HK’s Storied Neon Signs Get a Nostalgic Review

19-Jun-2014 Intellasia | NY Times | 6:00 AM Print This Post

For years, Hong Kong’s neon signs have played bit parts in its cinema, providing a soaring red backdrop for a rooftop romance in Clifton Ko’s 1986 “Devoted to You” or backlighting the blonde wig of a mysterious Garbo-esque figure in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 “Chungking Express.”

Now the signs are starring in their own show online.

They are the subject of the latest pop-up exhibition by M+, Hong Kong’s new visual art and culture museum, before the museum opens its physical doors in 2017 as part of the West Kowloon Cultural District, now under construction.

This is M+’s seventh pop-up show, but its first online. Running until June 30, it is a tribute to neon signs and their place in the Hong Kong cityscape and imagination, from their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s to their fade-out in the last decade as LED signs took over.

Posted to NEONSIGNS.HK, and updated continuously, it showcases M+’s ambitions to blur artistic disciplines and to be global as well as local. The website includes photos, essays and slide shows by writers, artists, photographers and academics living and working in Hong Kong. A 12-minute video, “The Making of Neon Signs,” features interviews – in Cantonese with English subtitles – with longtime neon sign makers and takes viewers into their workshops.

There is also an interactive map where users can upload pictures of neon signs and their location, as a sort of public documentation project of the vanishing craft.

Around the world, cities from Paris to Los Angeles to New York have fallen in and out of love with neon. But nowhere have the signs been as tightly clustered as in Hong Kong, or with the unique combination of traditional Chinese and English script, said Tobias Berger, the show’s co-curator.

“There are very few things that are more iconic in Hong Kong than these streets of neon signs,” Berger said in a phone interview. Yet they are fast disappearing, some because of redevelopment and others because they can pose a danger in typhoons.

The exhibition came out of an effort by M+ to save some of these signs, as a sort of “animal shelter” for neon, said Berger, who was formerly chief curator at the Nam June Paik Art centre in Seoul, dedicated to the late avant-garde Korean artist. The museum has acquired several neon signs in danger of being destroyed – including a famous cow-shaped sign from Sammy’s Kitchen in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district – and is in negotiations to buy more.

“If they have to die, you take them, but you cannot take all of them,” said Berger, explaining the impetus for showing them online.

In an essay for the exhibition, Keith Tam, a typographer and assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, writes of how the neon signs, vertical and horizontal, in English and Chinese script, once protruded from buildings and wrapped around them, with each drugstore, bank or restaurant competing for attention, creating “a cascading effect.”

In the video “The Making of Neon Signs,” a calligrapher named Fung Siu Wah explains how different professions favoured different typography. “Some calligraphers’ style is honest. Businesses that value sincerity would commission these calligraphers,” Fung says. “Bone-setting clinics, martial arts clubs and sports clubs prefer the Northern Wei style, which makes a strong and powerful impression.”

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Another short video shows Christopher Doyle, a cinematographer for films such as “Chungking Express,” talking about the unique quality of neon light, “which is colder than tungsten… like the difference between a whore and a wife.”

He predicts that neon will make a comeback, somewhat like Polaroid and film.

NEONSIGNS.HK packs a nostalgic punch, especially at a time when many in Hong Kong worry about being eclipsed by mainland Chinese culture.

The online exhibition has had more than 260,000 page views since it went live on March 21, with about two-thirds of those coming from inside Hong Kong.

The public has submitted more than 3,000 photos of neon signs, and curators are scrambling to upload them to the Neon Map. In addition, “The Making of Neon Signs” uploaded on YouTube has been viewed 115,000 times.

Berger says public interest stems from a wider soul-searching over Hong Kong’s place in the world that began just before the end of British rule in 1997, when it became a special administrative region within China.

“The Neon Signs project is not an anti-China project, but I think has to do with the idea that Hong Kong has to find an identity,” he said. “It’s colonial, but it’s not colonial. It’s China, but it’s not China. It’s a crazy place.”


Category: Hong Kong

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