Arts & Culture

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2015

Hong Kong’s Neon Signs –– Then and Now

In the post-World War II era, neon signs became an indelible part of Hong Kong’s streets and skyline. Supplied by hundreds of workshops, they announced all manner of businesses—from restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and pharmacies to jewellery, tailor and pawn shops—while proclaiming the city’s growing prosperity.   More recently, however, Hong Kong’s neon signs have been disappearing at a rate of thousands per year, replaced by brighter burning and more energy efficient LED signs. As they recede from view, neon signs, and the processes and stories behind them, become a matter for preservation.

The Heyday of Hong Kong's Neon Signs
First introduced to Hong Kong in the 1920s, the use of neon signs exploded in the 1950s through the 1980s. Though notable concentrations could be found on the commercial thoroughfare of Nathan Road and in the nightlife district of Wan Chai, no part of the city was left in the dark. By 1970, entire building facades were covered in neon, including the National Panasonic sign on Nathan Road, which Guinness declared to be the world’s largest. 

Nathan Road, Mong Kok
c.1949

Photo Credit:
University Museum and Art Gallery,
The University of Hong Kong

Wan Chai Harbourfront
1960s

Photo Credit:
University Museum and Art Gallery,
The University of Hong Kong

May May Children’s Wear
Nathan Road, Mong Kok
1963

Photo Credit: Old Hong Kong Photo

Causeway Bay
1970s

Photo Credit: w foundation

National Panasonic
Nathan Road, Jordan
1970

Photo Credit:
Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical Mfy. Ltd

Chinese Palace Nightclub
Nathan Road, Jordan
c.1970

Photo Credit:
Frank Costantini and Kirk Kirkpatrick

Suzie Wong
Lockhart Road, Wan Chai
c.1977

Photo Credit: Frank Costantini and Kirk Kirkpatrick

Nathan Road, Jordan
1990s

Photo Credit: Keith Macgregor

Hong Kong Streetscapes – Then and Now
In recent years, development pressures, government regulations and changing attitudes and preferences have transformed many once neon-lit areas of Hong Kong into largely neon-free zones. The differences can be striking.

Nathan Road in 1962
Jordan, Kowloon

Nathan Road in 2014
Jordan, Kowloon

Nathan Road in 1960
Mong Kok

Nathan Road in 2014
Mong Kok

Causeway Road in 1950
Causeway Bay

Causeway Road in 2014
Causeway Bay

Jordan Road in 1970
Jordan, Kowloon

Jordan Road in 2014
Jordan

Peking Road in the 1950s
Tsim Sha Tsui

Peking Road in 2014
Tsim Sha Tsui

The Dying Craft – the Making of Neon Signs
Once a thriving industry, only a small handful of neon sign workshops remain in Hong Kong, maintaining a dying craft that once animated the cityscape. In this video, master signmaker Lau Wan of Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical Manufactory Ltd and others demonstrate how neon signs are made while offering their thoughts on neon’s past, present and future. Sketches from the Nam Wah archive lend further insight into the design process behind the signs.

Neon sign design sketches from Nam Wah Neonlight and Electrical Mfy Ltd and Neco Company Ltd
1950s to 1980s

Established in 1953, Nam Wah is one of the longest-running neon workshops still in operation in Hong Kong.

These sketches from the company’s archive, including examples from Neco, another manufacturer that Nam Wah acquired In 1972, are now part of the M+ collection and lend insight into the intentions and processes that give neon signs their final shapes, colours and forms.

Marked with notations, measurements, revisions, connection points and grid lines (shown in the previous sketch) that aid in enlarging the designs to full scale, these skillfully rendered drawings trace the artful translation of a client’s brief into a graphic medium and, eventually, the sign itself.

Among the sketches, common patterns and motifs begin to emerge—a shared visual language of signs and symbols, compositions and representations, that find a diversity of expressions depending on the business type.

M+ Collection
In 2014, M+, the museum for visual culture being built in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District, acquired the 1977 Sammy’s Kitchen neon cow, and soon added a 1976 Kai Kee Mahjong sign to its new collection of Hong Kong neon signs. 

Sammy’s Kitchen Ltd
204-206 Queen’s Road West, Western District

Since 1977, the Sammy’s Kitchen neon cow has presided over Queen’s Road West in Sai Ying Pun. Due to government regulations, the sign will be dismantled and will enter the M+ permanent collection.

Kai Kee Mahjong
Yue Man Square, Kwun Tong

Established in 1933, the Kai Kee Mahjong School has always had a rooster logo. In 2014, due to the area’s redevelopment, its Kwun Tong branch was relocated and its 1976 neon sign was acquired for the M+ collection.

Photo: Living in Kwuntong

NEONSIGNS.HK online exhibition

The NEONSIGNS.HK website includes essays, videos, a neon timeline and an interactive Neon Map. Visit our website at www.neonsigns.hk



The Neons of Hong Kong

Visit our other Google Cultural Institute exhibit featuring highlights of the public submissions to the NEONSIGNS.HK website, while exploring the visual culture of neon signs through portraits by photographer Wing Shya and a video interview with renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle which reveals how neon has influenced some of his classic film works.

https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/exhibit/electric-city%C2%A0%E2%80%93%E2%80%93-the-neons-of-hong-kong/PwLyXyihMmZ4LQ

Presented by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District
Credits: Exhibit

With thanks to all the photographers, artists and contributors to the NEONSIGNS.HK online exhibition.


NEONSIGNS.HK is presented by M+, museum for visual culture, West Kowloon Cultural District

This exhibit is prepared by Aric Chen, Chloe Chow, Kingsley Jayasekera and Gloria Wong. (in alphabetical order)

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.