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Neon signs: light up the "night Hong Kong" of the past

Time:2020-10-02 FONT:bigMinmin

  In the Kwai Chung Industrial Building, in a working room of more than 30 square meters, under dim light, 53-year-old Hu Zhikai twisted the neon lights. This is one of his few orders this month. Two or three years ago, the signboard of the Nathan Road Zhonghua Bookstore was also removed, and the signboard was decorated with neon lights made by him.

neon signs were once the soul of "Night Hong Kong". When night falls, thousands of neon lights are lit up, and the lights of various colors outline the shape of Hong Kong's streets and communities, and the entire city is brilliantly illuminated.

The last neon craftsman

Hong Kong neon craftsman Hu Zhikai is making neon advertising signs (photographed on March 19). Photo by Xinhua News Agency reporter Lv Xiaowei

On the left side of   's studio is a three-dimensional human face neon light, which emits red and white light after power on. This is Hu Zhikai's work more than 20 years ago, when he was already a neon light craftsman.

Hu Zhikai started learning to make neon lights at the age of 17, and was exposed to this "sunrise industry". In the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong's economy took off, and the neon light industry ushered in a golden period of development. "The company had a lot of orders for neon lights back then, and the masters were busy rushing to make orders. I just watched it and learned it in half a year."

neon light is an ordinary glass tube that can be bent into various shapes after being softened on a fire of 1000 degrees Celsius. The glass tube is evacuated and filled with different rare gases. After being energized, it flashes a few times to emit colorful light.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong’s entertainment stars shined, and neon lights often appeared in concerts and other occasions. "I met Anita Mui by chance. At that time, I went to a concert to give neon lights." During the booming industry, Hu Zhikai sometimes worked more than 20 hours a day, and even stayed home for several weeks.

"There are many orders, heavy work intensity, and monthly income of about four to fifty thousand Hong Kong dollars." He said that at that time there were more than 100 neon artisans and more than 300 neon sign production companies in Hong Kong.

"We used about 5,000 neon glass tubes and spent two or three months to make triangular neon lights for the exterior wall of the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong." Hu Zhikai recalled his past works and couldn't hide his pride.

However, with the emergence of light-emitting diode (LED) technology in the 1990s, the neon light industry gradually declined. "LED lights are energy-saving, power-saving, and bright. Many businesses have turned to LED lights." After more than 30 years in the business, Hu Zhikai watched craftsmen change careers. Now there are only about seven or eight, and the youngest is in his 40s.

Driven by the policies of the SAR government, the old neon signs slowly disappeared from the streets. As of 2014, about 120,000 exterior wall signboards in Hong Kong have undergone the “Illegal Signboard Inspection Program” of the Buildings Department, and the old-style neon signboards that are out of compliance have been removed.

"Things can't stay the same forever. Neon lights have gradually become interior decorations, but as long as there are people who need it, I will stick to it." Hu Zhikai said.

neon light and shadow guide the direction of "walking street"

In the 1930s, neon sign manufacturing technology was introduced to Hong Kong. By the 1950s, Hong Kong's economic and industrial development was in its infancy. Demand for merchandise sales was huge, and neon signs gradually became a new type of advertising.

"In order to attract customers, the owners of hardware stores, barber shops, hand-made shoe shops, and snack bars worked hard to make neon signs, and even invited calligraphers to write inscriptions." said Guo Siheng, an assistant professor at the School of Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Demand for neon signs has increased.

In the 1980s, when Hu Zhikai first entered the neon industry, in an old building on Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok, where Guo Siheng lived, neon signs pointed him home.

"When I was a child, I needed to go home by myself after school, but my building was similar in appearance to the old buildings nearby, and I often couldn't find the way home." Guo Siheng said. Later, his family told him that there was a neon sign on the way home: go through first. "Mingyuan Restaurant" and then "Youlian Noodle Factory", the home is above the noodle factory.

The “tips” of finding directions through signs made Guo Siheng a “street master”. "The most impressive is the neon sign of'Miao Li Department Store' in Jordan. It is about one to two stories high. It looks like a peacock with an open screen with the word "Miao Li" written in the middle, which is very eye-catching."

4 years ago, Guo Siheng walked the streets and alleys, recording the disappearing neon signs, and wrote the book "Neon Darkness". The book mentions that Hong Kong’s streets are complex, and many people use signs to identify directions.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, from Sheung Wan on the west of Hong Kong Island to Siu Sai Wan on the east of Hong Kong Island, there were more than 40 giant neon signs with an area of a few hundred square meters on the coast of more than 10 kilometers, small and medium neon signs. Signboards are more difficult to count. Various signboards show the characteristics of Hong Kong where thousands of businessmen gather.

Migration from the street to the exhibition room

This is a neon light work produced by Hong Kong neon artisan Hu Zhikai, taken on March 19. Photo by Xinhua News Agency reporter Lv Xiaowei

More than 80 years of change in spring and autumn, the neon light industry has gone from its peak to decline. Fortunately, the thoughtful and caring people began to collect the demolished old neon signs and transfer them from the street to the exhibition room, giving them a second life.

Hong Kong architects Feng Dawei and Mai Jinghuai are among them. In March of this year, the two jointly designed the "City Street·Signboard" exhibition, exhibiting 6 sets of old signboards collected over 4 years. Nearly 10 square meters of exhibition room, under the red light, neon signs exude a dreamlike light.

Mai Jinghuai’s neon memory comes from his grandmother. "When I was young, my grandmother told me that she had no chance to receive education when she was young, and she used neon signs to read characters. By the time I was born, my grandmother could read newspapers." In the eyes of many people, neon signs are not only commercial propaganda, but also part of the city's memory. Kind of sustenance.

In 2015, Feng Dawei and Mai Jinghuai moved a demolished pawnshop neon sign back to the office and started the journey of collecting old signs.

"We will recommend businesses to keep the signs on the street in other ways, such as putting the font of the old sign on the new sign, or putting the old sign in the shop window or indoors." In 2017, Feng Dawei and Mai Jinghuai opened the "Street" Recruit” Facebook account to promote the signature culture through social media platforms.

"When evaluating the removal of signboards, the SAR government must also consider the historical, cultural and artistic value behind the signboards. The SAR government can subsidize the renovation of some old signboards so that they can reappear on the streets." Feng Dawei and Mai Jinghuai said.

In the movie "In the Mood for Love", Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai freezes the lens under neon lights from time to time, constructing a deep and dreamy neon world, as if people are in the "night Hong Kong" of the past. "Neon lights are Hong Kong's visual cultural symbols." Guo Siheng said.

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