Neon shop signs have long been a staple of Hong Kong’s urban streetscapes, lighting up the city’s nights for almost a century. However, with shifting business patterns, fading expertise, and growing safety concerns, the elaborate signs have begun to disappear. The city’s neon signs are now more endangered than ever with businesses closing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Newly formed local NGO Tetra Neon Exchange (TNX) seeks to save the city’s remaining signs, preserving what they see as an important Hong Kong heritage.
Earlier this month, the NGO completed its first major conservation project: the removal of the main sign of Tsui Wah restaurant on Parkes Street in Jordan. The process lasted from 8pm on August 15 to 6am the following morning. The decades-old sign was one of three neon signs TNX helped the eatery remove.
The main sign, measuring 8.5 by 4.5 metres, was kept intact throughout its removal. TNX made the symbolic decision to turn on the neon lights as it was lowered to the ground as a gesture of respect to the sign’s cultural importance. In a statement on Facebook, the NGO said this was an effort to raise awareness of the city’s neon lights, which form a part of its heritage: “We hope more people could reflect on why we would treat a neon sign with such respect… a neon sign like that is a rare find worldwide and more of us should be waking up to its cultural significance.”
Tsui Wah Group’s Chief Executive Officer Lee Kun-lun Kenji was also present .
TNX’s General Manager Cardin Chan told HKFP that people in the neighbourhood showed support for the initiative to preserve the iconic sign, saying that minibus drivers temporarily used a different stop location to make way for the sign’s removal. Another local passerby thanked the removal and preservation team for “keeping a part of Hong Kong.”
“We believed in neon and we believed in doing something nobody has done before,” Chan told HKFP. She added that, although there is no lack of attention for the city’s neon signs, there is a lack of ongoing continuous effort to save them: “I think we can do more… We want to keep them in a safe place instead of [them] ending up in a landfill.”
Striking a partnership with Tsui Wah Group in May 2020, TNX worked closely with the city’s “cha chaan teng” chain to realise the conservation project. Chan told HKFP that it is her NGO’s mission to restore and preserve as many neon signs in the city as possible, preemptively contacting stores who may be about to shut their businesses – or before they receive a removal notice from the Building Department: “We are on a quest to take a proactive approach to contact as many stores as we can.”
The Buildings Department has removed thousands of the city’s neon signs as public health and safety concerns arose in the early 2000’s.
Chan said she hoped TNX’s salvaged signs can serve to promote awareness for the city’s disappearing neon, with preliminary plans being made for an exhibition to educate the general public about an important part of Hong Kong heritage, and allow people to enjoy the signs for what they are: works of art.
In the past, every component of neon signs in Hong Kong were all welded and crafted by hand. With recent passing of veteran neon “sifus” [masters] and no “new blood” in the industry, the art of neon sign craftsmanship is in steep decline. TNX hopes to draw attention to the fading craft: ” We’re definitely running out of time,” Chan said. “For a city like Hong Kong [that] is so famous for its neon streetscape, we don’t have a comprehensive record of its history… I think that’s unacceptable.”
On top of saving the physical signs, the NGO also hopes to compile an online archive commemorating the artisans who created the neon art that have graced the city’s evolving streetscapes. “This is equally important… People make objects even more meaningful.”