Electric City –– The Neons of Hong Kong

West Kowloon Cultural District

For much of its history, Hong Kong has been inseparable from its neon signs, both in fact and in the imagination. First introduced to the city in the 1920s, neon’s electrified, gas-filled tubes had their local heyday from the 1950s through the 1980s, so much so that, as early as 1964, a government report could boast that “A million neon signs light the streets proclaiming their messages in every colour.” In recent years, neon signs have been retreating from Hong Kong’s cityscape due to government regulations and, especially, the rise of LEDs. Nevertheless, as emblems of the city and as artifacts of visual culture—of typography and visual communication, and of art, cinema and photography—they remain vibrant as ever.

NEONSIGNS.HK - an online exhibition celebrating Hong Kong's neon signs
Over the course of three months in 2014, more than 4000 photographs of neon signs in Hong Kong were submitted by the public and posted on the NEONSIGNS.HK website. Creating a visual archive of the city’s remaining neon signs at that moment (many have since been dismantled), the resulting “Neon Map” documented the breadth and diversity of not just the signs, but also ways of seeing them.

Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok
Submitted by Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze

Johnston Road, Wan Chai
Submitted by Bona Liu

Soy Street, Mong Kok
Submitted by Jason Kwong

Shanghai Street, Mong Kok
Submitted by Chan Chi Kin

Queen's Road West, Western District
Submitted by Veronica Tang

Peak Cafe
Shelley Street, SOHO Central
Submitted by Anubis Ho

Luk Yu Tea House & Restaurant
Stanley Street, Central
Submitted by CPak

369 Shanghai Restaurant
O'Brien Road, Wan Chai
Submitted by Li Chun Wing

Aberdeen Praya Road, Aberdeen
Submitted by Ken Lee

Victory Mahjong
Kansu Street, Yau Ma Tei
Submitted by tttony122

Chuen Kee Seafood Restaurant
Man Lin Street, Sai Kung
Submitted by Steve Schechter

Yan Tai Pawnshop
Shanghai Street, Prince Edward
Submitted by Joey Kwok

Country Club 88
Lockhart Road, Wan Chai
Submitted by Cheung Pak Ming

Club Rhine
Lockhart Road, Wan Chai
Submitted by Eugene Lo

Chun Kwan Temple
Fung She Wo Road, Tsing Yi
Submitted by tannhahuser

Wo Kee Seafood Restaurant
Man Ying Street, Jordan
Submitted by Angie C

Neon Street Views
Neon signs have long dominated views of the city, both from afar and close-up. In a diversity of shapes, sizes and orientations, they become integral parts of the streetscape and even buildings themselves.

Street View
Kansu Street, Yau Ma Tei

Street View
Portland Street, Mong Kok

Street View
Tung Choi Street, Mong Kok

Street View
Shan Tung Street, Mong Kok

Street View
Lockhart Road, Wan Chai

My Neon City – 'Left Behind' by Wing Shya
In this series of portraits, photographer Wing Shya captures the inner worlds of people whose lives take place under the glow of Hong Kong’s neon signs. Revealing the subjects’ relationships with their neon-lit environments, these cinematic images examine neons from another perspective—from behind and within.

“I own this place. It would be a good home for newlyweds. But me? I prefer new buildings with elevators. Who likes old things?”

– Resident of Alhambra Building, backgrounded by the Victory Mahjong sign.
15 Kansu Street, Yau Ma Tei

“This is definitely a good place to hang out. It’s enhanced by the lights. Do they bother us? Not really. They usually switch off when it gets late at night.”

– Youngsters in Tong 3, backgrounded by the Yan Tai Pawnshop sign.
716 Shanghai Street, Prince Edward

“I think this is the best neon sign on the street. My boss owns this place, and I love seeing the lights outside.”

– Staff of Asia Red Arowana, backgrounded by the Asia Red Arowana sign.
154 Tung Choi Street, Prince Edward

“We’ve been here since 1971, and our neon sign has been with us the whole time. Now the sign is getting old; no one is willing to fix it. But we’re still very proud of it. Most of us have spent more than half our lives working here.”

– Staff from Paris Cotton Singlets, backgrounded by the Paris Cotton Singlets sign.
15 Pak Sha Road, Causeway Bay

“We spend our time relaxing behind this sign, playing mahjong in the restaurant after it closes. Our neon sign is our brand. Customers see it and they know how to find us upstairs.”

– Staff from Mido Café, backgrounded by the Mido Café sign.
63 Temple Street, Yau Ma Tei

Christopher Doyle - Filming in the Neon World
Hong Kong filmmakers have often appropriated the city’s neon as a cinematic device. Among the most prominent has been renowned cinematographer Christopher Doyle whose work, in collaboration with director Wong Kar Wai, includes 'Chungking Express' (1994), 'Fallen Angels' (1995), 'In the Mood for Love' (2000) and '2046' (2004). In this video, Doyle describes how his films would be radically different “if it wasn't for the space in which they were made...a neon space.”

NEONSIGNS.HK online exhibition

The NEONSIGNS.HK website includes essays, videos, a neon timeline and an interactive Neon Map. Visit our website at www.neonsigns.hk

Hong Kong's Neon Signs - Then and Now

Visit our other Google Cultural Institute exhibit where old photos of neon-lit streets are juxtaposed with their present-day views, together with a video documentary where master craftsmen explain the dying art of making neon, creating a powerful record of how quickly the neon is disappearing from Hong Kong’s streets.


Presented by M+, West Kowloon Cultural District
Credits: Story

With thanks to all the photographers, artists and contributors to the NEONSIGNS.HK online exhibition.

NEONSIGNS.HK is presented by M+, museum for visual culture, West Kowloon Cultural District

This exhibit is prepared by Aric Chen, Chloe Chow, Kingsley Jayasekera and Gloria Wong. (in alphabetical order)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.