Hong Kong's neon lights are under threat

Heritage groups and artists in Hong Kong are working to keep these iconic lights of the city shining on the streets

Neon street signs of Hong Kong businesses such as Koon Nam Wah bridal store may be gone soon as they face pressure to switch to LED lights.
Neon street signs of Hong Kong businesses such as Koon Nam Wah bridal store may be gone soon as they face pressure to switch to LED lights. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG • It is a habit that lights up her day. Every evening, Madam Wong Shing Fan, owner of the popular Mido Cafe, switches on a green and red neon sign with the name of the venue on it, steps out to the street and briefly stares at the four red-lit characters.

"They are engraved into the night and remind me that this place has been here for (more than) half a century, as I have been. This is something I am very proud of," the 70-year-old said.

Mido opened in the blue-collar Yau Ma Tei district in 1950.

Neon lights have been a staple of Hong Kong's nightscape for decades.

Their use became popular in the 1950s, when the local economy started growing and a consumerist society quickly developed.

Mr Brian Kwok, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University's school of design, said: "The shop owners just built what they liked, it was chaotic. The neon signs cascaded over the streets."

But the arrival of more efficient and durable LED light bulbs, the closure of old businesses and a crackdown on outdoor structures have started to push neon lights out of the streets.

According to CityLife magazine, up to 90 per cent of the main neon lights of the city have disappeared during the last 20 years.

"Neon has been the light of the city for a long time, you couldn't escape from it. You saw Hong Kong through neon lighting or because of neon lighting," said Mr Aric Chen, lead curator of design and architecture at the M+ museum that focuses on Hong Kong's visual culture.

Projects such as the Hong Kong Neon Heritage Group are trying to gather information on the remaining signs.

"We don't want to see neon signs in a museum as dead objects. We want to see them shining in the streets," said member Cardin Chan.

Graphic designers and artists have bought into the initiative's goals, creating new indoor neon signs and installations and pushing for the revival of an icon of Hong Kong's identity.

"A lot of culture coming from China is influencing Hong Kong in different ways," said Mr Kwok. "People are becoming aware of the disappearance of Hong Kong's culture and want to retain it."

This comeback has helped some companies still creating neon billboards to find a new way to survive after years of losses.

After more than three decades in the business, Mr Frank Sin launched his own company at end-May to make and maintain neon lights. In less than a month, his workshop has received six orders. But others are more circumspect.

Mr Wu Chi Kai, one of the last neon-light craftsmen in Hong Kong, said his workshop could not be sustained via "small-scale projects".

Shopkeepers also lament that technicians able to repair fragile neon tubes are becoming scarce and their services are now pricier.

The result is that even the most iconic signs still standing in the streets might have two or three colour tubes burnt out or some of the parts blinking gloomily.

A challenge also comes from a control system for outdoor structures around buildings that was implemented by the authorities in 2011.

Many business owners have been told to resize their neon signs.

The neon advertisement of Koon Nam Wah bridal store "will disappear soon".

"We are just waiting for the final notice to change to LED," said Ms Lam Chok Yi, owner of the shop in Yau Ma Tei.

"Society changes and we have to follow the rules."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2018, with the headline Hong Kong's neon lights are under threat. Subscribe