Hong Kong Neon Signs Story: From Glorious Years to Decline

27 July 2023 by
Daisy Wong

Hong Kong's neon signs are a vital symbol of urban culture, becoming an indispensable part of the city's landscape since the 1920s. These vibrant and creatively designed neon lights capture customers' attention, adding a distinctive charm to the bustling nights of Hong Kong. *Capture HK will delve into the history, characteristics, and the intricate process of crafting these neon signs, as well as shed light on the challenges they currently face. Moreover, we will showcase the efforts of conservation groups in Hong Kong, such as "Tetra Neon Exchange" and "Vital Signs Exhibition,” which highlight the historical value of Hong Kong's neon signs. The precious memories associated with Hong Kong's neon lights deserve our utmost protection and preservation.

History of Hong Kong Neon Signs

Over the past century, neon signs have become an integral part of Hong Kong's urban landscape, adding a unique charm to the city. Since the 1920s, many businesses in the city have been installing various neon lights on the upper levels of their tong lau (traditional tenement buildings), creatively using colourful light displays to attract customers. After World War II, neon signs truly flourished in Hong Kong. During that time, numerous factories and workshops competed to produce beautifully designed and meticulously crafted glass tubes, contributing to the dazzling and bustling night scenes of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was once regarded as the epitome of neon signs. In 1973, major cities worldwide, including Hong Kong, implemented strict electricity rationing due to the global oil crisis. However, as the oil crisis escalated into a financial crisis, Hong Kong made a remarkable decision. While offices, shops, restaurants, and homes dimmed their lights to the bare minimum for essential illumination, the city's neon signs continued to illuminate between 6 PM and 10 PM every evening. This special exemption was made to maintain confidence and vitality in Hong Kong's economy during those challenging times.

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Characteristics of Neon Signs

The characteristics of neon signs lie not only in their mesmerising lighting effects but also in their distinctive typography and unique design. It is the combination of these elements that gives neon signs their captivating and iconic appeal.

Font Selection for Neon Signboards

The font selection for neon signboards is a crucial aspect of sign design. Many business owners invest significantly to hire skilled craftsmen to create their unique fonts, aiming to highlight their brand identity. There are various font choices available, including regular script, Wei Bei font, clerical script, Kan Ting flow, running script, cursive script, and other calligraphy styles, all used in designing neon signboards to showcase the store's distinctive style and image.

Exterior Design of Neon Signs

Originally, signs were mere banners used in ancient times to attract customers. Over time, business operators became innovative in their sign designs, creating banners that resembled the shape of the goods they sold. For instance, a sign shaped like a blue and white glowing cow became a landmark for the community. The exterior design is a crucial element, and unique shapes often have the power to capture the attention of tourists and passersby. For example, the neon sign of  Sammy's Kitchen in the Western District of Hong Kong is a prime illustration of an eye-catching and distinct exterior design.

Colours of Neon Signs

Colours of Neon Signs

Neon signs emit different colours of light depending on the gas filled inside the tubes. For example, helium gas produces a red-orange colour, neon gas emits an orange-red colour, argon gas creates a purple hue, krypton gas generates a white light, and xenon gas results in a blue colour. However, to achieve various other colours in neon signs, fluorescent powders in green, yellow, blue, and white are used as additives.

Neon Sign Manufacturing Process

Creating a neon sign requires a highly skilled team to meticulously follow each step, with each task entrusted to specialised artisans who possess their own expertise. The production process of a neon sign can be divided into five main stages: scaffolding, constructing the lightbox and placing the transformers, bending the glass tubes, connecting the electrical wires, and finally assembling the components. The last step involves painting to enhance the overall durability of the neon sign, and each stage demands a high level of professionalism. Below, we will introduce two artisans with exceptional skills in this field.

Hong Kong Neon Sign Artisan: Wu Chi-ka

During his youth, Wu Chi-ka already embarked on a career in the neon sign manufacturing industry, specialising in bending glass tubes and learning the craft from some of the most skilled artisans of the previous generation. Over time, he gradually emerged as a prominent figure among the sunset generation of craftsmen. Continuously driven to explore ways to overcome practical and technical limitations in neon sign making, Wu Chi-ka created a remarkable 3D piece called "Neon Portrait" over 20 years ago. Currently, he is involved in leading the restoration team of "Tetra Neon Exchange" and preparing the vintage neon signs for the "Vital Signs" exhibition.

Hong Kong Sign Installation Master: Chu Hung-leung

While news about glass-bending masters can be found online, there are relatively few about sign installation masters. The agility and skill of sign installation masters are truly admirable, especially considering the high-risk nature of installing neon signs at great heights. With the decline in demand for neon sign installation projects nowadays, Chu Master has shifted his focus to sign rescue operations and has become one of the partners of "Tetra Neon Exchange."

The Story of Hong Kong's Neon Signs

The Decline of Hong Kong's Neon Signs

With the advancement of technology and changing market demands, neon lights have gradually been replaced by new technologies like LED, leading to a decline in their market demand. Additionally, neon tube manufacturers are no longer able to offer such a wide variety of colours, limiting the application of neon signs. For example, in Hong Kong, there are currently fewer than 29 colours available in the market, compared to the peak when neon signs offered around one hundred shades. With the diminishing demand, manufacturers need to consider the economic feasibility in the market, which could potentially impact the future of these neon signs.

Hong Kong Neon Sign Conservation Group: Tetra Neon Exchange

Tetra Neon Exchange

Photo Source: Tetra Neon Exchange

Tetra Neon Exchange is a neon sign conservation group established in Hong Kong in 2020. Previously, Hong Kong had numerous large-scale neon sign installations, but around 4,000 of them were dismantled in 2009. The founding of Tetra Neon Exchange aims to preserve these precious cultural assets and ensure their continuation for future generations.

Hong Kong Neon Signs   Exhibition: Vital Signs

Vital Signs

A new exhibition "Vital Signs" is located at Tai Kwun, spanning across two distinct spaces within the venue. Starting from Gallery 01, visitors can admire over 20 neon sign installations, providing an up-close experience of Hong Kong's iconic neon signs, insightful craftsmanship introductions, and the vibrant cityscape.

Hong Kong Neon Signboards Reappear

Classic Hong Kong landmark-style signboards, such as "Tai Tung Bakery," "Oriental Watch Company," and "Nam Cheong Pawn Shop," have also become iconic check-in points. Some neon signboards have been reinstalled and are being publicly displayed for the first time. Among them, the "Tai Tung Bakery" signboard measures over five meters in length and is exceptionally eye-catching。

Interactive Experience at the "Vital Signs" Exhibition

- In the "Colourful Showcase" display, you can witness the flowing movement of inert gas inside each glass tube when stimulated by an electric charge from the curved portion at the bottom of the tube. Additionally, you can try conducting electricity through four neon tubes with different compositions and observe their unique reactions.

- Neon Metropolis Workshop

From July 11th to September 3rd, 2023, there will be a "Neon Metropolis" workshop where interested individuals can adorn a paper-crafted model of iconic buildings with fluorescent and neon colours. Families are welcome to participate in this joyful activity, coming together to reminisce about Hong Kong's neon era.

Neon signs were once a major highlight of Hong Kong's city nightscape, but they gradually gave way to urban development. However, through the efforts of conservation groups like Tetra Neon Exchange and the neon signs exhibitions, we can still look back on this precious history and experience the beauty that neon signs brought. The story of Hong Kong's neon signs can be relived through exhibitions, while memories can be cherished through photographs.

Capture.HK is currently located near Tai Kwun, just a five-minute walk away. While you enjoy the neon signs exhibition at Tai Kwun, why not visit Capture.HK to inquire about further details or leave your analogue media with us? We are more than happy to provide you with digitisation solutions, ensuring your memories are preserved for eternity.

Learn more about Capture.HK digitisation services and let us help you revisit your memories.

*This article is brought to you by Capture HK.

Capture HK is the premier analogue media digitisation company in Hong Kong.

Capture HK's business covers photographs, photo album digitisation, videotapes digitisation, including VHS, S-VHS, VHS-C, S-VHS-C Hi-8, Video8, Digital8, DV, DVCAM, MiniDV, DVC and digital media digitisation, including Secure Digital (SD), Smart Media (SM), MultiMediaCard (MMC) Compact Flash (CF), xD-Picture Card, Memory Stick, USB Drive, CDROM, DVD.

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