Introduced in the 1920s, neon signs quickly proliferated and became a symbol of Hong Kong, gracing every street corner of the densely populated city.
But nowadays, most of those lights have been replaced by cheaper and more energy-efficient LEDs. In the past two decades, up to 90% of Hong Kong’s neon signs have disappeared.
Wu Chi-kai is one of the city’s last remaining neon sign makers.
“Thirty years ago, when Hong Kong’s economy was its peak, all the signs and stage lights were made with neon,” Wu says.
During the golden age of the 1970s, busy thoroughfares like Nathan Road and Lockhart Road were plastered with neon signs suspended above streets, overlapping into a collage of colors.
They formed the distinct look of Hong Kong that would serve as the inspiration for backdrops in sci-fi movies like Blade Runner.
“On Nathan Road, you would see signs that were horizontal and vertical,” Wu recalls. “It’s very particular to Hong Kong. I’ve been abroad—and not to many places—but from what I’ve seen, neon signs are usually hung vertically and attached to a wall. They don’t stick out horizontally.”
The signs were a reflection of the boom time’s audacious “bigger is better” mentality. Businesses competed fiercely to market themselves with the boldest signs, and neon ones could last for several years before they require repairs.
“The signs meant everything to them.”
“When someone started a business, they would want the business to go on for generations to come,” says Cardin Chan, director of the Hong Kong Neon Heritage Project, which is working to preserve the city’s neon industry, “and the signs meant everything to them.”
The decline of neon began around 2000, Wu says, when the owners of neon sign workshops started taking orders to mainland China, where they could be made for cheaper.
This was also around the same time that LED lights were introduced.
Compared to neon, LEDs are 10% cheaper, use 5 to 10 times less power, and they’re easier to change out.
Their affordability and energy efficiency meant they quickly surpassed neon in popularity.
Adding insult to injury, the Hong Kong government also began putting restrictions on signs, taking down those that were deemed a safety risk.
This has led to the removal of 3,000 unauthorized sign boards per year since 2006.
The workshop where Wu worked once employed around six people to design signs and another five or six to install them.
Nowadays, it’s mostly just him in the shop. He keeps busy with small requests, making signs for store windows and helping local artists with projects that incorporate neon.
“Why do people feel like there are no neon sign makers left? Because no one wants to do it,” Wu says. “In Hong Kong, there are maybe three or four guys who have work. The rest only have work a couple days a month.”
Despite the large reduction of neon signs in Hong Kong, Wu is still optimistic about that the lights won’t be fading completely anytime soon.
“I don’t think Hong Kong’s neon culture will go away,” he says. “As long as people want neon, they can get it done. When that demand disappears, then there will be no point in continuing this work. But there will always be people who need neon.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.