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The History of Hong Kong Through its Neon Lights

By Guan Tan

 
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It's become almost a ritual for tourists to wander under the dense neon lights of Hong Kong's streets. In the Tsim Sha Tsui district, you'll often find travellers armed with a camera and tripod, shooting these neon signs. It's an exciting visual and sensory feast, but mere pictures and strolls won't reveal to you the riveting design history behind these famous lights. 

The neon signs of Hong Kong are eloquent symbols of the country's history and evolution. In fact, they were first introduced to the country during the World Wars. "Neon lights... came from the western influences in the 1930s," Ruth Chao, founder of Hong Kong graphic design firm, Indicube explains. Due to production costs during the wars, fluorescent technology didn't gain traction until the 1950s. "The industry was at its most glamorous days in the 80's and 90's, when the economy was doing well," Wyan Yeung, lecturer of the Sunderland (BA) Graphic Design course in Hong Kong continues. As Hong Kong's economy grew, graphics and visual design flourished too. Yeung adds, "Owners were active in investing in good, catchy signages." The neon lights are then, emblems of the city's former economic glories and ambitions. 

"Neon lights are tubes [with] injected gas and colours, controlled by chemicals," Yeung quips. It's a simple technology, but the Hong Kong businessmen and manufacturers were inventive with what they had. They devised a unique set of "layouts, typography and colour schemes". The directive signs are commonly read from top down, or towards the building, indicative of where the businesses are located. The fonts are distinctively calligraphic. The colours are highly-saturated iterations of primary and secondary colours. One will never find neutral shades such as brown, cream and white in these signs. 

They may not have realised it, but these fluorescent lights manufacturers were building the foundations of modern day graphic design in Hong Kong. "The pattern, calligraphy, form... communicated with people directly," Yeung quips. 

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Till date, these neon signs are still communicating with tourists and residents alike. When residents take a quick glance at the signs down the streets, they immediately grasp what goes on in the buildings, and where they should be headed to. "Is it a mahjong premise, a seafood restaurant, or a motel? Just check the signs." 

To Yeung, the neon lights have come to symbolise the identity of Hong Kong in the global eye. Outsiders understand that the city is spirited, dynamic and is alive round the clock. Yet, that's just one facet to the city. "The identity of Hong Kong is built in onion layers." Strolling under the neon lights is an experience in itself, it's memorable, and it forms a strong perception of the city. As visitors explore, interact and study the city, the layers unveil themselves, one by one. Eventually, at the core of the 'onion', must be the history. 

Yeung's unveiling model is also relevant to the graphic design industry today. To him, the local industry is going through a "renaissance". While the majority of practicing designers are drawing from foreign cultures, there's an inkling of renewed interest and revival of traditional Hong Kong graphic design styles. "Nowadays, young designers are more focussed about their role as Hong Kong-ers, and are more likely to [discover] their connection with Hong Kong's history and the local community." When traditional neon sign designs are brought back and rehashed, Yeung is hoping that it will be cemented in the history books for good. "As time goes by, it will [become] more of a form of art."