Ware

Grahame Ware wrote his first poem in 1965 as a sixteen year-old shortly after buying Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited at Kmart. The central image of his opening foray into verse was “a reluctant wolf in an uncomputered spaceship.” Talk about alienation! He’s had an abiding interest in poetry ever since, and lists Gwendolyn McEwen as his favourite poet. The teachers with the most influence on him were the integrative semiotician, Tony Wilden, and Stanley Cooperman, the vibrant poet and SFU prof who took his life in the 70s. He admits to being with Marty that night at the Joe Mock event at Classical Joint. A collection of short stories and essays, My Private Countries, is soon to be published. He lives on Gabriola Island with his partner. He also carves and sculpts: see


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Editor/Designer/Writer: Richard Mackie

Publisher/Writer: Alan Twigg

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. As of September, 2018, Provincial Government Patron: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

The White Lunch Cafeteria


Photo essay: Revolving W and Flying Pigs: A Neon Journal
by Keith McKellar (Laughing Hand), with an introduction by Robert Amos

Victoria: BoneYard Ink Books, 2018
$50 / 9781775357704

Orders: direct from


In December 2018 we published a review (Ormsby Review #449) by Grahame Ware of Revolving W and Flying Pigs: A Neon Journal of Vancouver Vintage Cafes and Theatres, by Keith McKellar (Laughing Hand).

We now present a photo essay introduced by Robert Amos featuring three images of Vancouver’s vanished waterfront from Revolving W and Flying Pigs, with McKellar’s own vibrant textual descriptions –Ed.


In the seventies Keith McKellar (aka Laughing Hand) landed in Vancouver's downtown from Prince George. No hippy, McKellar drove a taxi on the night shift, a denizen of the beat zone. He gave that up and became a sort of busker street artist, first in Japan and then back in Vancouver in the 1980s. Self-directed and obsessive, he put in a lot of time sitting on the sidewalk and in the cafes, detailing the urban landscape in front of him. With an ink line that writhes like neon, he never missed so much as the filigree of a fire escape.

[caption id="attachment_36575" align="alignright" width="250"] Keith McKellar[/caption]

Time passed, things changed, and McKellar has had ample time to reflect on all that fabulous signage, in Chinatown and skid row, up Granville, out on Broadway -- everywhere. And during that time this artist, bless him, did the necessary research. He talked to the neon makers, sought out the cafe owners and hung out with the denizens of strip clubs. He read a lot of old newspapers. And then he wrote down everything he had learned. As a writer -- an engaging writer -- McKellar’s literary vernacular can start out with the science of neon-making and then veer deliriously to hipster riffs about the cosmic wonder of the Smilin' Buddha.

Revolving W and Flying Pigs: A Neon Journal is an evolution of his earlier black and white anthology Neon Eulogy. But this time it's big -- as big as an LP cover. And the ink drawings have been coloured, and there are more coffee houses and nightclubs.

You'll stay up late reading this book, you'll pass it around, you'll want to read it out loud. You’d better get a copy – Robert Amos.

Cates Towing

Captain Charles Cates, colourful founder and patriarch of the romantic Cates Towing operation establishes a reliable reputation hauling stone from the quarries of Gibsons and Squamish to rebuild Vancouver following the great fire of June 13, 1886. He builds, in 1913, the first cargo-hauling wharf on the North Vancouver waterfront, at the foot of Lonsdale Ave. By 1921 Captain Cates, joined by three sons, all master mariners, incorporates as a tug and barge transportation company. They perform the primary ship-docking services in the Port of Vancouver for much of the 20th Century. Cates’ operations, robust and varied, include a range of boat building and repairs, plus their dedication and monumental service over many decades assisting in the vast task of moving ships and cargos from all over the world in and out of Burrard Inlet. The infamous Seven Seas Restaurant neon sign (circa 1959) sails bright on blue waves perched atop an antique ferryboat. A hometown beacon at the bottom of the hill at the waterfront and foot of Lonsdale. Their Seven Seas Seafood Buffet Table is legendary. Historically, a 1941 built steam powered, wooden hull, passenger ferry, No. 5 in the fleet and the last to exist in the waters of Burrard Inlet. Decommissioned in 1958. Diamond Almas, the ambitious visionary twenty year-old offspring of the famous King Neptune Seafood Restaurant family, situated at the foot of Eighth Street in New Westminster, converts her to a floating restaurant in 1959. Seven Seas. Low ceilings and narrow corridors; four floors tall with a proud posture and spirit. A scarlet heroic record of active service transporting thousands of citizens safe and sound and home again, supplementing the challenging inlet spanning of the 1938 Lions Gate Bridge and before the 1960 Second Narrows Ironworkers Bridge is constructed. Becomes a unique Vancouver institution. A ship with heart and soul. Gone missing. Demolished in 2002 -- Keith McKellar, from Revolving W and Flying Pigs.

Marine View Cafe Exterior

Campbell Avenue Fish Dock. Once and for many years Vancouver’s favourite waterfront daytime coffee shop and fish cafe situated up those funky, well trodden, roof-covered stairs atop the tin corrugated cold-storage ice plant. Located behind B.C. Sugar Refinery’s sprawling brick mausoleum. It’s the only place you can wind in from across the tracks and right into the action of a live fish dock. Inside you get a lofty view of raw elemental waterfront life. The Dock is a swarm of new Canadians from many ethnic origins. Beginning sometime in the early thirties … a menagerie of commercial fish exchange; a jumble of draggers, trawlers, gill-netters, packers, trollers, and seiners bobbing and swaying. The exhilaration of a regatta. Broken English and hand gestures abound. Shouting and yelling … a chorus of selling. Deals get done. Resilient people and conditions. Fishing families. The early community has zest and enthusiasm. A classic mishmash of DPs … John Safarik, a Czech, arrives in 1908 is the original tenant and fish trader on the Dock -- Icelanders, Norwegians, Slavs, Fins, Italians, the odd randy Scotsman and a few remittance Englishmen, the Chinese and the strong Japanese fleet traders (1,200 boats at their zenith). “There are instances in history’s makings when industry and art intermingle in a utopian marriage.” Now, this once only phenomenon, just an empty hole in the shoreline … an ecological shadow … a spent wharf, shut down 1989. Move out in October. Demolished in December. A hollow. Plucked. A shuffled away historical specimen. Instead of sustaining, there was a gorging. Not much aftermath. An industry eclipsed. Circling gulls call “is that all?” United Grain Growers concrete silos lurk, unclothed by its absence. A tug nosing a renegade log boom. A single train bell at the crossing is melancholy … a rubble and tangle of leftovers and memories. At the edges, patches of bramble, wild salmonberry cane and devil’s club start things again. The old Marine View Cafe and Campbell Avenue Fish Dock will never be forgotten by those who were there. The common denominator is everyone’s need to survive -- Keith McKellar, from Revolving W and Flying Pigs.

Marine View Cafe Interior

Campbell Avenue Fish Dock. When the 1910-built Gore Avenue Fish Dock, located just east of Main Street and Crab Park, has a major fire in the early thirties, Vancouver Ice and Cold Storage burns to the ground. Relocation of fishing facilities is constructed at the foot of Campbell Avenue behind B.C. Sugar’s brick refinery. Pioneer fishers and industry workers clamour and scurry, the wooden wharf steeped in colour, and the smelly, intoxicating odour of B.C.’s bountiful harvest. Some trawlers are bringing 140,000 lb. hauls. Grading, glazing, packinghouses and processing plants churn. In the late 1940s women working in the canning lines receive 40 cents an hour filleting and scaling. The halibut cargo Board of Exchange chalkboard bidding auctions are lively affairs. Forklift trucks scat about stacking wooden fish bins, cranes swirl and spin, hooked cables of plum dockets shift about. The gooseneck auger chute from the cold storage ice plant spits out ice dutifully into holds of packers and trollers in berth. A coffee shop first situates on the wharf in the mid-30s, then the Fish Dock Coffee Shop opens at the beginning of the forties on the ground floor of the ice plant building. The first Marine View Coffee Shop originates sometime in the early fifties … a small greasy spoon with a counter, run by Jack Abramson. Expansion moves the establishment upstairs in the mid-fifties to become a breakfast and lunch cafe. By the mid-sixties cook Rudy Welsh introduces fresh fish dishes to the menu, to popular command. She goes on to buy and run the cafe with her daughters Agnes and Audrey. There are 300 people working the fish dock wharf in 1966. In about 1975, Agnes takes charge of the establishment until the late seventies when Audrey and her husband Garry Gurney take over. Garry works for Lions Gate Fisheries for 30 years. Audrey operates the cafe with her daughter Lisa for the last ten years, until the end in 1989. Three generations. Says Ruby Welsh, the twenty-year veteran, “We had a good view … we could see the boats coming in loaded with fresh fish. Some days there were line-ups down the stairs.” Inside you get a bird’s eye view over the hubbub of wharf life and the Burrard Inlet waters all the way to the North Shore mountains -- Keith McKellar, from Revolving W and Flying Pigs.


[caption id="attachment_36562" align="alignright" width="250"] Robert Amos. Photo by Sarah Amos[/caption]

Robert Amos was the art writer for the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper for 32 years. His most recent books are the best-selling E.J. Hughes Paints Vancouver Island (Victoria: TouchWood Editions, 2018) and E.J. Hughes Paints British Columbia (Touchwood, 2019).


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster



Born in 1947 in New Westminster, McKellar spent 19 years as an itinerant artist named 'Laughing Hand' prior to Neon Eulogy (Ekstasis 2001). Neon Eulogy contains 45 deeply hopeful links to the artistry of a bygone era when manners mattered more than money, and when neon still beckoned in full force. The revolving W atop the Woodward's building gets in; the ridiculous Bow Mac/Toys R Us sign stays out. (If you check your dictionary you'll see a eulogy is not necessarily limited to an ode to the deceased.)

Neon Eulogy is billed as 'a poetic incantation by a bohemian sleuth' with 'jazz-riff improvizations.' With concise histories and lovingly rendered line drawings, it's an uplifting tribute to Vancouver's vintage cafes, theatres and other funkier landmarks. These include Seymour Billiards, Smilin' Buddha, the Naam, the Ovaltine and Benny's Bagels. "Perhaps neon's wizardry,"; he writes, "will lift the mask of Vancouver's tragic old-town melancholy and light the flame of her wild smouldering spirit once again.";

A former cabbie, McKellar often returns to Vancouver from his Victoria home to do his strictly street-level research. Dyslexia works in his favour. Instead of groping through books to regurgitate other people's work, he mainly talks to people about the sites. $24.95 / 1-896860-92-3

CITY/TOWN: Victoria, B.C.

DATE OF BIRTH: June 2, 1947

PLACE OF BIRTH: New Westminster, B.C.



Neon Eulogy; Vancouver Cafe and Street (Ekstasis Editions, 2001)

line-poem drawings (Ekstasis Editions, 1983)

BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS: Keith McKellar (Laughing Hand) has spent the past twenty years as an itinerant artist, drawing and showing his work on the street, from Vancouver and Victoria to California, Taiwan and Japan. His view is shaped by his years as a Vancouver night-time cabbie and sixty-five other assorted jobs prior to adopting the artist name Laughing Hand and embarking on this journey. Born in 1947 in New Westminster, B.C., McKellar grew up in Prince George, B.C. during the boom and bust fifties and sixties. He composes live off his telescopic easel and performs his string show of Vancouver vintage cafe and theatre drawings on Commercial Drive.

[BCBW 2002] "Architecture"