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Hong Kong, the disappearing neon lights

Time:2020-10-02 FONT:bigMinmin


The significance of neon lights to Hong Kong is the same as that of red telephone booths to London, and has become a visual symbol of the city.

Neon and LED signs on the streets of Kowloon, Hong Kong. Picture from Visual China

Figure|Visual China Network

Editor | Zhao Ji Proofreading | Wang Xin

An ordinary glass tube is softened on a high temperature of 1100 degrees. It is transformed into various shapes by Master’s skill, and then it is evacuated into a vacuum and injected with different rare gases. After power on, it flashes a few times and then emits Colored rays. Combine several glass tubes of different colors and different shapes together to form a beautiful neon sign.

Since the 1950s, after decades of development, neon lights have spread rapidly in Hong Kong. When night falls, thousands of neon tubes are lit up to outline the shape of Hong Kong at night.

Many Hong Kong films at that time had their lens fixed under the neon light. As a visual symbol, the neon light was spread all over the world along with the story of Hong Kong. Its significance to Hong Kong is probably the same as the red phone booth to London.

But now, the neon lights of various colors have dimmed and are replaced by cheaper and easier-to-install LED lights.

Symbol of civilization and prosperity

Neon lights first originated in the United States in the 19th century. After World War II, they were rejuvenated in Hong Kong. In the 1950s, with the economic growth of Hong Kong, neon lights began to become a new type of advertising.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong's economy began to take off, and neon lights ushered in its golden age. At that time, Hong Kong people sang "Below the Lion Rock", believing that no matter good times or bad times, they would win if they worked hard.

In order to create a "golden sign" handed down from generation to generation, whether it is a hardware store, a barber shop, a handmade shoe store, a snack bar, no matter how small, the boss will spend a lot of thought to come up with a good name, in order to make the most eye-catching sign, even Calligraphers are invited to write inscriptions.

Various calligraphic fonts appearing in neon signs. Picture from the Internet

During this period of time, a large number of neon signs with unique designs and full of artistic flavor were born. Classical painting and calligraphy art and modern advertising technology were combined, and they were perfectly combined on neon signs. The most classic design is the logo of the Hong Kong pawnshop: a bat carries a coin, the coin represents wealth, and the bat is a homonym for "fortune", symbolizing "fortune and wealth."

A pawn shop on the streets of Hong Kong. Picture from Visual China

Another example is the "Great Golden Dragon Sparrow Playing Fun" sign. Although the size is small, the design is quite gorgeous. The dragon head, claws, and tail are outlined in a few strokes, and a cloud is stepped under the dragon.

The most prestigious is the signature of the steak restaurant in the western district of Hong Kong-Senmei Western Restaurant. It is nearly 10 feet long and 8 feet high. The blue and white light outlines a long-legged cow in mid-air, which is very conspicuous. The landmark of the community.

The cow neon sign of Senmei Western Restaurant once became a landmark.Photo by Herbert Buchsbaum

The neon lights of big brands are even more eye-catching. In 1973, a whole wall of a building on Nathan Road was covered by Panasonic's "Sound" billboard. At that time, this was made of more than 4,000 neon tubes and was 20 stories high. The billboard was written in the Guinness World Records.

Musical neon lights covering the entire wall of the building.

At that time, there were more than 100 flexors in Hong Kong, and there were so many orders that they often worked overtime until 11 o'clock in the evening.

Since then, neon lights have become a visual symbol of Hong Kong. Every night, the neon lights light up and the city begins to rejuvenate. Various lights outline the streets and communities of Hong Kong, creating a rich and prosperous scene.

Chen Bokang, the design and architecture curator of M+ Museum, said: "When you think of Hong Kong and its visual culture, the first thing that comes to mind is neon signs."

Symbol of desire

In addition to prosperity, the world under the neon lights has another side to it.

During the Korean War, American warships docked in Hong Kong from time to time, which boosted the entertainment market in Wan Chai.

In 1963, the movie "Suzie Wong's World" was released. In the film, the girl wearing a cheongsam and amorous style, Suzie Wong, and the red light district in Wan Chai became synonymous with Hong Kong. In 1970, there were nightclubs in Hong Kong directly named after "Suzie Huang". Since then, people have often associated neon signs with urban degradation and red light districts.

In Hong Kong, the names of nightclubs cannot escape the words "gold" and "bao", which have simple and direct meanings. Jin Duo Bao, Jin Mong Kok, Jin Bao Li, Bao Duo Jin... Their neon signs are mostly red and green, with sharp contrast, attracting the eye, and shining ambiguous light at night.

Hong Kong street nightclub. Photo by Lam Yik Fei

In many movies, neon lights have also become symbols of wildness, desire, and even evil.

This kind of treatment is often seen in Wong Kar-wai's works. In "Carmen in Mong Kok", he uses neon lights to create a sinful atmosphere. In "Fallen Angels", neon lights are also the most important element in creating a blurred atmosphere.

Neon lights in the movie "Carmen Mong Kok".

The movie "Fallen Angels" poster.

Du Kefeng, the photographer of the film "In the Mood for Love", said, "The neon world is a dazzling, gorgeous and bright world. It is a world of fantasy and reality that will fall in the slightest carelessness."

The lights of the Emerald City nightclub. Picture from Visual China

Declining industry

Since the 1990s, neon lights began to decline due to the appearance of LED lights. In addition to being expensive and difficult to install, the neon sign hanging above the street poses serious safety risks.

As a result, at the end of 2011, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government implemented the latest management regulations for outdoor decoration, strictly controlling the size and various spacing of light boards.

Since 2006, an average of 3000 illegal billboards have been demolished by the Hong Kong Buildings Department every year.

Workers are repairing the neon signs.

According to the Hong Kong magazine "CityLife", in the past 20 years, the city's neon lights have decreased by 90%. Hong Kong's visual form has also undergone some changes.

Comparison of Argyle Street in Mong Kok, West Kowloon District in 1960 and 2014. Picture from the Internet

That famous landmark, the "cow neon light" at Sammi Restaurant, was also demolished in August 2015 due to safety issues.

"It feels like something is missing," said restaurant manager Ye Fengyi. "The whole street is empty."

Neon lights are declining, and the number of neon light craftsmen has also decreased sharply. From more than 100 flexors in its heyday to more than 20 in 1995, and then to 2017, there are only 7 people left.

Master Wu who is still making neon lights. Picture from Visual China

Master Wu, who entered the business in the 1980s, said that compared with 25 years ago, the factory's revenue has dropped by 80%. Today, when mass production of LED lights is dominated, young people are no longer willing to spend time entering this declining industry.

Liu Wen, who joined the trade in 1957, worried that the craftsmanship of making neon lights would sooner or later be lost. The production process of neon lights is complex, and it takes at least half a year to learn how to master it.

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