CITY

Hong Kong says goodbye to neon signs: one of the last remaining ones has been removed these days

Hong Kong is one of the largest and most famous cities in the world, 'where East meets West'. Among other things, the characteristic neon lights that fill every corner throughout the 20th century have contributed to the city's fame ever since Clause Neon Light, the first factory of this type of lights, opened in 1932. Since then they have become a hallmark of the city-state landscape.

Today, however, neon technology is becoming obsolete, and neon signs are being replaced by LEDs. The city government started a programme called Tackling Hygiene Black Spots years ago, which aims to clean up the city streets. Hence, the removal of such distinctive signs, which have also helped make some very famous films iconic, such as 'Blade Runner' and 'Ghost in the Shell', as well as the more recent 'Dr. Strange'.

Now one of the last signs in the city is about to be removed, but there are those who aspire to protect and preserve them.

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Hong Kong says goodbye to neon signs: one of the last remaining ones has been removed these days
Hong Kong is one of the largest and most famous cities in the world, 'where East meets West'. Among other things, the characteristic neon lights that fill every corner throughout the 20th century, ever since the Clause Neon Light, the first neon light factory, opened in 1932, have contributed to the city's fame. Since then they have become a distinguishing mark of the city-state landscape. Today, however, neon technology is becoming obsolete, and neon signs are being replaced by LEDs. The city government started a programme called Tackling Hygiene Black Spots years ago, which aims to clean up the city streets. Thus, the removal of these distinctive signs, which have also helped to make some very famous films iconic, such as 'Blade Runner' and 'Ghost in the Shell', as well as the more recent 'Dr. Strange'. Now one of the last signs in the city is about to be removed, but there are those who aspire to protect and preserve them.
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In the process of removing one of the last neon lights from Hong Kong
Workers are setting up a bamboo scaffolding ahead of the removal of the neon signs of a pawn shop in the Sham Shui Po district on 9 March 2023 in Hong Kong, China. One of the very last neon signs will soon be removed from the city due to stricter government regulations and declining demand.
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Hong Kong is removing all neon lights from the city
Once everywhere in Hong Kong, the signs that have become familiar to foreign audiences thanks to films such as 'Blade Runner' and 'Ghost in the Shell', these neon lights have been steadily removed in recent decades. The recent dismantling of some of the largest remaining signs, however, is rekindling interest in this local art form.
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The Tackling Hygiene Black Spots program
In August, the government also stated that this year it intends to have approximately 1,700 signs considered dangerous and no longer in use 'removed or corrected' as part of a programme called Tackling Hygiene Black Spots, which aims to clean up city streets. Neon signs are gradually being replaced with LED lights, which are cheaper to make and require less electricity.
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The group Tetra Neon Exchange
There are still those, however, who seem eager to make an effort to save this piece of the city's culture. Tetra Neon Exchange is a self-funded preservation group that has already saved more than 40 neon signs since it became active in 2020. The group has a desire to preserve the removed signs in a specific location, and then restore and exhibit them when resources are available. It held an exhibition in August to present the restored signs.
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The neon history in Hong Kong
These neon signs started to develop at the end of World War II, driven by the large manufacturing industry that was driving economic growth. They soon became the perfect advertising banner in a place where shopping was mainly outdoors. From the 1990s onwards, such shopping began to be done indoors, and LED technology began to be too favourable to ignore. However, it is important to preserve these signs, as they are a true testimony to the meeting of two cultures, using western geometry and eastern characters and ideograms.
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The traditional method of construction is also disappearing
An additional problem is the fact that it is now becoming increasingly rare to meet true master craftsmen who are able to create these works of art. Young people have little interest in this type of craft. Traditional know-how requires skilled craftsmen who heat glass tubes over open flames before bending them into the desired shape. Then colour is applied by adding various gases and powders to the tubes. There are only a few tube-benders left in Hong Kong nowadays, so it is a declining art.
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Many still fight for the preservation of this heritage
Some noteworthy initiatives are worth mentioning. For example, the Information Design Lab, a design research and advisory unit at the Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, is raising funds to publish the hundreds of old sketches collected by traditional sign makers in a book. And yet, the imaginary landscape of Hong Kong is still inspiring artistic works today. For example, the console game Stray, has a setting inspired by Hong Kong itself (it involves impersonating a cat wandering around in a cyberpunk world).
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