Hong Kong’s traditional neon signs are as integral to its culture as its cha chaan tengs, egg tarts and lion dance performances. Slowly but surely, these neon lights are being dimmed and replaced in favor of a cheaper, more eco-friendly alternative: LED light. The Hong Kong Neon Heritage project is a newly founded ‘think tank’ dedicated to finding creative and effective ways to preserve Hong Kong’s remaining neon lights.
Rui de Brito is a Lisbon-born globetrotter and the creative director of a television production company. A year ago, he decided to sell everything in his possession to try living around the world. His journey brought him from New York to Hong Kong, where he fell in love with the city and decided to stay. His infatuation with the city’s visual culture — and its neon lights in particular — led him to establish the Hong Kong Neon Heritage Project.
1. Hong Kong’s neon signs are works of art
When craftsmen are really good at what they do, they are artists. I think that Hong Kong’s old neon signs are artworks made out of light — they’re vintage urban art, like graffiti. The way the neon craftsmen make the signs — by hand — makes them artists, in my opinion. The first time I came out of a subway station here, I was greeted by rain and a street full of neon signs, and thought, ‘This is so amazing and beautiful.’ The day after, I started looking for more signs and noticed that there weren’t that many signs left, and a lot of them were not working anymore. I came across a lot of articles online talking about how Hong Kong is removing its neon signs, and it just broke my heart. I understand that there are environmental issues, light pollution and so forth, but I also felt that someone had to do something about this, so I started The Hong Kong Neon Heritage Project just to see how people would react to it. So far, it’s been a bit overwhelming!
2. Neon signs are not exclusive to Hong Kong, but they are integral to the SAR’s cultural heritage
When you think of neon signs, most people will immediately think of Hong Kong — a lot of tourists come here specifically to see them. Yes, there are neon signs in cities like Tokyo, but these signs look different: they’re vertical, they’re very typically Tokyo. The main square in Lisbon also used to have beautiful old neon signs, but they all disappeared and those signs weren’t a very important part of the city’s history to begin with. But Hong Kong is famous for its neon signs: the streets used to be full of them, there were a lot of experienced craftsmen [making the signs], and filmmakers used the warm, seductive light to set the scene and the mood…
The problem is that the new LED signs [that replace the neon signs] in Hong Kong are the exact same signs that you see in New York, in Lisbon, everywhere else. All cities are starting to look the same.
If you take a look at this photo [comparing Argyle street in the 1960s to now] and think away the Chinese characters, the bottom picture could be a street in a Lisbon suburb. But the above picture with all the neon signs, that’s Hong Kong. Argyle street, a street that used to be so iconic, could now be a street anywhere. It’s heartbreaking.
3. Raising awareness is the first step…
Raising awareness is The Hong Kong Neon Heritage’s first objective, and I think that we are getting the message through. A lot of people are sharing their photos and videos with me, and I’m receiving messages from Hongkongers saying, “The neon signs were here all my life and I never really noticed them, but now I look at them in a different way,” which is great.
And then we’ve got more ambitions objectives [to work on], but for those objectives to succeed we’ll need more people — artists, designers, journalists, poets, directors, architects, you name it — to help us. I understand that the Hong Kong government has different priorities and chooses to focus on other issues that Hong Kong is currently facing, so we’ll have to do all the work and present them our plan to save the remaining neon signs.
I’m trying to find a way to get more Hongkongers involved in the project. I want people to know that this isn’t just a project from a foreigner, but from all of us. I just want to spark ideas and for them to come to life — it’s important to get more local people involved. I also really think that we have to pay attention to the high powers of the Hong Kong government and make them realize the importance of preserving the neon signs. The old signs shouldn’t just be kept in a museum or in a gallery, but on the streets, where they belong.
4. …but we have to take action together in order to keep the neon signs glowing
The Hong Kong Neon Heritage project has six main objectives: one of them is to make a list of what we call “legacy signs” — neon signs that have historical, architectonic or artistic value.
In Lisbon, old shops are closed down and transformed into restaurants, so the mayor [of Lisbon] made a list of shops that can’t be shut down because they have historical value, and help the shop owners pay the rent. Perhaps we could do something similar here to preserve the neon signs; we have to present the Hong Kong government with a list of legacy signs, and they could set a budget to make sure that the maintenance cost of those signs doesn’t fully fall on the shop owners.
Another thing that we want to do is to propose “protected areas”: Imagine a street where no LED signs are allowed. From a touristic point of view, it would be amazing for Hong Kong to have places like this.
5. Apart from preserving the old signs, we have to look into ways of keeping the craft alive
Preserving is one thing, and finding a future for the craft is another. Neon signs can be made in a more environmentally friendly and cheaper way, so we have to look into that.
We want to create a non-profit platform to support the project with donations and to work with sponsors, such as big light manufacturers like Philips and Siemens. They could, for instance, “adopt” a neon sign, in exchange for a small logo [on the sign].
We could also invite young urban artists to collaborate on making neon signs with the older Hong Kong craftsmen and exhibit the final result with the help of sponsors. At the end of the exhibition, these signs could be offered to the city of Hong Kong. We have to create synergies between big brands, the city hall, young artists and craftsmen to create something unique here in Hong Kong, and find new ways for the neon signs to continue to exist.
And looking toward the future?
Right now I’m working on creating a website featuring a catalog, photos, and a map of all the neon signs that are still there and the ones that have been removed. We want to make it easy for people to find the exact location of all the remaining neon signs here in Hong Kong, and to create a walking route past the nicest signs… In the backend of the website, we’ll keep information about the state — if it’s fully functional or needs repairing — of all signs and their owners, so if necessary, we can reach the shop owners and help them to maintain their sign.
I’ve also been contacted by people who make travel apps, so that could turn into something interesting as well. It’s a work in progress and it’s going to take a lot of time, but hey, I have to try to help!