Neon signs: a shining example of Hong Kong's heritage

Glowing praise from curator who wants lights listed alongside Cantonese opera and egg tarts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 4:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 July, 2014, 5:05am

The twisted, glowing glass tubes that have created garish images across Hong Kong for decades should be recognised as part of the city's cultural heritage alongside Cantonese opera, egg tarts and milk tea.

That's the view of a top art curator who says neon signs and the skills involved in making them are under threat from newer, light-emitting diode technology.

Aric Chen, curator of design and architecture for M+, the museum for visual culture that will take shape in West Kowloon, was speaking after the government last month unveiled a list of 480 items of intangible cultural heritage in need of preservation.

Hong Kong's neon-drenched streetscapes, which famously inspired director Ridley Scott's vision of a dystopian future in his 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner, only made it to a "follow-up" list.

"The entire world thinks of neon signs when they think of Hong Kong," said Chen, who is also the curator of neonsigns.hk an online-only exhibition that launched in March. "Unlike pineapple buns, neon signs once they're gone are gone. We need to recognise their importance to Hong Kong's intangible cultural heritage before it's too late."

Cinema heavyweights Christopher Doyle and Wing Shya, who have both worked extensively with world-renowned Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai, have shown support by contributing original film and photography to the exhibition.

Chen believes their contributions demonstrate the importance of the issue to Hongkongers. "I hope that we can appreciate our neon signs as much as [the world] does," he said.

Chen admits that preserving the signs would require a longer and more complicated policy discussion, but suggests greater flexibility in local government regulations would help.

"In Hong Kong we have a tendency to shoehorn everything into these one-size-fits-all no-exception rules," he said.

"We should allow for more room so that not everything is smothered under these blanket rules, including neon signs."

One of the city's oldest neon craftsmen Lau Wan, 75, agreed the absence of neon from the living heritage list was a pity.

"The decline of the neon-light industry in the city in some sense reflects the decline of Hong Kong," said Lau, of Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical, who has worked in the industry for almost 50 years.

Lau said his business had suffered as the Buildings Department brought in ever stricter rules on neon signs, including restricting their dimensions.

"In the past we could make big money. Nowadays we can only remove signs, but not install new ones [unless they are small]."

Lau also called on the government to loosen restrictions and help preserve the traditional signs, but remained sceptical that any real efforts would be made.