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New Neon: How Hong Kong’s Iconic Neon Signs Are Becoming an Art Form

By LUXE City Guides, Images by Jeremy Cheung

For almost a century, Hong Kong’s streets have embraced the inky evening sky glowing with a symphony of neon lights as dazzling as those that dance across Victoria Harbour. The signs that once cascaded from the upper levels of tong laus (tenement buildings) in kaleidoscopic fuchsias, yellows and greens first arrived in the 1920s as an innovative way for businesses to advertise their services.

However, it wasn’t until the post-war period that the city began to shine with its iconic brilliance, as factories competed with workshops to carefully sculpt, bend and blow the delicate, gas-filled glass tubes into emblems of a prosperous metropolis.

With the onset of more cost-efficient alternatives to neon, like LED, major manufacturers have made way for only a handful of remaining artisans. But, thanks to auteurs from Wong Kar-wai to Ridley Scott, who immortalised Hong Kong’s inimitable cityscape in their films, a new generation of artists, designers and historians are doing what they can to keep the neon lights shining.

One such creative is Karen Chan, an artist and designer who exhibits under quiettomymess, and also organises exhibitions dedicated to the traditions of Hong Kong. In early 2019 she curated a neon-led installation My Light, My Hood at Kong Art Space in Central in collaboration with one of the city’s last neon makers, Master Wong. “I felt it was very important to work with one of the oldest and most prominent masters in Hong Kong for the exhibition. He’s 70-something and he’s been in the industry for 60 years,” says Chan, whose connection to her hometown’s neon heritage was amplified during the decade she spent studying abroad.

“When you’re away from where your were born, you seek your identity even more,” she explains. “When I returned, I wanted people to realise there is a lot of our city’s identity that we take for granted everyday, and it’s something we should cherish. My parents, who were born here and grew up here, they have seen neon lights every day of their life but they don’t understand how important they are.”

For Chan, neon is a “visual language” unique to Hong Kong, and by assuming an artistic approach to what was originally a commercial product, that language can take on new meaning. “We’re always talking about art and culture and how they are interlinked,” she explains. “Neon is integral to Hong Kong culture, and people are starting to see it as an art form. As we accept that it is part of our visual culture and language, so too do we appreciate the artisanal skills behind it and elevate it even further.”

“Hong Kong is a very exciting and dynamic city, and we are always looking to be better, to be more modern. But in doing so, a lot of our traditions might be lost or may fade,” Chan says. “That’s also why the neon light exhibition was important, for me and for the other artists, to allow us to explore how can we allow Hong Kong’s traditional crafts to evolve with time, and how our artistic approach can give them new meaning.”

And there is increasing evidence that her conviction is shared, as young, independent, homegrown companies – from restaurants to bars to fashion brands – seek to offer neon a new home, one that is away from the elements and given pride of place in the way that paintings often are.

“Neon is a very strong part of our local culture, of our visual language, and although we have been moving away from it, I feel positive,” says Chan. “I think we can find a way to preserve neon and to elevate it. That’s why, by helping the masters to collaborate with artists and designers, we can make it into an art form.”

Follow Karen @ceekayello

Neon signs can still be found in some parts of Hong Kong: Temple Street Market, Tung Choi Street in Mong Kok and Lockhart Road in Wan Chai are host to a few examples. Meanwhile, a slew of local bars and restaurants are paying homage to the art form; go find the lights at these hot spots, as recommended by Karen.

Bound by Hillywood
Indie coffee and craft beer joint in Prince Edward spotlighting work by local artists and neon makers.

Holy Eats
You can’t miss the neon entrance sign at this Central bar repping an underground, edgy vibe.

Ping Pong 129 Gintoneria
This lofty ceilinged, former table tennis hall helped put Sai Ying Pun on the map, with its mix-match furniture, art and neon signage backdropping a strong list of G&Ts and Spanish dishes.

  • L/G Nam Cheong House, 129 Second Street, Sai Ying Pun, Hong Kong Island
  • +852 9835 5061
  • www.pingpong129.com

Tai Lung Fung, Wan Chai
Tucked behind the historic Blue House, this kooky neighbourhood bar riffs on local heritage with neon motifs and nostalgic memorabilia aplenty.

  • G/F, 5 Hing Street, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island
  • +852 2572 0055
  • www.facebook.com

For more about traditional and modern-day neon signage in Hong Kong, see the excellent interactive platform here. Hosted by M+ it features maps, audio tours, videos, interviews and articles.

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