A giant neon cow is suspended above a steakhouse in Hong Kong’s Kowloon District. This was the neighborhood landmark, where, if you were giving directions, you told someone to get off the bus or to take the next left. A glowing beacon of protein nearly 3 meters long and 2 meters tall, cantilevered over the bustling street. This is Hong Kong, or at least what it used to be.
Neon was to Hong Kong as red phone booths are to London, fog is to San Francisco and an immigrant wife is to Donald Trump. When darkness falls, reds and blues and other hues cast an indistinct glow over a city illuminated by thousands of neon signs, transcending from an ordinary and unremarkable streetscape during the day to what may seem like an enticing and ill-disciplined alleyway at night.
Neon was a Western import that quickly gained its own distinct vocabulary during the mid-20th century in China, first up in Shanghai, then down in Hong Kong, combining the respected Chinese art of ancient calligraphy with modern advertising and technology. Before computer fonts took over, master calligraphers drafted Chinese characters, making sketches and intricate drawings that were then traced by sign makers. The process itself was once considered a scientific means of artistry.
In the beginning, businesses saw the glowing lights as a novelty, though an expensive one to maintain in order to keep them competitive. They were installed for big corporate chain retailers like car dealers, but soon after, big businesses had found cheaper alternatives. Every industry had different preferences for their typeface. Restaurants and hotels preferred more honest-looking characters, while businesses like salons, nightclubs and karaoke bars preferred ethereal-looking ones that give a romantic and relaxing sensation.
The primary requirement was to be able to immediately catch someone’s attention among a street full of signs, and due to a population, trade and tourism surge, this method of advertising was soon adopted at full fledge by other Asian cities. Paving the way for the vibrant (if not tacky) commercial imagery associated with overpopulated and polluted Asian cities, neon began a steady decline in the 1970s as even small businesses found cheaper ways to advertise.
Neon and its representation have drastically changed over time; what once was an indicator of sophistication and prosperity fell out of vogue in the 1980’s as these gaudy, if not headache inducing signs became associated with lurid places like casinos, liquor stores and seedy strip clubs, creating pockets within the city that represented urban decay and defined red-light districts.
Neon has declined rapidly since the 1990s as changing tastes, building codes and regulations, and the trend towards sustainable advertising has tightened. New signs are made of LEDs, lacking the richness and warmth of neon, but are brighter and less expensive to maintain. While this outdated sense of nostalgia represented an iconic part of the 20th century, LEDs are defining the streetscapes of Asian cities, characterized by their extraordinary and ever-increasing volumes of consumerism, advertising and competition.
As neon grows scarcer, they have become objects of nostalgia. For me, the idea of these retro-chic artifacts represents the future from people of the past. There’s something so resilient about night-time light; it can be sleazy or it can be really romantic, in all its adaptation and interpretation.