New rules, tech are dimming Hong Kong’s signature neon glow

HONG KONG — For Hong Kong’s famed neon lights, the future looks dim.

Neon-lit signs were once ubiquitous here, illuminating city streets with their soft, warm glow and giving the dynamic Asian city a signature look to match its postwar economic boom.

Tens of thousands of signs on countless tower blocks advertise restaurants, nightclubs, saunas, camera shops and jewelry boutiques in a rainbow of garish hues. Many are cantilevered far out over the street, competing for visitors’ attention.

Few symbols have come to represent Hong Kong as much its skyline of flashing and blinking neon billboards.

That visual heritage is now under threat. Over the past two decades, Hong Kong’s neon industry has been gradually dying out, a victim of changing tastes, new technologies and tighter regulations. Some groups have been fighting to save the signs as part of the city’s cultural heritage before they disappear completely.

“Neon signs are not just something that illuminate,” said Cardin Chan of Hong Kong Neon Heritage , whose members are cataloguing the signs still left and working to come up with creative ways to preserve them. “They should be considered as art. And it is very unique to Hong Kong.”

Wu Chi-kai is one of about half a dozen neon sign masters left in Hong Kong. The 50-year-old said he now earns about a third of what he made during the “golden era for the neon sign industry” in the 1980s and early 90s.

At the time, Hong Kong was at its economic peak. Wu had done a six-month apprenticeship in his teens before being hired by a sign maker. Their days were so busy, he said, that he sometimes slept in the studio.

“Around 1997, LEDs came out,” said Wu. “I thought that it would be a strong enemy of neon signs. As neon signs had been used for decades, people perceived it as old-fashioned. And people usually love to use something new for their store signs.”