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City Weekend

The bright spark who lights up Hong Kong

A head for heights and a creative visual flair have kept decoration designer Terence Wong in demand every Christmas and Lunar New Year for decades

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 6:44pm

The men who lit up Hong Kong’s signature festive nightscape share a common enemy.

“We don’t compete with others,” said Terence Wong Kim-shan, who designed more than half the city’s temporary illuminations for the holiday season. “We compete with time. Time is our biggest enemy.”

Earlier this month his men had to replace all the merry Santa Clauses and rainbow snowflakes with blooming peonies and Chinese greetings on glass buildings lining the two sides of Victoria Harbour for a new round of displays starting last Monday.

From dismantling to reinstallation, Wong had 13 days.

The kaleidoscope of colourful light bulbs is the first signal of the Year of the Rooster, whose early arrival on January 28 has left Wong with little time to ensure the lights are up in time.

But Wong noted that only a few clients ordered roosters on their walls.

“Some zodiac animals are less popular,” he said in a small office stacked with boxes of bulbs and tubes. “Unlike dragons, horses and monkeys.”

Wong has dressed up Hong Kong for more than 30 winters for its two biggest festivals of the year with dazzling illuminations which have for decades defined the city’s party scene.

It’s unique to Hong Kong because people elsewhere don’t know how to do it yet
Terence Wong Kim-shan, light designer

“It’s unique to Hong Kong because people elsewhere don’t know how to do it yet,” he said.

But Wong, 57, did not hesitate to share his secrets. With a pencil, he started drawing sketches on the back of his photographed designs.

“How did I make a Santa Claus look like a Santa Claus, how did I make a horse run? The principles are actually not complicated,” he muttered.

His 38-year career began with fixing Panasonic rice cookers at his brother’s electronics shop while he was still at school. By chance a friend brought him into the stage lighting industry – until one day in the early 1980s when a property developer of Tsim Sha Tsui East asked if he could decorate the buildings to bring people into the newly developed district.

From there he broadened his scope and borrowed principles from stage lighting to create massive, temporary installations on outer walls.

The job requires Wong to first observe the building and its geographical environment to come up with possible designs before they are put to the test and tabled to clients for tender bidding. Once approved, his men lay a grid of wires firmly secured onto the glass panels, and affix the light bulbs or set pieces – assembled in his factory in mainland China – according to designs magnified in scale.

“Then you look after it because you’ll have to go down on a gondola to fix it immediately whenever the light bulbs burn out,” he said. “So you can’t be afraid of heights to start with.”

Preparations begin as early as April as Wong takes time to come up with designs, tabling at least two proposals per bid and drawing two designs for each festival per proposal.

He once drew more than 160 drafts for one building in Tsim Sha Tsui East.

“It’s a tough job to be innovative,” he explained. “We try not to repeat, but there are only so many elements to a Christmas.”

Over the years, his work has evolved from outlining buildings to creating shapes and introducing animations, while his fuse light bulbs – some he hand-painted – are gradually replaced by LEDs, with the promise of more colours to come.

“Thousands of light bulbs compete for splendour in one building – very beautiful,” he said. “People used to book hotel rooms in advance just to see the lights.”

The challenge in design also lies in the finer details – Wong said eyeballs were the hardest to depict in scale without coming out as a large foggy spot.

“The lights are only made up of simple lines. If they’re aligned too closely, you can’t see [the design].”

This winter his signature work can be seen in Canton Road, the Admiralty Centre, Sino Plaza, Sun Hung Kai Centre, and a cluster of buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui East that includes Wing On Plaza and the Shangri-La Hotel, among others.

There are many patterns, many designs, many dreams you can bring to life

He has been monitoring the weather reports daily in case of bad weather such as low temperatures or rainstorms, which can disrupt work schedules that are very tight in the first place.

“Hong Kong used to be very cold,” he recalled. “Your fingers would stiffen after [the installations], you couldn’t even clench your fist, and your hand would swell from uncoiling the wires.”

But one downpour in 1997 left him with great joy as he animatedly recounted how his display of dolphins jumping over Victoria Harbour joined the grand nightscape in celebrating Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule on July 1.

“It was a painful experience to create that illumination because there was heavy rain and we had to camp on top of the building. But that display shone very bright, it was very impressive because we used almost 100,000 light bulbs. The whole world was watching.”

His satisfaction also comes from trying something new every year. “There are many patterns, many designs, many dreams you can bring to life ... and many will see them,” he said.

But with new trials come new mistakes. This year Wong had to redo his displays because his light bulbs switched off intermittently due to a poor connection in the wiring.

“There is something new every year,” he laughed. “Next year, I will remember that.”