Audacious neon illuminates Hong Kong’s iconic signage

Neon signs of Autumn Harvest in Sham Shui Po
Nam Cheong Pawn Shop in Sham Shui Po
Unknown origin – Romantic hearts & fortune-optomising number 8
Neon Metropolis
Gallery View
Glowing Home IV
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 The soft glow emitted from these signs created an almost surreal streetscape

Journey through time as the exhibition Vital Signs delves into the heritage of Hong Kong’s iconic neon signs. The neon lights on show tell how these signs became a beloved symbol of Hong Kong’s vibrant culture.

Hong Kong Post World War II

As Hong Kong emerged and rebuilt after World War II, the city underwent rapid economic growth. Factories and workshops worked competitively to sculpt, bend, and blow delicate gas-filled glass tubes to produce neon signs that advertised burgeoning new businesses. These bright lights advertised restaurants, theatres, hotels and more, becoming potent lures drawing tourists to Hong Kong. The soft glow emitted from these signs created an almost surreal streetscape. Unique and romantic, auteurs such as Wong Kar-wai and Ridley Scott immortalised their likeness in film. Clear and flashing in English and Chinese alike, these unique messages written in light have faded over the years, giving way to new technology and tightening government policies. Through the efforts of a devoted public and conservationists, the fading art of neon signage production lives on with a hopeful eye towards the future.

The neon craze began in the west. From the 1930s onwards, bright signs lining the sides of buildings increased in popularity. They flashed their messages and reinvented the metropolitan visual language. The combination of typography, illustration and graphic design became an efficient signal of the postwar economic prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s. Astute business owners invested in long-lasting signs intended to pass from generation to generation. These larger-than-life promotions had to deliver their messages quickly and effectively. As drivers sped on the roads and pedestrians hurried from point A to B, the wording would be sparse, and imagery, if any, needed to make an immediate and lasting impression.

Neon Light Industry

Hong Kong’s neon industry was formed in the early 1930s. Throughout Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, there were three main classes of neon signs – extensions of buildings, on buildings and shopfronts, which could further be broken down into twelve archetypes. The most commonly seen is the extension sign. Either braced with steel frames and cables or extended cantilevers, these signs honour eastern and western traditions with their vertical placement. Reminiscent of 1930s American neon theatre signs, their orientation was favourable to Chinese characters, which can be read horizontally or vertically. Here, variations of Chinese calligraphy shone in the spotlight. Among them, the Northern Wei style was the most common in Hong Kong. Asymmetric and angular, its heavier stroke weights are reminiscent of stone inscriptions.

These bold signs began with a sheet metal base panel. Glass tubes would be affixed, and then text and other graphic elements were arranged and cut out of sheet metal and welded to the base plates before spray paint was applied. The colour scheme for the base panels often differed from those of the neon tubes. Before manufacturing began, graphic artists usually rendered these gigantic designs at reduced scale for client approval. Once given the green light, full-scale drawings served as templates for the neon masters to craft the glass tubes and sheet metal to spec.

Hong Kong Iconic Neon Signs

Surprisingly, developing Hong Kong’s once-iconic neon streets was a wholly organic exercise. While individual businesses strove to outshine their competitors in this crowded space, many were considerate enough not to obscure other signs deliberately. The mixture of columnar and banner signs and reasonable distances between them accidentally created a multilayered and dynamic cascading effect. The city’s neon industry reached its zenith in the 1990s. By 2005, there were about 100 colours available for use in neon sign production.

In recent decades, neon lights’ gentle glow has started giving way to more cost-effective alternatives such as LED lights. A once-burgeoning industry has whittled down significantly. Now, precious few artisans are still actively engaged in the trade, and fewer than twenty-nine neon colours are available for commercial use.

Besides the dwindling industry and manufacturing capabilities, neon sign owners are also being threatened by increasing government scrutiny. Since the early 2010s, the Hong Kong government’s Buildings Department has ramped up its removal order efforts.

The sudden vanishing of hundreds of neon signs has darkened once-vibrant city streets. In 2011, Hong Kong boasted about 120,000 neon billboards. While 700 removal notices were released in 2015, this number ticked up to 1,119 in 2022.

Tetra Neon Exchange

Founded in 2020, Tetra Neon Exchange (TNX) is a local non-profit organisation that collects famous neon signs that have been dealt the removal notice. Since regulatory tightening around unauthorised neon signs, TNX has received almost sixty signs that would otherwise have been condemned. Most of these rescued artefacts are stored in a rural part of Yuen Long in the New Territories. Once there, the signboards are raised atop wooden planks to prevent them from being damaged by potential flooding.

Text Victoria Mae Martyn / Photos Victoria Mae Martyn & Cammy Yiu