Hong Kong's fight to save its neon shimmer â" a photo essay
- Neon lights have been a staple of Hong Kongâs nightscape for decades. All photographs by MatjaÅ¾ TanÄiÄ (except where stated)
Wong Shing-Fan, the owner of Mido Cafe, a popular canteen opened in 1950 in downtown Hong Kong, has repeated a simple daily routine for decades. Every evening, she switches on the green and red neon sign with the name of the venue on it, steps out to the street and briefly stares at the four red-lit characters floating in the air, right next to the first-floor dining room.
âThey are engrav ed into the night and they remind me that this place has been here for half a century, as I have been. This is something I am very proud of,â 70-year-old Wong says.
- Mido Cafe, opened in the heart of blue-colla r Yau Ma Tei district in 1950, has become a favourite spot for those nostalgic for Hong Kongâs golden days
Neon lights have been a staple of Hong Kongâs nightscape for decades, each and every corner of the city basking in their gentle light. The use of neon lights became wildly popular as a new advertisement method during the 1950s, when the economy of the city started growing and a consumerist society quickly developed.
Vying for attention in the crowded streets of the former British colony, each business owner tried to outmatch their neighbourâs neon signs, erecting ever taller and bigger billboards. Soon, gleaming Chinese characters, sleek dragons and suggestive figures populated the night sky of Hong Kong, promising all kinds of amusements to the visitors of the âPearl of Orientâ.
- Neon-lit streets in the 1990s; Nathan Road looking south, Kowloon; Courtesy of Keith Macgregor
Brian Kwok, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic Universityâs school of design, says: âThe shopowners just built what they liked, it was chaotic. The neon signs cascaded over the streets.â
But the arrival of LED lightbulbs â" more efficient and durable â" the closure of old businesses and a government crackdown on outdoor structures have started to push neon lights out of the streets, and Hong Kong residents are trying to work out how to preserve the unique glow of their cityscape.
- Brian Kwok, assistant professor of the school of design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, compares neon lights to âendangered speciesâ, quickly disappearing from the streets of the city
According to CityLife, a Hong Kong tourism magazine, up to 90% of the main neon lights of the city have disappeared during the last 20 years.
âNeon has been the light of the city for a really long time, you couldnât escape from it. You saw Hong Kong through neon lighting or because of neon lighting,â says Aric Chen, lead curator of design and architecture at the M+museum, focused on Hong Kongâs visual culture.
- Maintenance works are sometimes completed in a few minutes, with (seemingly) very few safety measures involved
Before the museum opened its doors, Chen curated M+âs first online exhibition in 2014,a highly popular website that celebrated the cityâs neon installations, fuelling a nostalgic movement to rediscover them.
âThey are indelibly linked to what the city is in the popular imagination, and when we did this project we really struck a chord,â Chen says.
Buoyed by that interest, projects such as the Hong Kong Neon Heritage Group, founded in January 2017, are trying to gather information about the last few standing neon signs and raise awareness of their disappearance. âWe donât want to see neon signs in a museum, as dead objects, we want to see them shining in the streets,â says Cardin Chan, one of the members of the initiative, which organises neon-related workshops.
Graphic designers and artists have bought into the initiativeâs goals, creating new indoor neon sig ns and installations, and pushing for the revival of an icon of Hong Kongâs identity. âA lot of culture coming from China is influencing Hong Kong in different ways,â says Kwok. âPeople are becoming aware of the disappearance of Hong Kongâs culture, and want to retain it,â he says.
- A neon sign welcomes customers to Anchoret cafe and boutique shop, in Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood
- Neon lights lighten th e mood inside the cozy Mumâs not Home bar
This comeback has helped some of the companies still creating and installing neon billboards to find a new way to survive after years of losses. After more than three decades in the business, Frank Sin decided to launch his own company at the end of May, Frank Sin Neon Light Business, which manufactures and provides maintenance for neon lights. In less than a month, his new workshop has already received six orders. This new business-owner says that the demand for neon lights went up in 2012, when local artists and designers, sometimes returning from overseas, became aware of Hong Kongâs characteristic neon heritage. âEven earlier I would convince some customers to use neon lights instead of LED,â he says.
- The gentle glow of neon lights has illuminated Hong Kongâs streets and alleyways for decades
- Neon signs used to combine red-coloured Chinese characters with a green pattern surrounding them, making the inscriptions easier to read
- The neon light of the first restaura nts from the Hong Kong Tsui Wah chain, combines Japanese and Chinese characters and Western letters, and itâs one of the last large neon signs standing in the Jordan neighbourhood
But others donât think this is a sustainable model. Wu Chi-Kai, one of the last neon lights craftsmen working in Hong Kong, says that his workshop canât be sustained âthrough small-scale projectsâ and says that his workshopâs revenue is down 80% from 25 years ago. At the same time, technicians able to repair fragile neon tubes are more difficult to find than ever and their services are becoming pricier, shopkeepers complain. The result is that even the most iconic signs still standing in the streets might have two or three colour tubes burned out, or some of the parts blinking gloomily.
- Wu Chi-Kai, one of the last glass benders in Hong Kong, says that he has stayed in the profession because he likes âthe challengeâ of creating new, impossible-looking designs
And a new control system for outdoor structures around buildings was implemented by Hong Kong authorities at the end of 2011.
Since then, many business owners have been receiving notifications asking to resize local neon signs to comply with local ordinance. According to the 2014 M+ museum online exhibition, the government has removed 3,000 unauthorised signboards a year since 2006. When I visited Koon Nam Wah bridal shop, a traditional shop for Chinese embroidered wedding dresses, the owner said that its neon lights had just been repaired but that they would probably not last much longer.
- The neon advertisement of Koon Nam Wah bridal store âwill disappear soon,â according to the owner of the shop
âWe are just waiting for the final notice [from the authorities] to change the neon light for LED,â says Lam Chok-Yi, owner of Koon Nam Wah â" now one of the last shops displaying a neon sign in Yau MaTei, a blue-collar neighbourhood.
âSociety changes, and we have to follow the rules,â she says.
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