Hong Kong's Farewell to Thousands of Neon Signs

Old photo of neon-lit streets in Kowloon in the 1990s. Courtesy of Keith Macgregor

The stock image of Hong Kong is populated with neon signs; like the neo-noir dystopian landscape of Blade Runner, the city’s layers are made up of glowing symbols and architecture. It’s sad then, to see these signs—a sight that has greeted locals and tourists for the better part of the century—on the brink of extinction as the government has deemed them "illegal" slated them for systematic removal from the streets. In August 2015, the city said a sentimental goodbye to another icon: the neon cow that lit up Sammy Kitchen’s restaurant, a visual fixture since 1977.

This move further wedges open the divide between ruling bodies and locals who continue to feel slighted by the city’s decisions on cultural preservation and public art. Hong Kong’s neon signs have been intertwined in culture since the inception of their use; the cover of British band Blur’s latest drop, The Magic Whip, pays homage to them, and filmmakers such as Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar-wai have showcased the luminescent grit of the neon landscape.

Sammy’s Kitchen sign in Sai Ying Pun. Courtesy of M+ Museum

Many signs, like Sammy’s Kitchen’s, were handcrafted by sifus [masters] who burned and welded the shapes in their tiny studios; originally, they were created by injecting glass pipes with a gas that surged to colorful life when electrified. Coming to Hong Kong in 30s by way of Europe, then America, the technology fused with the graphic typographies of the Chinese language, forging the city’s identity as one always awash with light.

Today, the old-school gas technique is largely replaced by harsher, factory-processed LED styles. However, veteran proprietors like 84-year-old Sammy Yip of Sammy’s Kitchen have managed to hold onto their original signs—that is, until now. The government’s building department has been removing thousands from the streets since the early 2000s, when the issue of "illegal structures" first arose.

Still of “The Making of Neon Signs,” as part of exhibition “Mobile M+:NEONSIGNS.HK”. Courtesy M+ Museum

This has brought bitter sentiments to the fore as artists and locals lament this loss. The discussion, whether negative or positive, increasingly involves the forthcoming M+ Museum (run by the West Kowloon District Authority, which is directly financed by the government), which has set aside a space in their collection for such signs. Headed by top-drawer international curators such as Doryun Chong, formerly of MoMA, New York, and Lars Nittve, founding director of Tate Modern, London, the museum launched an interactive campaign in 2014 that celebrated the neon sign, releasing a short documentary film on the gas-filled glass pipes.

But critical voices still rise up, asking: Who has the right to amberize and archive a still-thriving culture? Who do these artifacts ultimately belong to? Has this collection ultimately sped up the process of removal?

As these questions and issues continue to percolate, the signs are fading fast. Meanwhile, the spaces where they once were continue to haunt the city—no longer illuminating the streets but still a bright presence in collective memory.

Argyle Street in Mong Kok, Kowloon in the 1960s (Upper) and 2014 (Lower). Courtesy of M+ Museum and Old Hong Kong Photo

Fa Yuen Street in Mong Kok, Kowloon.  Courtesy of Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze

Signs in Kowloon. Courtesy of Mark Pegrum

To learn more about the neon signs visit the M+ Museum by clicking here.


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