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A look into neon signs, the shining legacy of Hong Kong

We uncover the history, tradition, and legacy of Hong Kong’s neon signs

Jenny Leung
Edited by
Jenny Leung
Written by
Tommy Yu

Bzzt, bzzt, bzzt… In a city that never sleeps, neon signs illuminate a gorgeous mosaic of reds, lavenders, blues, oranges, and more. Back in the 1970s, they shone bright and brilliant, but for the past two decades, its prosperous glaze has been ebbing fast, gradually leaving behind a dismal-looking asphalt jungle.

Jive Lau is a neon sign artist based in Hong Kong who creates neon sign artworks in every possible form; Cardin Chan is the manager of Tetra Neon Exchange, a non-profit organisation dedicated to researching, preserving, and restoring Hong Kong's neon signs. Speaking with them, we uncover the neon sign's history, tradition, and glowing affair with Hong Kong.

The history
Photograph: Courtesy cc/wikicommons/Fcb981

The history

In 1920, British Hong Kong defined neon signs as electrically-charged glass tubing "with neon, argon, helium or other inert gas" in the signage law. Back in the day, folks didn't keep their eyes glued to mobile devices and instead, would look up and about, seeing things at the tilt of their heads. Neon signs were means of advertisement, and the most visible ones were often earmarked by people to communicate their locations.

Hong Kong's neon age boomed between the 1950s and 1980s, lending the city its electric, eternal glow. Spanning multiple stories, the National Panasonic on Nathan Road used to be one of the world's largest neon boards during the 1970s. Pulsating beams in different colours, the heyday of neon light coincides with the city's golden age. However, the tide started to turn in the 1990s when LED emerged as a more energy-efficient option. Shopkeepers swapped out neon signs to cut costs, and the neon business rode off into the sunset.

For public safety, Hong Kong's Validation Scheme for Unauthorised Signboards went into effect in 2013, which mandated the removal of all unauthorised signboards. The number of signboards in Hong Kong, together with the neon ones, was estimated at about 120,000 in 2013. Between 2018 and 2020, more than 2,000 signs were forced out of the city's streetscape, counting over 760 signs in Yau Tsim Mong District alone. As if that wasn't enough, the Minor Works Control System deters businesses from commissioning new neon signs with higher costs and extra red tape, accelerating the disappearance of neon signs.

Against that backdrop, urban development and gentrification were (and still are) also underway to push away old shops. Traditionally, a sign is an integral part of a business, sometimes passed down the line as an heirloom. When businesses can't withstand the changing tides of time, their cultural riches disappear along with their shining legacy, the neon signage being one of many.

The craftsmanship
Photograph: Kevin Mak/@kingymak

The craftsmanship

The city's streetscapes pulsating with neon beams represent many things. To the people who make it, it represents the value of craftsmanship.

As a neon sign maker, Jive Lau learned the ropes of making neon signs in Taiwan, brought his technical expertise to Hong Kong, and subsequently founded the neon studio Kowloneon. "The substance glass is a challenging medium," he tells us. Each sign is an artisanal artwork in and of itself, and virtually all the twists and turns are painstakingly handcrafted.

To start, Lau heats the glass and works it into characters, alphabets, or geometric shapes. The heating process is handled by specific burners only, and bending the glass tube requires years of practice to achieve precision. Having attained the desired shape, the glass is then vacuumed, filled with inert gases, and electrically charged. The gases interact with electricity to produce light, forming the neon glow that so many are familiar with.

Honing his sign-making skills, Lau becomes a master by juggling art and science. "The [glass tube] vacuum process requires knowledge in physics and chemistry," explains Lau. "During installation, we need to understand electricity and basic engineering for different environmental situations."

The traditions and legacy
Photograph: Unsplash/@_stfeyes

The traditions and legacy

Apart from craftsmanship, neon signs carry far more than what meets the eye. Before printed letters became the status quo, neon signs were mostly handwritten in calligraphy scripts. The most common ones were Beiwei Kaishu (Northern Wei, a particular subtype of Kaishu script) and Lishu (Clerical Scripts). These handwritten characters are a living vestige of the old Hong Kong signage traditions, rarely found elsewhere in the world.

As the founder of Tetra Neon Exchange, a non-governmental organization dedicated to archiving and researching neon signs, Cardin Chan has noted that the neon sign of a pawn shop resembles a bat holding a coin. Such design is exclusive to Hong Kong and is believed to stretch several decades or even centuries back. "Based on our research, Hong Kong still has a comparatively high concentration of pawn shop signs in this style," says Chan. "Pawn shop sign designs in Taiwan, for example, are generally more Japanese-influenced", she adds.

Our neon-lit streetscapes have also served as a metaphor for Hong Kong for many filmmakers, especially during the 80s and 90s. Christopher Doyle is famously infatuated with neon signs. In Fallen Angels, they flash upon the character and symbolise a restless urban sprawl; in Chungking Express, the mysterious female killer roams beneath a stream of neon glow, silhouetted against a city that is vibrant, busy, and disorientating. But the filmmaker’s obsession with neon beauty shouldn’t come as a surprise: neon signs somehow glamourise Chinese handwritten characters and Western pictograms, evoking an East-meets-West sensibility associated with the global metropolis.

But ultimately, the reason why neon glows so memorably bright is the fact that it represents an image, a city, and an era. It used to be everywhere – restaurants, mahjong houses, massage parlours, nightclubs, and many more. Neon signs are expansive yet intimate, deliberate yet organic on their gently trembling beats. The fluorescent tubings make a constant flicker upon the faces, and our collective memory is entangled in the city's most dazzling neon affair.

The preservation
Photograph: Unsplash/Chromatograph

The preservation

Time has wiped away neon signs, along with people knowing how to make them. Tetra Neon Exchange has worked with various local craftsmen. However, to their estimate, only eight glass benders and two metal sign frame makers are left in Hong Kong, as many veteran hands have already given up, retired, or passed away. Even when there are younger folks who seem to be interested in the craft, there are still many things that these craftsmen need to consider before taking on any apprentices, such as their intentions, skillfulness, and willingness to learn. As a result, the tricks of the neon trade become all the more hermetic.

Despite the challenges, there has been a growing awareness of preserving neon signs as a tile of Hong Kong’s cultural mosaic. In 2014, M+ collected a roster of neon signs, organised exhibitions, and archived the story behind each shining signage. Albeit as the splendour of a bygone era, neon signs still glow in the hearts of many.

Seeing all the signs exhibited in public areas, Cardine Chan maintained her commitment to restoring the neon-lit streetscape. "To me, they [neon signs] are way more than artistic artefacts but the embodiments of both history and future," she expresses. Keeping the neon craft alive, Jive Lau also holds regular workshops to promote the art of neon light. And each fluorescent tubing carries the blood, sweat, and tears of the craftsmen. "The neon craft is art and science but I love the diversity of it," he enthuses. "It's fun!"

Much like the Victoria Harbour, neon signs are a part of Hong Kong’s visual identity, shining in their energy, vibrancy, and pageantry. The neon age may be fading fast, but it leaves behind a picture of lasting glory, just as unspoiled as when it was born.

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