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Interview: Terence Wong, Hong Kong’s ‘Father of the Christmas lights’

Written by
Anna Cummins

The next time you see a giant Santa in lights, waving merrily at you across Victoria Harbour, take a moment to think of Terence Wong. The electrician has earned a reputation as the ‘Father of the Christmas lights’ after overseeing the majority of the imaginative illuminations in our city for the past 31 years.

Since the age of 12, Wong worked in his brother’s electrical shop when he wasn’t in school. As soon as he left Form Five, he opened his own shop in Shau Kei Wan, selling lights and doing electrical repairs – although it wasn’t always straightforward. “I was repairing a strip lamp in a classroom,” he recalls. “There was an overload and then all the power to the school was cut off, because I wasn’t good!” he laughs, before confirming: “Of course, today it would be no problem.”

Christmas wasn’t always full of light and fun in Hong Kong. Wong explains that, back in the early 1980s, there weren’t any festive lights on buildings, and the main illuminations were simple strings of bulbs in Hong Kong Park. “The Sino Group asked me to put some lights on their buildings. [At first] I said ‘I cannot’ – because in that period, all the commercial buildings were glass,” he remembers. “I was worried the bulbs would damage the building. So the first time I did the lighting [in 1982], the lights weren’t put flat on the glass; they were just like a canopy, hanging down on wires suspended from the roof.”

While the first, simple strings of lights were a hit, it was two more years before Wong had a brainwave. “I found if the light bulb hits the external wall, it won’t damage the glass of the building – it will just break the light bulb! It’s a very simple idea.” This ‘simple idea’ gave Wong the confidence to move forward with his designs.

“I understood that I should try shapes like a star, circle, something like that; just a simple picture,” he says. “The fourth Christmas, so many people went to Tsim Sha Tsui East – about 80,000 people went to see the lights. In 10 years, 500,000 people were going to see them! The patterns were becoming more complicated and beautiful.”

For a long time, Wong himself worked to install the lights, although for the past few years he’s been overseeing operations from his ‘control room’ in a Kwun Tong industrial building. He admits going up on the gondola is as nerve-wracking as we imagine. “Yes, it was scary!” he says. Wong goes on to recount the tale of how, several years ago, he nearly burned down a building in Tsim Sha Tsui. “Because it was raining, there was a short-circuit and a fire sparked on the wire; I went running and switched off the circuit just before it reached the building!”

The small team of six at Wong’s company, Shun Sze International Development, work on the festive lights all the way from June to December each year. Sometimes over 100 drawings of a particular design are executed before a client is happy with it. It then takes 100 workers a whole month to put up all of the designs, which rest on 10 buildings. It costs between $100,000 and $300,000 per building, and a total of 100,000 light bulbs are required to complete the installations.

Wong is also responsible for converting the Christmas lights into Chinese New Year lights. There is only a one-week gap to switch all the designs – Wong therefore makes sure that the patterns are easily transferable. “For example, Santa can change into a money god,” he explains. “It saves time and money.”

Surprisingly, most of the bulbs used are simple 15-watt tungsten bulbs – similar to those used in many homes. After the festive period, the bulbs’ lifespan is up, and they are are sent for recycling; new bulbs need to be used every year. However, with the growing access to LED technology, this may soon change. “It’s a transition period,” Wong explains. “It’s about the price; the tungsten bulbs are cheaper. But the benefit [of LEDs] is that we can reuse them; they last for years.”

You may well be wondering what exactly Wong and his team do during the rest of the year. When they’re not drawing angels and stars, Shun Sze specialises in developing eco-friendly LED lighting, and also provides general lighting services. But it’s clear where Wong’s passion lies.

“The [Christmas] lights make people happy, because at Christmas time, so many people go to the harbourside to go and see the lighting. I like Christmas very much! Why? Because money is coming!” he laughs. “So many people will see my decorations and lighting – I feel very happy!”

(Originally published December 2013)

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