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.”