Hong Kong News

Nonpartisan, Noncommercial, unconstrained.
Wednesday, Mar 22, 2023

Neon signs that lit Hong Kong's city streets a dying art

Neon signs that lit Hong Kong's city streets a dying art

A group of young enthusiasts are fighting to give Hong Kong’s famed neon signs a new lease on life, before they disappear completely from the city due to tightened government regulations and dwindling demand.
Once ubiquitous in Hong Kong, the signs — which became familiar to foreign audiences through movies like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell — have been steadily removed in the last few decades. The recent dismantling of some of the largest remaining ones, however, is rekindling interest in the local art form.

In early September, a decades-old bakery said it had to take down its sign to adhere to building codes, and in August a traditional bridal wear store removed its famous neon sign on government orders. The government also said in August that it plans to have at least 1,700 dangerous and abandoned signboards “removed or rectified” this year as part of a program titled Tackling Hygiene Black Spots that aims to clean up city streets.

The bridal-store sign was rescued by Tetra Neon Exchange, a self-funded conservation group that has saved more than 40 neon signs since it began in 2020. The group plans to keep the structures in storage before restoring and exhibiting them when they have the resources. It held an exhibition in August to showcase the signs they have restored.

“On its own, each individual sign is an artisanal art piece,” said Cardin Chan, Tetra’s general manager.

The race to save and remember Hong Kong’s neon signs is also tapping into a broader wave of interest in local history, at a time when many local icons are disappearing, and political and economic trouble give rise to a stronger sense of local identity. That is fueling nostalgia for what feels to some like a more stable and prosperous past.

Neon signs exploded in popularity in Hong Kong after World War II, when the city’s economy started to take off led by its manufacturing industry. As consumerism grew, neon signboards became the go-to format of advertising for all kinds of businesses ranging from restaurants to mahjong parlors to pawn shops. In an era where shopping mostly took place on the street level, the biggest and brightest signs got the most attention.

However, neon signs started to give way to LED signboards in the 1990s as they were cheaper and used less electricity, while shopping also started to move to indoor retail complexes or online.

Chan said it’s important to preserve the signs as they reflect Hong Kong’s unique history as a meeting point of different cultures. For example, the designs use Western geometry as well as Chinese motifs and pictograms to denote the types of product or service provided, she added.

Furthermore, the art of making neon signs is dying out alongside traditional masters, with few young practitioners to inherit those skills. The traditional method requires skilled craftsmen who would heat up glass tubes on open flames before bending the tubes into the desired shape. They then apply color by adding different gases and powders into the tubes. There are only a few tube benders left in Hong Kong.

Another nail in the coffin for neon signs came after the 1997 return of the city back to Chinese sovereignty, said Ho Yin Lee, a retired professor in architectural conservation at the University of Hong Kong. The government stepped up efforts to clean up the signs on a large scale as most of them had always been illegal structures that the British colonial government tolerated to allow businesses to prosper, Lee said.

There were about 120,000 signboards, including neon ones, in Hong Kong in 2016, the majority of which did not align with regulations, according to government data. Chan estimates that there are fewer than 500 outdoor signs left.

A collection of two architects’ street signs, including neon ones, is currently on display as part of an urbanism and architecture exhibition sponsored by the Hong Kong government at the Star Ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui that runs until the end of the month.

While some are fighting to preserve physical structures, Information Design Lab, a research and consultancy unit in design at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, is crowdfunding to publish the hundreds of old sketches it collected from traditional signboard manufacturers as a book. One such manufacturer is Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical Mfy, Ltd., whose designs are also showcased at the city’s new M+ contemporary art museum.

“This is a very important artifact in Hong Kong’s visual history,” said Kiki Yau, a research assistant at the unit.

Neon afficionados are also able to make their own miniature versions to keep at home, as more local workshops emerge offering classes in how to make signs with electroluminescent wires, which are already illuminated in different colors and just need to be bent into the desired shapes. One such workshop is Neonlite HK, which offers classes to dozens of customers a month to make A3 or A4-paper-size neon signs.

“Hong Kong is a tiny place, so we thought it would be cool if people could put these Hong Kong icons inside their apartments,” said founder Polly Chan.

And despite the gradual disappearance of neon signs from Hong Kong’s physical cityscape, the aesthetic continues to inspire artists around the world who use the city’s brightly lit streets as backdrops for their work. For example, Hong Kong’s neon-lit streets provided the backdrop to 2016 film Doctor Strange, and more recently Stray, a video game featuring a cat roaming a cyberpunk world.

“To keep intangible cultural heritage alive, adaptation and change are needed,” said HKU’s Lee. “We can treat them not just as neon signs, but as a special aesthetic style for Hong Kong, so that it can become a very important intangible cultural heritage not restricted by technical skills.”

Related Articles

Hong Kong News
Credit Suisse's Scandalous History Resulted in an Obvious Collapse - It's time for regulators who fail to do their job to be held accountable and serve as an example by being behind bars.
Goldman Sachs cuts outlook for European bank debt over Credit Suisse crisis
Paris Rioting vs Macron anti democratic law
'Sexual Fantasy' Assignment At US School Outrages Parents
The US government has charged Chinese businessman Guo Wengui with leading a $1 billion fraud scheme that cheated thousands of followers out of their money.
Credit Suisse to borrow $54 billion from Swiss central bank
The BBC problem about China
Russian Hackers Preparing New Cyber Assault Against Ukraine
"Will Fly Wherever International Law Allows": US Warns Russia After Drone Incident
If this was in Tehran, Moscow or Hong Kong
Announcing GPT-4
TRUMP: "Standing before you today, I am the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent World War III."
China is calling out the US, UK, and Australia on their submarine pact, claiming they are going further down a dangerous road
A brief banking situation report
We are witnessing widespread bank fails and the president just gave a 5 min speech then walked off camera.
Donald Trump's asked by Tucker Carlson question on if the U.S. should support regime change in Russia?.
'No relation to the American SVB': India's SVC Bank acts to calm depositors amid brand name confusion.
Good news: The U.S. government is now guaranteeing all deposits, held by, Silicon Valley Bank, and the funds are available as of today
Silicon Valley Bank exec was Lehman Brothers CFO
In a potential last-ditch effort, HSBC is considering a rescue deal to save Silicon Valley Bank UK from insolvency
Saudi Arabia has announced a major breakthrough in diplomacy with Iran after two years of intense talks
Elon Musk Is Planning To Build A Town In Texas For His Employees
The Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse effect is spreading around the world, affecting startup companies across the globe
City officials in Berlin announced on Thursday that all swimmers at public pools will soon be allowed to swim topless
Fitness scam
Market Chaos as USDC Loses Peg to USD after $3.3 Billion Reserves Held by Silicon Valley Bank Closed.
A primitive judge in Australia sparked outrage when he told a breastfeeding woman to leave his courtroom for being “a distraction"
Barcelona is feeling the heat as they face corruption charges over payments to former vice-president of Spain's referees' committee, Jose Maria Enriquez Negreira
Banking regulators close SVB, the largest bank failure since the financial crisis
Silicon Valley Bank: Struggles Threaten Tech Startup Ecosystem"
The unelected UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, an immigrant himself, defends new controversial crackdown on illegal migration
Old clip of Bill Gates saying Ukraine is a big, fat, corrupt sinkhole is going viral
Man’s penis amputated by mistake after he’s wrongly diagnosed with a tumour
2 universities in Hong Kong embrace use of ChatGPT, other AI tools
In a major snub to Downing Street's Silicon Valley dreams, UK chip giant Arm has dealt a serious blow to the government's economic strategy by opting for a US listing
Missing Chinese banker was working to set up Singapore family office
Hong Kong ditches Covid mask mandate after 945 days
Xi Jinping and His Wife Meet with Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk
How do stolen goods end up on Amazon, eBay and Facebook Marketplace?
It's the question on everyone's lips: could a four-day workweek be the future of employment?
Is Gold the Ultimate Safe Haven Asset in Times of Uncertainty?
Spain officials quit over trains that were too wide for tunnels...
Hello. Here is our news digest from London.
Corruption and Influence Buying Uncovered in International Mainstream Media: Investigation Reveals Growing Disinformation Mercenaries
When it comes to Tesla vs Lamborghini, an empty vessel makes more noise
European MP Clare Daly condemns US attack on Nord Stream
Former U.S. President Carter will spend his remaining time at home and receive hospice care instead of medication
North Korea test-fires an intercontinental ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan west of Hokkaido
US bombed Nord Stream gas pipelines, claims investigative journalist Seymour Hersh
US Joins 15 NATO Nations in Largest Space Data Collection Initiative in History