Hong Kong's fading glow

The neon cow sign (above) of Sammy's Kitchen and neon signs (top) in the Yau Ma Tei area.
The neon cow sign of Sammy's Kitchen and neon signs (above) in the Yau Ma Tei area.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
The neon cow sign (above) of Sammy's Kitchen and neon signs (top) in the Yau Ma Tei area.
The neon cow sign (above) of Sammy's Kitchen and neon signs in the Yau Ma Tei area.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

The bright neon signs of the Chinese city are slowly making way for LED ones

HONG KONG • For nearly four decades, a giant neon cow suspended above a steakhouse in Hong Kong's Western District was a neighbourhood landmark. It was where, if you were giving directions, you told someone to get off the bus or to take the next left. A glowing bovine beacon nearly 3m long and 2.4m tall, you could not miss it.

It was supposed to be an Angus, said Ms Iry Yip, manager of Sammy's Kitchen. The sign was designed in 1978 by her father Sammy Yip, the restaurant's founder, who at 84 still sits behind the cash register.

But the sign-maker decided that longer legs would look better, hence the world's only known long-legged, bluish-white Angus, with "Sammy's Kitchen Ltd" emblazoned across its flank in green in English and in red in Chinese.

But in 2011, the city's Buildings Department decided the sign was unsafe and ordered it removed. After an unsuccessful campaign to save it, the sign came down in August.

"It feels like something is missing," Ms Yip said. "The street has gotten so empty."

Since the mid-20th century, endless towers of flashing, throbbing neon have defined Hong Kong's landscape as much as Victoria Harbour and the skyline of densely packed highrises.

"When you think of Hong Kong and visual culture, one of the first things that comes to the fore is neon signs," said Mr Aric Chen, design and architecture curator of M+, a museum that is collecting images of Hong Kong's neon signs online and some of the signs themselves as they are retired.

The Hong Kong immortalised in the films of Wong Kar Wai, director of In The Mood For Love (2000) and Chungking Express (1994), is awash in neon, he said. "If his representations of Hong Kong in the popular imaginations are seminal, which I think they are," he said, "you can't separate that image from the neon ambient glow."

But the neon of Hong Kong's streets is dimming. Neon has declined since the 1990s, sign- makers and experts say, as building regulations have tightened and new signs are made of LEDs, which lack neon's warmth but are brighter and less expensive to maintain.

The Hong Kong Buildings Department has no record of how many neon signs remain in the city or how many existed at their peak, but it acknowledges that it removes hundreds of signs a year for failure to meet regulations on issues such as safety.

In a workshop with peeling walls, Mr Lau Wan, one of the last of Hong Kong's neon sign-makers, heated a glass tube on a flame, effortlessly bending it into the Chinese character for Polytechnic University.

Mr Lau, who has been making neon signs by hand since 1957, helped turn Hong Kong nights into blazing, garish days. He created one of the city's largest and most famous signs, the red-and-white Panasonic billboard that covered a building on Nathan Road from 1973 to 1995.

Now, at 75, Mr Lau fears his craft is dying. "I want it preserved, but I probably won't be able to see it," he said. His colleague Wu Chi Kai, 47, is the second- youngest of the nearly dozen neon sign-makers left in the city and there are no apprentices being trained.

What the medium itself represents has changed over time.

When Hong Kong first fell for neon in the 1920s, it was an indicator of urban sophistication and prosperity. By the 1960s and 1970s, when some neighbourhoods here were as chock-a-block with neon as Times Square, it was considered gaudy.

By the 1980s, they were associated with urban decay and red-light districts. Today, as they grow scarcer, they have become retro-chic artefacts and objects of nostalgia. The sign-makers, however, downplay any artistic pretension. "The only requirement at that time was to be able to immediately catch someone's attention among a street full of signs," Mr Wu said.

Mr Lau said: "When foreigners came to Hong Kong... and were stunned by the neon signs, it made us sign-makers proud. We worked so hard for Hong Kong and were making contributions."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2015, with the headline 'Hong Kong's fading glow'. Print Edition | Subscribe