The dying tradition of Hong Kong’s neon signs

Published:  May 19, 2014

“Everyone was into the new and trendy, no wonder the neon sign business was booming.”

Hong Kong’s Museum for Visual Culture is currently hosting an online exhibition dedicated to the city’s recent heritage of neon signage. As part of the show, is hosting an accompanying documentary which looks at this history and interviews several of the signmakers still fighting to making a living in the industry.

As small business boomed in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 90s, so did neon signage. The two decades were the height of the signage artform, their prevalence transforming the night streets of Hong Kong into multi-coloured, glowing displays. “Without neon lights, the city is like a ghost town,” one explains. Yet the signmakers themselves are not romantic about the craft, seeing it as a repetitive “factory” job, and one that can no longer support them. ”It’s dull. Who can bear it?” one asks.

Changes in technology, cost-saving and licensing is also choking the industry, with LED signage rising in demand. They report that they only get the smaller, ‘handicraft’ jobs now, from which they cannot scratch a living. As a piece of neon signage is damaged or breaks, it is no longer repaired, but replaced with LED. As we are shown the intricacies of neon calligraphy, injecting gases and colour adjustment, a signmaker explains ”One sign dismantled, one sign less”.

The museum received over 2,000 photographs submitted by admirers of the city’s neon signage, as part of its ongoing survey which sets out to map and document this colourful Hong Kong tradition.

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