This is Hong Kong is an illustrated guide for children by Miroslav Sasek published in 1965. Among rickshaws, horoscopes, flower markets, paper money, and shoulder poles, there is something weird, like a wrong note in this ‘60s illustrated reportage of Hong Kong. While I was leafing through the guide, I finally got it. In the background, there they are: neon signs! In the ‘60s Hong Kong was already a neon jungle.

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This is Hong Kong, M. Sasek

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This is Hong Kong, M. Sasek

Today, it is impossible to think about Hong Kong without its multicolor neon signs. For this reason, the museum of visual art M+ in 2014 started working to a digital exhibition to show and organize this kind of visual heritage. Neon Signs is a cross-media project aiming to collect videos, pictures, researches and citizens’ contributions about neon advertising. Moreover, M+ has been working to the creation of My Neon City – an interactive multimedia map – and of Neon Timeline – an historical path of neon lights in Hong Kong starting from the beginning of ‘900 until now.

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Mobile M+, Neonsigns.hk poster

Neon lights were created by George Claude in 1910: from that moment on, streets all over the world would never been the same. First in the US, then in Asia, fluo lights started lightening up the biggest cities of the planet displaying their social and economic development in Technicolor. In 1939 the Claude Neon Lights opened the first neon lights factory in Hong Kong, but only during the ‘50, after the World War II, there was a big neon boom with the opening of the Cathay Neon Light Company and Neco Neon Company that pioneered the big production of rainbow-hued lights, Chinese expression for neon lights.

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Nathan Road, Photo: Frank Costantini and Kirk Kirkpatrick

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Nathan Road, Photo: Ben Houdijk

This is how Hong Kong streetscapes came to life, as the crowded, shining and iconic Nathan Road demonstrates. Each neon sign has its history and identity, and talks about the soul of the place it is referring to. This concept of uniqueness can be found in two famous examples: the sign board of the giant cow above Sammy’s Kitchen and the big red neon rooster of Kai Kee Mahjong School, both removed recently.

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Sammy’s Kitchen Neon Sign, Photo: Doug Meigs

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Kai Kee Mahjong School Neon Sign, Photo: Living in Kwun Tong

Although initially imported from the West, Hong Kong built its urban identity around neon signs. However, unlike any other city, Hong Kong has absorbed neon signs adapting them to its peculiar architecture, verticality, density and language, and making its urbanscape unique.

This mix of cultural and architectonic elements, and the meeting between literature and architecture, described by the cultural critic Mathias Woo Yan Wai as a visual chemical reaction, is became the mood of the city. Some photographers, like Sharon Blance and Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, tried to describe this magic relationship between words and lights with their projects.

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Sharon Blance, Hong Kong Neon

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Sharon Blance, Hong Kong Neon

Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, HK Neon Signs

Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, HK Neon Signs

Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, HK Neon Signs

Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, HK Neon Signs

This is how neon signs took roots in Hong Kong visual culture. The short movie The Making of Neon Signs shows, through craftsman’s voice, what lays behind, talking about the graphic project, design, fonts, draft creation, materials, and production.

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Neon signs makers, The Making of Neon Signs, M+

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Neon sign sketch, Photo: West Kowloon Cultural District Authority

Neon signs can be found not only in Hong Kong streets, but in its literature, music, and cinema, and this is the reason why they became so important in the process of city telling. Aric Chen, M+ curator, defends the neon signs value in the architecture of communication because of their peculiar ability to create a feeling among the message, the sign and the observer. This feeling makes neon signs something more than a functional urban element, elevating them to the symbol of the connection between the city and its citizens.

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Nathan Road, Photo: Joop

Liu Yichang, in his bestseller The Drunkard, used for the first time the expression Neon Jungle, giving to his reader a precise image that will become the tagline of the city. In the novel, set during the ‘60s, neon signs of clubs became important characters and with his words the writer started building the collective imaginary of the city.

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Tai Po Road, Photo: University Museum and Art Gallery, The University of Hong Kong

Maybe it is not a coincidence that the writer deeply inspired Wong Kar Wai and his director of photography Christopher Doyle who used only cold and subtle neon lights in their movies, making them recognizable at a glance. Not only in As Tears Go By, Fallen Angels and Hong Kong Express, but even in 2046, a movie set in a dystopian future, neon signs are the urban set, one of the main characters, and the stylistic leitmotiv at the same time. Neon signs are the central element of their cinematographic narration.

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As Tears Go by Wong Kar Wai

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Fallen Angels by Wong Kar Wai

Hong Kong Express by Wong Kar Wai

Hong Kong Express by Wong Kar Wai

2046, Wong Kar Wai

2046, Wong Kar Wai

Neon everywhere, isn’t it? Even in the music scenario, in lyrics and in video clips they appear like a fluorescent muse. For example, the song It’s a Starry Night by Tat Ming Pair starts with the following words: “Neon lights shine through the night, | Upon the whole city. | Lingering on the road, | All I look for this midnight | Is a new direction.” The videoclip shows the contrast between dark colors and singers’ total black outfits and disorienting multicolor neon lights.

From the beginning of ‘90s neon signs started fading replaced by LED lights and other new cheaper technologies. Many giant neon signs were removed for safety reasons and at the moment M+ is working to collect and preserve them to create a permanent collection.

Many people said that Hong Kong will be a ghost city when all neon signs will be removed. Others, like Christopher Doyle, think that they will come back for sure, like all the great things. Still others -according to the Chinese saying- just believe that “which enters the eyes will never leave the heart”.

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Hong Kong Street Signs, Photo: Ben Houdijk