As the sun sets on the vertical city, its tireless workforce steps out from the cooling air-con chill of billion dollar skyscrapers and a multitude of offices scattered across town. A million weary-faced souls stumble out onto the hot asphalt to become part of the rush hour crush on the mass transit railway, or perhaps to join the ever swelling and surging queue at the taxi rank, with desires of their box-like homes – or perhaps a hectic night out elsewhere in the city that never sleeps. Either way, as soon as they set foot onto the evening streets, any large element of the daytime slog begins to dissipate and as the last embers of daylight fade, a new energy is unleashed upon the city’s inhabitants – a buzzing, rattling hum – this is the throbbing heartbeat of an electrified metropolis.
Neon signs spark into life across the sprawling city, their flickering glow illuminates the faces of alley-way vendors, busily toiling over food stalls, hot steam billowing up into a night sky fractured by monuments of glass and steel that tower up to the heavens. The glowing signs light up the office workers and bankers as they criss cross through backstreets or down the steep, stepped, cobbled lanes, picking up the pace to catch the next star ferry across to Kowloon. Neon signs over hang trams, taxis and pedestrians alike, on colossal metal framed supports, their harsh, vibrant radiation is the very pulse of the city.
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When strolling down the evening streets of Hong Kong, through the simmering heat left over from another frenetic day -broken by an occasional downpour, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve walked straight onto the set of particularly gritty and atmospheric film noir movie. For decades, elaborate and vivid neon signage has been indicative of Asia’s most energetic city, but now those days are at an end. A large chunk of Blade Runner-esque cool is being systematically torn out from the super city’s highways, side streets and back alleys, and put into retirement.
From the 1950’s to the 90’s, neon signs blossomed and flourished across Hong Kong’s numerous districts, but over the last decade the neon has slowly but surely began to vanish. The safety issue of the signs once seen almost everywhere, proudly displayed on a diverse multitude of establishments, from specialist shops to restaurants, from pawn shops to nightclubs, has been scrutinised by the government since 2006. Every year since then, ‘The Buildings Department’ has been removing signs by their thousands. In 2013 Hong Kong’s ‘Validation Scheme for Unauthorised Signboards’ accelerated the disappearance of neon signs from the city’s streets.
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Admittedly many of the beautifully hand-crafted neon signs had, over time, fallen into disrepair, now corroded and unmaintained they flicker erratically or display cryptic half messages with missing text and partial images, the result of ware and tear and blown out tubes, no longer replaced by their owners. The reason for this neglect may have come from neon’s general fade from glory. Once the peak of modernity, they began to be associated with a certain sort of seediness and reflect a sordid undesirability in society, with a twist of the ‘archaic’ and ‘out of touch’ thrown in for good measure.
Now deemed ‘illegal’ structures and slated for removal, the neon landscape is soon to be just another part of Hong Kong’s colorful history. The pulsating flicking icons that were as much a part of Hong Kong identity as the Star Ferry or the Peak lookout are on the verge of extinction. The prized and more memorable signs may end up going to collectors or maybe a quirky museum, the rest will be condemned to the scrap heap, preserved only in the memories of Hong Kong’s diverse population.
But the urban cleansing of neon street signage is not going unnoticed, creatives, artists and other members of the general public are openly lamenting the city’s bereavement. Many of Hong Kong’s neon signs are much loved and affectionately known, achieving local landmark status. Once removed, they are mourned over, like a lost loved one, perhaps a kind, familiar grandparent, there since the beginning, wise, stoic and all seeing, but now lost, greatly missed and not soon forgotten.
The streets seem emptier without the neon signs. Some are being replaced with modern LED variations, boasting lower energy consumption, longer lifetimes, and more brightness, these communicate without grace or class, a harsh new face glaring down at passers by with a cold unblinking stare, where once a familiar friend had been. And though a helpful website maps and documents the city’s diminishing illuminations, pointing hopeful neon-hunters in the right direction, more times than not, ‘arrival at your destination’ reveals nothing but a big empty space where once there had been light.
Images and text by @Tim Draper