Fading Neon Lights: An Archive of Hong Kong’s Visual Culture

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Suspended above us with intricate patterns and flamboyant colours, the neon signs of Hong Kong easily guide us to local businesses, Chinese restaurants, bars, and department stores. Apart from marketing and advertising, these neon signs actually convey much more — and mean much more to those who view the signs as a part of their home.

This book documents Hong Kong’s neon signs whilst taking on a historical, socio-cultural, and contextual study of visual culture around the city. It explores the inter-related components of neon signs, including each sign’s unique visual aesthetic and design, the history of craftsmanship and training, and how the streetscape relates to Hong Kong’s consumer culture. With an underlying theme of photographic conservation and an array of vibrant images, the author brings the everyday signage of Hong Kong to life.
Pub. Date
Mar 10, 2023
202 pages
216 x 178 mm


In early 2018, the news went viral that the Mak Man Kee Noodle Shop was going to take down its neon signboard, an iconic piece suspended over the shop for decades. It caused me so much worry that I felt like a cat on hot bricks because it was a part of my childhood memories in addition to being a community landmark. Sometimes when I had lunch in the neighbourhood, I would make a detour to the shop just to look at the neon signboard, as if I was visiting an old friend. Just looking at the sign would warm my heart.

A number of well-loved shops have removed their neon signboards in recent years, including Kai Kee Mahjong, Shun Hing Restaurant, Law Fu Kee (a local traditional noodle and congee restaurant), and Sammy’s Kitchen. However, the Mak Man Kee sign was special to me because of the emotional connection I had with the shop, and it made me feel even sadder that M+, the museum for visual culture in Hong Kong, decided not to preserve the neon signboard, which would have been a valuable piece because of its unique design and Chinese lettering. Two weeks before the demolition, I got in touch with the contact person of Mak Man Kee and tried to persuade them to donate the neon sign to the School of Design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University for preservation and research purposes. I also discussed storage possibilities with my colleagues. The school replied that a short-term exhibition would be possible but not long-term preservation due to space limitations. Mak Man Kee finally agreed to my proposal given that the school would be responsible for the demolition, transportation costs, and other necessary arrangements. Unfortunately, after many rounds of discussion, I ultimately had to give up on saving the neon sign because of resource constraints and other limitations.

I still remember the day the workers took down the signboard, I grasped the last chance to ask for a tiny piece to keep as a memento. One of the workers, looking impatient, asked me: “I will take down the signboard and bring it to the landfill. What does it have to do with you?” I understand that the worker was doing his job, but it was such a shame to see such a historical neon sign end up in a landfill. Why not preserve it for history and educational purposes? The worker went on with his work — he demolished the sign and drove it to the landfill.

The worker’s question has lingered in my mind: “What does it have to do with you?” I gave deep thought to his question and kept asking myself why I cared so much. What is the purpose of documenting and studying neon signs? Is it for the sake of my childhood memories, or does it convey a deeper meaning? Some people say that the pace of urban development has been too fast and furious for small shops to survive, that connections between people have been broken, and that traditional visual culture has been ruined. Yet, some people argue that change and progress should be embraced — as the saying goes, “out with the old, in with the new”. Isn’t it good to have a neat and clean neighbourhood and people’s lives improved? Our living routines will not be affected if a couple of neon signs are demolished. Are they worth preserving? To answer this question, we must ask several others: what impact do neon signs have in a community? What values do the people living there attach to them? I would say that neon signs foster a sense of belonging and a sense of security in people towards a place because they play a part in our growth and signify the emotional bonding and memories we developed nearby. But how is this emotional bond with a neon sign, or our environment in general, formed? And why is this bond important in the development of memories?


Bringing It All Together

In this book, I address the underlying attachments to neon signs in Hong Kong by focusing on their historical value to the city and by using photographic documentation to conserve those that carry value for the surrounding community. The book begins with a brief introduction to the history, aesthetics, and conservation of neon lights in Chapter 1. A broad perspective is used to explain how the advent of neon in commercial industries swept the world as well as how different cultures have embraced conservation efforts. With this foundation, Chapter 2 focuses on Hong Kong’s neon culture and the effects of the city’s unique social context. Because different countries and cities will implement and enforce different regulations for signboards, this chapter ends with a discussion of the “nuts and bolts” underlying the construction, distribution, and removal of neon lights in Hong Kong. The overarching theme of sign conservation is exemplified in Chapter 3, which not only explains the current lack of broad systematic conservation efforts in Hong Kong but also explains several modes of conservation. Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 describe the results of our research, detailing the types of neon signs in Hong Kong and their cultural impact across districts, respectively. The relationship between neon lights and consumer culture in Hong Kong is the focus of Chapter 6, which features my own commentary about growing up and living with neon lights along with three interviews with other researchers studying neon culture as well as consumer impact. To supplement the points made in the text, Chapters 1, 2, and 5 also feature “Sidebars”, which focus on the work of a particular artist or scholar. The book finishes with a discussion of how we can move forward with conservation efforts.

As you can imagine, a book about conserving and documenting neon lights and their associated visual culture in Hong Kong — this book — has special meaning for me. While taking an academic perspective, the text is written in a way to make the content accessible, with the hope of increasing awareness and inspiring readers to really look at the neon world around them. As urban development continues and our environment in Hong Kong continues to change, I hope that this book provides a look into the thriving neon culture of our past as well as a rationale for the preservation of not only the signs themselves but of our memories associated with them.

This publication would not have been possible without help and support from the staff at CityU Press. I would like to thank our editor, Dr Abby Manthey, for believing in our research project and for her tremendous efforts for over two years in the process of making this book. Thank you to the School of Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPolyU), for providing an extraordinarily supportive, motivating, and rewarding environment for my research. Parts of this book highlight some of the results of an ongoing research project that has been funded by different parties, including the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, Early Career Scheme of University Grants Committee, and Departmental General Research Fund of the School of Design, HKPolyU. I give my heartfelt gratitude for their continued support. I must also express enormous gratitude to my research assistant Kiki Yau Wing Sum for her patience and tremendous support. Thanks also go to Dr Anneke Coppoolse for contributing her research insights for this project. I also want to thank our interviewees — Mr K.C. Tsang, Prof C.H. Ng, and Prof Eric K.W. Ma — for sharing their invaluable knowledge with us. The neon sign images used in this book were taken by Chan Hiu Yan, Heung Kwan Kei, Wong Wai Ying, and Chan Hing Piu. The following parties have also offered continuous support for our neon signs research projects: Dr Tam Wah-ching, Mr William Tam, Neon Master Lau Wan, Keith Tam, The Hong Kong Heritage Project, M+ Museum, HKPolyU School of Design, Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical Manufactory Ltd, and the Information Service Department of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Brian Sze-hang KWOK
January 2023

Chapter 1

History, Aesthetics, and Conservation


Chapter 2

A Closer Look at Hong Kong


Chapter 3

Conserving Neon = Conserving Hong Kong


Chapter 4

Types of Neon Signs in Hong Kong


Chapter 5

Visual Culture across Hong Kong


Chapter 6

Reflections on Hong Kong’s Neon Lights and Consumer Culture

Kwok Sze Hang, Brian is a design educator and visual culture scholar. His research focuses on visual culture, local neon sign craftsmanship, visual representation, street culture, and information design. He is currently leading and teaching the BA (Hons) in Communication Design programme at Hong Kong Polytechnic Universitys School of Design. He is the author of two Chinese publications,《我是街道觀察——花園街的文化地景》([I'm a Street Ethnologist: Street Culture in Fa Yuen Street]), published in 2016, and《霓虹黯色——香港街道視覺文化記錄》([Fading of Hong Kongs Neon Lights: An Archive of Hong Kongs Visual Culture]), published in 2018, as well as《香港霓虹招牌手稿——餐飲篇》([Hong Kong Neon Sign Artworks: Vol. 1, Restaurants], published in 2021 in both English and Chinese.