If you’ve been following Bamboo Scenes for awhile, you’ll know from our previous Journal articles that we love the art of storytelling and sharing the tales behind our artists and artworks. As many of our artists capture different iconic and lesser-known corners of the city we love, they inevitably also captured Hong Kong’s beloved neon street signs. A visual tradition of the city, our instantly-recognisable neon street signs are headed for obscurity as Hong Kong embraces the full-throttled modernity of the 21st century. This is why it’s so important to preserve their heritage while they’re still around.
"Organized Chaos" (2017) by Elaine Li - Mong Kok, Hong Kong
With a warm, nostalgic glow and subtle buzzing, Hong Kong’s neon signs have captured the attention of locals, visitors, and artists alike. Their brightness has lit Hong Kong’s streets for decades, creating a unique urban feel as they crowd the air outside the buildings they adorn.
Like many other cities, Hong Kong is rich with history, and it’s sometimes hard to come to terms that change and modernity obscure this. Our city’s rich heritage and traditions include the raucous cha chaan tengs, Chinese opera performances, and the crafting of bird cages by hand. Neon street signs are part of this heritage, but one that’s fading fast.
The History of Hong Kong Neon Signs
"Everyday-Lightshow" (2017) by Kevin Mak - Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong
In the post-World War II era, bright neon signs became an integral part of Hong Kong’s urban streets and skyline. The colorful, eye-catching signage became beacons for different businesses, from restaurants and hotels to nightclubs, pharmacies, jewelry stores, tailors, and even pawn shops. It was the best way to catch the public’s attention and advertise the fact that these stores were open for business. Now though, these traditional signs are quickly being replaced by brighter, more energy-efficient LED signs and one of Hong Kong’s greatest icons is quickly becoming obsolete.
With a warm, nostalgic glow and subtle buzzing, Hong Kong’s neon signs have captured the attention of locals, visitors, and artists alike. Their brightness has lit Hong Kong’s streets for decades
Preserving the Neon Signs
Because they are such an integral part of the city, many Institutions, artists, and people in Hong Kong feel the need to preserve this beloved part of the city’s heritage. From film directors Wong Kar-wai and Ridley Scott, who immortalized Hong Kong’s inimitable cityscape in their films, to Karen Chan, an artist and designer who exhibits under the name “quittomymess” and organizes exhibitions dedicated to the traditions of Hong Kong—and a new generation of artists, designers, and historians—there are a host of people working hard to keep the neon signs on. More recently, a host of new institutions have been lending their voices to the cause, including M+, one of Hong Kong’s newest museums, which is currently hosting its M+ Mobile: NeonSigns.hk online exhibition.
Another artist lending their voice to the cause is NFT and new media artist Sharmaine Kwan. Bamboo Scenes had the privilege of working with this talented artist and showcasing her intriguing NFT artwork at our “A Woman’s World” NFT exhibition that we held in March. You might also remember her neon art at the Digital Art Fair’s “The Future is Bright” exhibition, or her recent showcase at Artistverse.
Bamboo Scenes Goes Neon
"Welcome Neon" (2020) by Kevin Mak - Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong and "Headlight" (2016) by Elaine Li - Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong
Bamboo Scenes’ artists are particularly attuned to the importance of preserving Hong Kong’s visual street traditions. That’s why many of the photography art prints in our collection feature the city’s iconic neon signs. To get a glimpse of what they mean to our artists, we spoke to some of them for some insights.
In “Welcome Neon”, Kevin Mak captures one of the last few remaining neon signs that were once such an integral part of Hong Kong. Mak has a special affinity for these signs—he’s also the founder of Street Signs HK, which aims to preserve them.
“When we set up @streetsignshk, we were entering a design competition hosted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board. The competition invited architects to propose a creative tourism installation in Central. We ended up winning, thanks to our idea to recall old town stories through signboards that used to exist around the installation area. Afterward, we realized that these signs were a great way to tell stories, and talk about culture and history in a way that’s very accessible to the public. That’s why we thought it would be a good idea to create a platform to help people learn more”.
The neighborhood of Sham Shui Po is perhaps one of the few remaining places in Hong Kong where you can still see an abundance of neon sights. In “Headlight”, Elaine Li captures these bright lights that soar above the buy textile shopping district that’s stoutly resistant to change.
"Mong Kok Casualty" (2016) by Gideon de Kock - Mong Kok, Hong Kong and "Signs of an Era" (2018) by Jeremy Cheung - Mong Kok, Hong Kong
For his shot, “Mong Kok Casualty”, Gideon de Kock headed to nearby Mong Kok, where he captured this contrasting image of a young woman crossing a neon-lit street. It’s an evocative image of how these classic symbols are becoming an inevitable casualty of progress as Hong Kong moves firmly into the 21st century.
Also in Mong Kok, Jeremy Cheung’s “Signs of an Era” captures the area in 2016, when it was still populated by densely arranged street signs. The signage may now be gone forever, but they live on in posterity through images like Jeremy’s.
"That Soft Pink Matter" (2017) by Vivien Liu - Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong
Finally, Vivien Liu takes a broader perspective on Hong Kong’s neon signs with “That Soft Pink Matter”. In the image, she captures the neon pink street signs alongside the city’s old architecture and classic red taxis to showcase how the city pairs tradition with modernity. It’s a stark reminder that the city always offers more than meets the eye.
They say the only constant is change, but we think it’s worth preserving some of Hong Kong’s unique history. Even if it is only through photographs.
Interested in seeing more of our art? View the complete Bamboo Scenes collection here!