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Dismantling the capital of neon

You probably already know this about Hong Kong:

Neon signs exploded in popularity in Hong Kong after World War II, when the city’s economy started to take off led by its manufacturing industry. As consumerism grew, neon signboards became the go-to format of advertising for all kinds of businesses ranging from restaurants to mahjong parlors to pawn shops. In an era where shopping mostly took place on the street level, the biggest and brightest signs got the most attention.

But this component of Hong Kong’s aesthetic is rapidly fading. As recent as 2016, it was estimated that there were some 120,000 outdoor signboards, including neon signs, in the city. Today, thousands of neon signs are being removed each year in an effort to “clean up” the city. The result is that about 90% of the city’s neon has now been removed. (Here is an interesting visual essay from Google showing how the city has changed over the years.)

However, it is also partially a case obsolescence. Neon is a dying craft now that we have technologies like LED. And so as sad as it may be, it’s hard to imagine a world where Hong Kong ever returns to its former glory as a capital of neon.

Neon signs exploded in the post-war years, but most of them were illegal and I guess some were dangerous by virtue of there being no real enforced standards. But the British clearly didn’t care. Signs were good for business and good for capitalism. And so they let them proliferate. But then the handover to China happened, and it would seem that the Chinese care a little more about neon signs.

But I think my favorite part of this story is that the origin of these signs is, of course, informal and utilitarian in nature. It was a case of one person erecting a sign and then a neighbor saying, “hey, your big neon sign is blocking my big neon sign, so I’m now going to make an even bigger and bolder neon sign. Maybe I’ll even hang it in the middle of the street.” The result was a self-organizing system that ended up creating, through no overarching plan whatsoever, a unique visual language for Hong Kong.

That system is now being systematically erased. But lots of people are working to preserve its various artifacts and to celebrate its cultural legacy. These are all good things. But of course, there are other options. At the end of the day, Hong Kong’s visual language is not disappearing because neon is disappearing. It’s disappearing because we’ve decided that is what should happen.

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