Neon signs are electric signs lighted by long luminous gas-discharge tubes that contain rarefied neon or other gases. Light-emitting tubes form colored lines with which a text can be written or a picture drawn, including various decorations, especially in advertising and commercial signage. By programming sequences of switching parts on and off, there are many possibilities for dynamic light patterns that form animated images.
Neon illumination is valuable to invoke 1940s or 1950s nostalgia in marketing and in historic restoration of architectural landmarks from the neon era. Architecture in the streamline moderne era often deployed neon to accent structural pigmented glass built into the façade of a 1930s or 1940s structure; many of these buildings now qualify for inclusion on historic registers. The signage industry has declined in the past several decades, and cities are now concerned with preserving and restoring their antique neon signs.
In the post-World War II era, neon signs became an indelible part of Hong Kong’s streets and skyline. Supplied by hundreds of workshops, they announced all manner of businesses—from restaurants, hotels, nightclubs and pharmacies to jewellery, tailor and pawn shops—while proclaiming the city’s growing prosperity. More recently, however, Hong Kong’s neon signs have been disappearing at a rate of thousands per year, replaced by brighter burning and more energy efficient LED signs. As they recede from view, neon signs, and the processes and stories behind them, become a matter for preservation.
First introduced to Hong Kong in the 1920s, the use of neon signs exploded in the 1950s through the 1980s. Though notable concentrations could be found on the commercial thoroughfare of Nathan Road and in the nightlife district of Wan Chai, no part of the city was left in the dark. By 1970, entire building facades were covered in neon, including the National Panasonic sign on Nathan Road, which Guinness declared to be the world’s largest.
The Dying Craft – the Making of Neon Signs: Once a thriving industry, only a small handful of neon sign workshops remain in Hong Kong, maintaining a dying craft that once animated the cityscape. In this video, master signmaker Lau Wan of Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical Manufactory Ltd and others demonstrate how neon signs are made while offering their thoughts on neon’s past, present and future. Sketches from the Nam Wah archive lend further insight into the design process behind the signs.
Neon sign design sketches from Nam Wah Neonlight and Electrical Mfy Ltd and Neco Company Ltd
Established in 1953, Nam Wah is one of the longest-running neon workshops still in operation in Hong Kong.
These sketches from the company’s archive, including examples from Neco, another manufacturer that Nam Wah acquired In 1972, are now part of the M+ collection and lend insight into the intentions and processes that give neon signs their final shapes, colours and forms.
Marked with notations, measurements, revisions, connection points and grid lines (shown in the previous sketch) that aid in enlarging the designs to full scale, these skillfully rendered drawings trace the artful translation of a client’s brief into a graphic medium and, eventually, the sign itself.
Among the sketches, common patterns and motifs begin to emerge—a shared visual language of signs and symbols, compositions and representations, that find a diversity of expressions depending on the business type.
In 2014, M+, the museum for visual culture being built in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District, acquired the 1977 Sammy’s Kitchen neon cow, and soon added a 1976 Kai Kee Mahjong sign to its new collection of Hong Kong neon signs.
Since 1977, the Sammy’s Kitchen neon cow has presided over Queen’s Road West in Sai Ying Pun. Due to government regulations, the sign will be dismantled and will enter the M+ permanent collection.
Established in 1933, the Kai Kee Mahjong School has always had a rooster logo. In 2014, due to the area’s redevelopment, its Kwun Tong branch was relocated and its 1976 neon sign was acquired for the M+ collection.