Museum steps in to save iconic neon cow

A museum's move to save a neon cow from slaughter plugs into an interest in preserving the city's iconic signs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 9:39am

In vibrant orange, green and white, the large neon-lit sign of an Angus cow has pointed to Sammy's Kitchen steakhouse in Sai Ying Pun for more than three decades. Even so, the neon cow seemed set to disappear from its spot on Queen's Road West within weeks - a casualty of the government crackdown on illegal structures over the past couple of years.

But now greener pastures await. The neon cow will likely find new life in the permanent collection of M+, the museum of visual art in the West Kowloon Cultural District.

If a museum will take the [neon cow] sign, that's better than destroying it.
Sammy Yip, restaurant owner

Restaurant founder, Sammy Yip, 83, was contacting removal companies when the curator of design and architecture at M+, Aric Chen, got in touch with Yip's daughter, Iry.

The upshot is that Chen, the Yip family and Buildings Department representatives are scheduled to meet shortly to negotiate the museum's acquisition of the sign.

"I'd prefer to keep the cow here," the elder Yip says. "But if a museum will take the sign, that's better than destroying it."

His neon troubles began in 2010 when the Buildings Department first issued a removal notice stating that the sign was an illegal structure. Engineering inspection findings and other submissions failed to change officials' minds, and the department issued an ultimatum in March this year warning that failure to take down the sign would result in a HK$200,000 fine, one year in jail, and an additional fine of HK$20,000 for every day of non-compliance.

Thankfully, the Buildings Department seems to be showing greater flexibility over a removal deadline following their plan to gift the cow sign to M+, Iry Yip says.

Neon used to be almost intrinsic to Hong Kong's streetscapes. London-based photographer Keith Macgregor even paid homage to them in his 2002 photo book, Neon City .

Gaudy marquees and flashing billboards for nightclubs, restaurants and saunas still scream for attention from Mong Kok to Wan Chai. But they are now a tiny fraction of the myriad glowing signs that once lit up the night. With stricter enforcement of signage rules and businesses switching to cheaper, mass-produced signs, neon is steadily disappearing from the city. For instance, a huge neon logo for the Yue Hwa department store was removed from the intersection of Nathan and Jordan roads in 2009.

Because of neon's prominent position in the local visual culture, however, M+ is now actively considering adding iconic Hong Kong neon signs to its collection, which features works by Ai Weiwei and other prominent Chinese contemporary artists, Chen says.

"When you think of neon signs, you can consider the perspective of Hong Kong's collective memory or nostalgia, the perspective of urban landscape, as well as typography, as an art form that merges craft with industrial process, as something captured by film and cinema and seen again not just in Hong Kong but around the world."

But in collecting local neon signs, Chen says the museum's biggest concern is conservation and long-term maintenance. "When you are collecting something, you are committing to it, hypothetically, forever, and we want to make sure we are able to do that."

In the meantime, the museum is drafting plans for a neon exhibition. "We will most likely be presenting a neon sign-based project to the public within the next year," Chen says.

The ambitious project would require considerable additional research and preparation, and he hopes to incorporate documentation and mapping of Hong Kong's most interesting neon signs.

"At M+, we are a museum of visual culture, and visual culture is a fuzzily defined thing. But one can say for sure that neon signs are a very important part of the visual culture of Hong Kong," he says.

Fu Wah Neonlight has been an active contributor to the city's radiant street decor since Chiu Pak-fuk launched the firm in 1969. An immigrant from Guangdong who apprenticed with a relative's company before striking out on his own, Chiu was quick to tap into the entertainment sector. Nightclub bosses were happy with his work and his work was soon sought after. Eventually, Fu Wah became responsible for many of the most ostentatious signs in Tsim Sha Tsui.

"Back in the day, bosses had so much money that they didn't care. If someone would build a big sign, then you would instal an even bigger one, and preferably right next door," Chiu recalls.

His daughter, Chiu Yuet-sheung, who has now taken over daily operations, reckons Hong Kong's neon sign-making industry probably reached its peak in the 1980s. But business slumped after 1997. "A lot of the old signs are retired. Some that used to be neon have now been replaced by fluorescent and LED [lights]," she says.

Tens of thousands of neon billboards may still light up after dark but these pale in comparison to the forest of signs that once proliferated; Chiu Yuet-sheung estimates that only 10 per cent of the big neon signs remain.

Not surprisingly, the number of companies producing such signs has shrunk, and less than half of the dozen neon makers remain in operation, she says. And although her family company continues to take orders for neon signs and assist with maintenance, they have begun to focus on indoor lighting.

A similar trend has played out in the Canadian city of Vancouver. Viewing neon signage as tacky and synonymous with vice, the city introduced changes in the by-laws during the '70s, which spurred an exodus of neon from storefronts.

But in 2011, the Museum of Vancouver began salvaging old neon signs and ultimately displayed 22 of them in a major exhibition. In April this year, the museum introduced an augmented-reality app to be used in a walking tour of the city's neon heyday.

M+ doesn't have a physical space as yet; construction of the West Kowloon museum is not scheduled for completion until 2017. Still, that hasn't stopped the museum from engaging the public.

Its first exhibition, "Mobile M+: Yau Ma Tei", displayed artworks throughout the neighbourhood last year. Among them was Leung Mee-ping's installation in Man Min Lane Park which featured a neon Coke sign.

The bottle-shaped sign once hung beside sister Sprite and Fanta bottles along the Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro in Macau. The signs were dismantled when a Hong Kong jewellery store took over the premises on the main promenade. But after learning of their removal, Leung managed to locate the discarded Coca-Cola sign, made repairs and used it for her installation, titling it I miss Fanta, giving the sign an imagined sense of dislocation.

Standing across the street from Sammy's Kitchen a couple of weeks ago, Yip smiled when he saw a passing tourist stop to take a snap of the quirky neon sign he created in 1979 when his restaurant relocated to its current spot.

"People tell me it's an icon of Sai Ying Pun. Back when we first opened, there were no Western restaurants around here," he says.

Yip may eventually replace his old sign with a smaller version that meets government requirements, but red tape and rising installation costs will be major considerations.

"You can't make signs like this any more," he says. "Materials and labour cost too much."

Fu Wah made the original neon cow for him for HK$30,000 but Chiu Yuet-sheung estimates a similar sign would now cost as much as HK$120,000.

"Government regulations for signs are getting tighter and tighter. That's the main reason neon signs are disappearing," she says. Skyrocketing leases also discourage businesses from making any major installations that may prove too costly to move. Neighbours' complaints are another factor, spurring government removal orders.

Licensing paperwork and inspections alone could add up to more than HK$10,000, Chiu adds. Besides clearing zoning ordinances and Buildings Department approval, the marine, highways, transport and fire services departments must also sign off on the construction.

However, businesses mulling new signage may find it easier to negotiate the maze of red tape from next month: according to a Buildings Department spokesman, a new initiative will be implemented from September 2 to simplify licensing. Called the Signboard Control System, it is designed to rein in the city's 190,000 unauthorised signs, many of them neon.

As for old-timers such as Sammy Yip and Chiu Pak-fuk, they're content that future generations will get to know about their creations from the golden age of neon.

[email protected]