Sign of the Times | Hong Kong Rages Against the Dying of its Neon Lights

Bit by bit, Hong Kong is taking down the visual identity it has held for years - but not without resistance

by Oliver Lunn; photos by Christopher Button
Nov 30 2018, 11:00am

Hong Kong’s nightscape glows like a sci-fi movie set; perfectly lit and ready for its close-up . It famously inspired Blade Runner’s dystopian backdrop, and was the setting of Wong Kar-wai’s neon-lit love story Chungking Express. With its sparkly skyline, the city is cinematic with a capital ‘C’. For decades it has lured filmmakers, like moths to a flame – or more accurately: like moths to a neon light.

Christopher Button is acutely aware of Hong Kong’s cinematic appeal. The British photographer was lured to the city seven years ago, after falling in love with the movies of Wong Kar-wai. He’s been living and working there ever since. In his pictures – which he describes as ‘cinematic street photography’ – he sidesteps clichés of bustling street scenes in favour of quieter moments. He heads out into the night, armed with his Mamiya 7.2 camera and tripod, drawn to scenes with a hint of a movie narrative.

Beaded, illuminated open signs on sale in the street. Photo: Christopher Button

“I like to think of my photos as stills from a film that was never made,” Button tells me.

His movie’s protagonist, you might say, is light itself. One picture shows a meat and rice store with a shimmering red sign suspended above the street; cool blues and greens beam out from the windows. In these nightscapes – shot mostly in and around the district of Chai Wan where he lives – there’s an atmosphere, a colour palette, with only one or two colours dominating the frame.

A cinematic, misty window scene. Photo: Christopher Button

In almost every photo, there’s that soft glow that has come to define the city’s visual identity, casting everything in a magical luminescent light. It reflects off puddles and steamed-up windows. It bathes buildings in warm yellows and reds. In reality, though, the distinct neon light is vanishing from the cityscape.

Hong Kong’s neon signs are now the technological equivalent of an endangered species. What was once ubiquitous is becoming increasingly scarce, with the Guardian reporting “up to 90% of the main neon lights of the city have disappeared during the last 20 years.”

A backstreet kitchen. Photo: Christopher Button

This loss includes decades-old gems, like the Red Lips Bar sign featured in Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By (1988); the giant cow that lit up Sammy Kitchen’s restaurant since 1977; and the enormous Yue Hwa Chinese Products sign, removed from Nathan Road in 2009.

Does this mean we’re seeing the last days of neon? “Yes,” says Christopher DeWolf, a Hong Kong-based journalist. “There will always be a few neon signs here or there but I'm certain that in five years, only a tiny fraction of what we see today will remain – which is itself a small fraction of what existed just ten years ago.”

One of Hong Kong's iconic, iridescent neon signs. Photo: Christopher Button

There’s a number of reasons why this is happening, says DeWolf. The first is safety, specifically with regard to old signs suspended above the streets. In the 2010s, acting on emergency reports about these signs, a public safety issue was raised, and the government removed roughly 3,000 per year. In 2009, it's reported that more than 5,000 signboards were removed.

Another reason is LED technology, which arrived in the 1990s. Safe and cheap to mass-produce, LEDs are also more efficient, simple to install, and they can even imitate old neon (well, almost). “Many businesses don't see the point in spending so much money on a neon sign,” DeWolf adds, “and many of those with existing neon signs don’t see any reason to keep maintaining them.”

A busy, buzzing, drizzly street corner. Photo: Christopher Button

Button, who’s been photographing Hong Kong for the last seven years, has surely noticed the signs vanishing from the cityscape? “To be honest, not really,” he says. “I’ve noticed it more as some of the more famous examples have gone. But I don’t think I would have noticed unless I’d read about it.”

The fact that they’re disappearing so gradually, he says, makes it worse. “It means people aren’t as aware of it as they should be. And then eventually all the signs will disappear and it’ll be like, ‘Shit, where did they all go?!’”

Rush hour in the Hong Kong metro. Photo: Christopher Button

I wonder if it has anything to do with changing tastes. “No, I don’t think it has to do with taste,” he says, also pointing to LEDs and safety as primary reasons for the decline. “Really, I think everyone loves the old neon signs. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who doesn’t love them.”

Cardin Chan is executive director of The Hong Kong Neon Heritage group, a think tank whose online platform allows students and foreign media to exchange information about the signs. I ask her, too, if we’re seeing the last days of neon. “If you’re talking about pre-existing outdoor neon signs that don’t comply with the updated government regulations, then yes, we are losing them and we are losing them fast. Especially recently, because they are considered as posing a risk to public safety.”

The centre of Hong Kong, alive with activity. Photo: Christopher Button

To educate people about Hong Kong’s neon signs and hopefully slow down this loss, the heritage group holds workshops with specialists in the neon industry. “How could people understand this art or industry without any access to it?” she says, explaining the role of education in the push for preservation.

Few people know about the history of the signs, either. “They’re more than merely commercial by-products. One of the reasons why they’re so special in Hong Kong is because they originated from some form of shop sign in old China, dating back to at least the Qing Dynasty.”

Soft light pooling in puddles. Photo: Christopher Button

To get a sense of the looming historic loss, you have to go back to Hong Kong’s neon boom in the 1950s. Back then, when a post-war consumerist society was emerging, the urban area of Tsim Sha Tsui was littered with multi-story neon signs.

The city’s crown jewel was the National Panasonic sign, then the biggest neon sign in the world (now gone, sadly). During that time, there were virtually no size or placement restrictions, which, DeWolf says, led to a kind of arms race of who could install the biggest and most eye-catching sign.

A standard restaurant, with ducks hung in the window. Photo: Christopher Button

The government has yet to recognize this rich history as a reason for preservation. In 2013, Hong Kong’s Validation Scheme for Unauthorized Signboards went into effect, and removal swiftly began on outdoor ‘chandelier’-style hanging signs that exceed specified dimensions. Around that same time, M+ (Hong Kong’s museum of visual culture) launched NEONSIGNS.HK, an online interactive exhibition dedicated to documenting the city’s lost and last remaining neon signs.

The project was launched as a reaction to the news, in 2013, that the neon cow of Sammy’s Kitchen was about to be taken down, after hanging above Queen’s Road West for thirty-plus years.

Streetlamps giving guidance and form to the street below. Photo: Christopher Button

“It was like a call to action for us,” an M+ spokesperson tells me. “We contacted Sammy, the owner of the restaurant, and his daughter, Ire, to see if we could acquire the sign for the museum, and they generously donated it to us.” In fact, I’m told M+ may be the only public institution in Hong Kong that physically collects neon signs.

Surely with all these efforts – the documenting, the educating, the collecting, the global media coverage – there’s hope? “Sadly, I don't think there’s much hope for Hong Kong’s neon signs,” says DeWolf. “Hong Kong Neon Heritage is doing a lot to raise awareness of their value, and the M+ museum is collecting some neon signs. But the reality is that the government does not care.”

An Esso garage as a cacophony of light. Photo: Christopher Button

Chan, at the heritage project, is slightly more optimistic. “I would like to think there is hope for preservation, though it is a long, winding road,” she says. “We are all for public safety, but I feel traditional neon hasn’t been given a fair chance to be understood.”

As a photographer, Button is still head over heels in love with Hong Kong. Despite the gloomy stats about its fading world of neon, he’s hyped on what he finds when wandering the streets at night. “I feel like I’ve taken maybe 1% of the photos that I want to take here,” he tells me.

The eternal buzz of the neon sign still hums beneath life in Hong Kong. Photo: Christopher Button

Button’s stylistic signature is clearly marked by those beautiful pools of soft light. Though much of his work is lit by neon, LED light inevitably creeps in. What would happen, I ask, if the future landscape of Hong Kong was 100% LED-lit? Would he be content to shoot it? “If all the traditional neon signage were to completely disappear,” he says, “it would change the aesthetic of the city, and culturally, would be a great loss. However, as long as there is light and colour I'll continue to keep shooting. It’s just a matter of adapting.”

Oliver Lunn is a London-based writer. Keep up with him on Twitter.

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