City Weekend

The light display that snowballed into the biggest festive show in Hong Kong

‘Have you seen the lights yet?’ In the early 1980s, that was the question everyone seemed to ask as Christmas approached

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 January, 2017, 6:54pm

Hong Kong was no stranger to decorative lights when Tsim Sha Tsui East first started to dress up for the festive winter in the 1980s, but it was the seasonal sparkle that drew unprecedented crowds to the tune of hundreds of thousands.

“At first there weren’t many lights,” recalled Terence Wong Kim-shan, a long-time designer of the district’s decorations. “So when you make Christmas lights that come in many colours, many people would come.”

In time, the number of visitors snowballed from 20,000 to 100,000, then to 150,000 and 300,000 before reaching 800,000, he said.

Cheng Po-hung, an adviser to the Museum of History, said the district’s eye-popping scale of twinkling displays made it a must-go site for Hongkongers seeking Christmas lights.

“Almost everyone in the early 1980s would ask if you’d seen the lights, as if they were asking if you’ve had lunch,” he recounted.

Revellers crammed shoulder to shoulder as they walked along the promenade from the Cultural Centre towards the newly reclaimed area, Cheng said, with people jamming the footbridges to get a better vantage point of the twinkling lights.

And some would catch a glimpse from a Star Ferry plying Victoria Harbour as many light displays were strategically placed along the vessels’ routes.

Cheng, 69, said the city’s earliest decorative lights emerged in the 1920s in neon advertising signs, with Christmas bagging the biggest displays.

Most lights were clustered in Central’s banking district, sprawling across Chater Road, Des Voeux Road Central and the Landmark in Queen’s Road Central. On the Kowloon peninsula, the tourist districts in Tsim Sha Tsui and Nathan Road were the big bright spots.

“My dad used to take me to Statue Square in Central to see the lights on HSBC when I was a kid,” he recalled, referring to the massive display of Christmas trees and holiday greetings at the bank’s headquarters in the 1950s. “When you got to Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, it was like you were abroad because there were many foreigners and the decorations were very Western.”

Another popular site was the annual Chinese Manufacturers’ Association Exhibition, where exhibitors would deck their booths for a festive touch.

The scale of lights grew in the 1970s when businesses also decorated nearby footbridges to promote their buildings, as seen at the Landmark.

But Cheng said a disturbance on Christmas Day in 1981 prompted the government to downplay the displays in Central as some troublemakers torched and overturned cars after a vehicle bumped into a pedestrian outside the Mandarin Hotel, where thousands had gathered to see the lights.

“Later the government encouraged people to go elsewhere,” Cheng said. “Tsim Sha Tsui East became the new place to go.”