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Is it lights out for Hong Kong's neon signs? How citizens are fighting to save the city's luminous heritage

With the city's iconic neon signs facing an uncertain future, Hongkongers are coming together to keep the city’s glowing heritage from fizzling out.

Published 20 May 2021, 15:00 BST
Despite being a key part of Hong Kong's cultural identity, the city's neon lights have dramatically ...

Despite being a key part of Hong Kong's cultural identity, the city's neon lights have dramatically reduced in number in recent years. “These are pieces of art,” says Cardin Chan, spokesperson for the Tetra Neon Exchange, one of a number of neon heritage groups in Hong Kong. “The people who make the signs are artisans."

Turning night into day, Hong Kong's iconic neon lights are a shining symbol of the city, having appeared everywhere from postcards and magazine covers to Hollywood blockbusters and video games. They’re intrinsic to the city’s identity, but over the past decade it's estimated that around 90% of Hong Kong's large neon lights have been snuffed out.

Appalled by the threat of the lights’ annihilation, groups of passionate Hongkongers have been prompted to rally together in their spare time to try to save, or at least catalogue, the fading lights. “These are pieces of art,” says Cardin Chan, spokesperson for the Tetra Neon Exchange, one of a number of neon heritage groups in Hong Kong. “The people who make the signs are artisans. Our work isn’t just to save the physical signs, but to educate people about what neon means to us.” While she doesn't mention the ongoing political tension between the city and China, there’s a sense among Hongkongers that their unique heritage is being stripped away — which is undoubtedly adding to the urgency of the cause.

“Traditionally, these signs are more than advertisements; they’re the souls of the business. We actually have a saying in Cantonese, ‘We're going to remove your signs!’ It basically means, ‘I want to put you out of business’,” adds Chan. “Because of this, business owners are often ashamed to let people see their signs coming down, making them harder for us to track.” To help gather information, the various groups are encouraging their followers to send in tips and photos of signs that might be slated for removal. Meanwhile, local artists and interior designers have been busy commissioning new indoor neon lights and installations as a way to support the craft, albeit on a much smaller scale.

What the campaign really needs is some weight, which it will soon have from the new M+ museum, scheduled to open in late summer. One of the showpiece museums that make up new West Kowloon Cultural District, it focuses on Hong Kong's visual identity, with a collection that includes 20th- and 21st-century art, design, architecture and moving images. In the run-up to the opening, the museum has put together an extensive online exhibition that champions Hong Kong's exuberant neon signage, including a Google Street View map of past and present signs, audio walks, photo essays and videos from the cinematographer Christopher Doyle.       

Perhaps, between the gangs of sign-obsessed locals and the cultural big-hitters, there’s a chance to stop Hong Kong’s lights going out.

Three more: luminous locations

 

God's Own Junkyard, London 

Set in a warehouse in Walthamstow, in the capital’s north-east, this dazzling spot will bring out the child in everyone with its collection of candy-coloured neon lights, flashing bulbs, movie props, fairground lights and modern artworks. Curated by sign-maker Marcus Bracey, the collection includes thousands of pieces for sale — some of them new, some recycled and some salvaged from the dustbin of history. The warehouse is only open to the public at weekends; check the times before you visit. 

The Neon Museum, Las Vegas

Fans of the gangster film Goodfellas will recognise these signs — the Sahara with its shimmering golden camels, the electric red curves of the Riviera, the stylised script of Stardust — but the casinos they belonged to have long since vanished from Sin City’s Strip. They now rest in peace at The Neon Museum, an outdoor boneyard with a striking shell-shaped visitor centre that’s the restored lobby of the former La Concha Motel. Visit in the evening for the full glittering impact. 

Neon Muzeum, Warsaw

Enter through a red brick former factory into a psychedelic world of pre-Second World War and Communist-era neon signs. Initially commissioned in the 1950s in a bid to brighten the Cold War gloom, colourful neon signage soon streaked across Poland's biggest cities, with some of the country's top graphic designers enlisted to create eye-catching displays. More than mere advertisements, this collection at the Neonmuzeum — the largest of its kind in Europe — offers a fascinating insight into 20th-century Polish history, art and design. 

Published in the June 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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