Neon’s Dimming Legacy: Turning out the lights on a ‘golden era’ in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s economic and cultural explosion in the second half of the 20th century radiated neon light.

Its warm glow spilled into the streetscapes from signs advertising everything from the smallest noodle stores and seediest dives, to the biggest international brands and the city’s premier venues, where Cantopop stars of the stage and titans of Hong Kong film had their names in lights.

The golden era of the 1980s — when many of the signboards rising from the city’s rooftops or jutting out from its buildings hummed with the drone of electrified gas — was a particularly good time to be a neon sign maker, recalls Wu Chi-ka, a veteran of the trade.

“Hong Kong’s economy was booming in the ’80s, and there weren’t many types of lighting that were either as good or as beautiful as neon,” recalled the 51-year-old, who made his first neon sign in 1985 while working a summer job in what was then an industry employing hundreds, including his father.

Photo by Tomas Wiik.
Neon sign on Tai Kok Tsui Road. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

It was a job, he said, that changed his perspective on the city and brought its neon signs into focus.

“I started paying attention to them, noticing the different signs, which ones were good, which ones were bad,” he said.

“There were many times when I used to go out with friends for dinner, and we wouldn’t bother memorising street names, we’d just say the name of the restaurant because you could see it from far away. Walking down Nathan Road at the time was special because I helped create those neon lights.”

“Of course that’s changed now. From the early 2000s, people started using LED lights for their signs instead.”

Photo by Tomas Wiik.
A busy street in Mong Kok lit by overhanging neon and LED signs. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

Three decades from when he molded his first glass tube, Wu is among fewer than a dozen masters still practicing his trade.

Far from two- to three-story shop front behemoths from yesteryear, Wu now mainly serves the demand for smaller pieces set inside bars and restaurants. The pay’s not as good but the work is steady enough, at least for one last generation.

A neon sign on Tai Kok Tsui Road. Photo by Tomas Wiik.
A neon sign on Tai Kok Tsui Road. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

While Wu does get interest from people wanting to learn the trade, he says he’s reluctant to take on an apprentice.

“If they have time and interest in making neon signs, then I will teach them. But if they want to do it just to make money, then I would tell them to think about it carefully,” he said.

Nostalgia, it seems, isn’t enough to save the profession.

Photo by Tomas Wiik.
Two different overhanging signs for a pawn shop above Argyle Street in Mong Kok. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

With long family-run businesses regularly shuttering or relocating their neon-topped locations and LEDs providing an affordable and easier-to-maintain alternative, the colors that once characterized the city were always bound to change.

But for several years now, a crackdown on signage deemed unsafe has hastened the trend away from Hong Kong’s distinctive neon hues.

Starting in 2010 with the introduction of the Minor Works Control System, the government began enforcing a stricter set of guidelines on building renovations, including a limitation on objects jutting out from buildings — as many of the city’s neon signs do.

Photo by Tomas Wiik.
Neon signs illuminating a street in Tai Kok Tsui. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

The government’s safety concerns are not unfounded.

Ken Mak, an architect and co-founder of Streetsign HK, a group which works to draw attention to the disappearing legacy of the city’s unique signage, said many of the city’s 120,000 signboards were poorly maintained and posed a risk.

Injuries do happen. In December last year three passersby were hurt by a falling billboard in Yau Ma Tei, one of them critically. A few months before in May a woman was injured by a falling wooden signboard in Sham Shui Po.

Technically almost all of Hong Kong’s outdoor signboards fell foul of building codes, Mak said.

Photo by Tomas Wiik.
The neon sign for a guesthouse on Argyle Street, Mong Kok. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

“Any signboards erected without going through the proper procedures – that means most of the signboards that still exist on the streets – are considered unauthorized building works, and are subject to enforcement by the BD through demolition orders,” he said.

This is not necessarily because rules have been retroactively applied. Cardin Chan, the executive director of NGO Neon Heritage, said a lot of neons were probably illegal from the day they were erected.

“There were rules or regulations before, but the colonial government turned a blind eye to it, and that mistake has actually created this uniqueness,” she said.

So the type of light that illuminated iconic films like Chungking Express and inspired the futuristic urban facades of Blade Runner is now fading in the night, as long-flouted regulations finally catch up.

Photo by Tomas Wiik.
A neon sign for a jewlry store on Tai Kok Tsui Road. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

“Half of them are gone, and it’s just like that,” said Chan, recalling being moved almost to tears upon noticing the disappearance of a few neon signs that had, until recently, been fixtures on Temple Street in Yau Ma Tei.

“What actually scared me the most was once they’re removed, there is no trace left, as if they never existed, and if you actually don’t pay attention enough, you may never actually notice the difference.”

Photo by Tomas Wiik.
A neon sign lighting up a street market in Sham Shui Po. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

The Buildings Department, which oversees enforcement, said in an email that it doesn’t compile statistics specifically for the number of neon signs removed, explaining it targeted “all dangerous, abandoned and unauthorized” signboards.

For this broader category, it had issued 2,240 removal orders between 2015 and 2017, a spokesperson said.

But while advocates acknowledge the public safety concerns, they believe there’s a better middle ground — one that spares signs from the landfill.

While groups like Streetsign HK and Neon Heritage have been working with business owners to help maintain their neon signs and contest demolition orders, for those unable to keep them on display, storage has become the next best option.

Photo by Tomas Wiik.
A neon sign in Tai Kok Tsui. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

Such is the fate of the glowing characters once suspended outside the 60-year-old Mak Man Kee noodle restaurant in Jordan, whose owners told Coconuts HK they were still trying to decide what to do with the iconic piece after the government ordered it removed in January.

Another destination has been the M+ museum, an institution focused on Hong Kong’s visual culture that in 2014 produced an impressive online exhibition of the city’s neon heritage.

The museum currently has five in storage in the New Territories, including the famous Sammy’s Kitchen sign, a three- by four-meter neon cow that illuminated the streets of Sheung Wan for decades.

The famous neon cow sign advertising Sammy's Kitchen hung over the streets of Sai Wan for decades. Photo: Western District via Facebook
The famous neon cow sign advertising Sammy’s Kitchen hung over the streets of Sai Wan for decades. Photo: Western District via Facebook

However, given the current trend and in the face of space restrictions, there is a limit to the amount of signs they can plausibly rescue, let alone display for the public, said Aric Chen, lead curator of design and architecture at M+.

“We were never going to become the depository of neon signs,” he said, adding he hoped the museum could help inspire officials to take a more “proactive” approach to conserving the city’s neon legacy.

“No one is saying that we should turn Hong Kong into this frozen time capsule Disneyland of neon signs. But I think there is a lot of room to have a lot more thoughtful discussion leading to a more nuanced approach to how neon signs can remain at least part of, or one of, the many layers that comprise the Hong Kong of today and in the future.”

Photo by Tomas Wiik.
The Chuen Cheung Kui Restaurant on Nelson Street in Mong Kok. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

But while many neon signs are going dark, some will continue to glow, so long as business owners like the proprietor of Chun Wo Tong Dan Yan Lo Herbal Tea shop in Yau Ma Tei, Lee Siu-lun, have a say.

Lee had initially consigned his shop’s three-story sign to the scrapheap upon deciding to relocate earlier this year, some 60 years after the business first opened in Temple Street.

But, after speaking with his family, it was quickly decided that, though the sign was a replacement of an earlier one removed on government orders, neon was an important part of the shop’s history and, thus, its future.

Photo via Neon Heritage on Facebook.
The Chun Wo Tong Dan Yan Lo Herbal Tea shop in Yau Ma Tei. Photo via Neon Heritage on Facebook.

“Some did question our choice and LED could have been picked, but neon radiates a sense of familiarity,” Lee said at the time, via Neon Heritage.

“The old neon sign was already in our lives when we were growing up. I’m almost 50 now so we have been very attached to neon. To our family, there was no other option.”

A neon sign for a congee restaurant in Mong Kok. Photo by Tomas Wiik.
A neon sign for a congee restaurant in Mong Kok. Photo by Tomas Wiik.

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