Electric City, 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.

Presented by M+, Hong Kong’s museum for visual culture, NEONSIGNS.HK is an interactive, online exhibition dedicated to exploring, mapping and documenting Hong Kong’s neon signs. The seventh in the Mobile M+ exhibition series, NEONSIGNS.HK invites the public to post images and stories of their favourite neon signs to its Neon Map, and to rediscover these compelling features of the city’s streetscapes from the perspectives of design and urbanism, visual art, cinema, literature and popular culture.

From 21 March to 30 June, 2014, the NEONSIGNS.HK website will be actively updated with new content, ranging from essays and slideshows to videos, specially-commissioned projects and news about offline tours, talks and workshops. M+ has begun acquiring, for its permanent collection, notable Hong Kong neon signs that are otherwise at risk of being lost. As such, the aim of NEONSIGNS.HK is to enhance the understanding of these fast-disappearing and under-researched fixtures of the city’s urban landscape, while eliciting the public’s help in identifying and contributing knowledge about the neon signs that remain.

Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok
Johnston Road, Wan Chai
Soy Street, Mong Kok
Shanghai Street, Mong Kok
Queen’s Road West, Western District
Peak Cafe, Shelley Street, SOHO Central
Luk Yu Tea House & Restaurant, Stanley Street, Central
369 Shanghai Restaurant, O’Brien Road, Wan Chai
Aberdeen Praya Road, Aberdeen
Victory Mahjong, Kansu Street, Yau Ma Tei
Chuen Kee Seafood Restaurant, Man Lin Street, Sai Kung
Yan Tai Pawnshop, Shanghai Street, Prince Edward
Country Club 88, Lockhart Road, Wan Chai
Club Rhine, Lockhart Road, Wan Chai
Chun Kwan Temple, Fung She Wo Road, Tsing Yi
Wo Kee Seafood Restaurant, Man Ying Street, Jordan

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.

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.”