Illuminating the Iconic Imagery of Neon in Urban Landscapes

“Let There Be Light” God spoke, and the light was found. Humankind only recently learned to use kerosene for lighting the urban outdoors. Kerosene lamps started to appear on streets and in arcades as well as on bridges in West-side cities only in the 19th century. The dawning “urban ecology”, however, would take another century. Scientists discovered neon, an odorless, colorless gas that emits red light when it is injected into electrified vacuum tubes in 1898. The term neon light was then rendered vividly into Chinese partly as a loanword. Because of their intense color beaming, even in severe weather conditions, neon lights quickly found widespread use in the city. They were used as logos in commercial space and as navigation beacons for air and sea. In Paris, neon signs lit up the first hair salons in 1910. The neon sign made its debut in Los Angeles, California in the 1920s. Then, it quickly spread to the United States. The spectacular neon scapes that can be seen in Times Square, New York, and The Strip, Las Vegas, in the 1930s and 1940s were the result. This was also when neon light started to take root in Asia. The modern metropolises Shanghai & Tokyo were the first adopters. Hong Kong followed their lead by the 1950s. In our city, rainbow-colored logograms merged Western technology with square-block Chinese logograms. There is no doubt that the history of technological progress deserves a separate essay. This essay will be devoted to the cultural imagery of the neon sign, as illustrated in artistic texts and urban landscapes.

A palette of lights, a city’s evening make-up

The city’s night sky could be described as a palette or a woman’s evening make-up. The ubiquitous yellow light at night would serve as the city’s foundation. The neon lights, bright and colorful, would represent the city’s layers of makeup. It is worn in anticipation of the lavish banquet hosted every night by the business world. Neon can be found amongst the city’s forest of signs, covering every corner where consumer activities flourish. Hong Kong has enjoyed a remarkable urban spectacle for more than half a century.

The neon sign’s visual stimulation seems to represent the prosperity that fuels urbanites’ desires.

A wide variety of businesses use neon signs in Hong Kong: banks, drugstores as well as restaurants, bistros, video gaming parlors, currency, and currency exchanges. Too many to list. The imagery of the neon signs, or their symbolism, is often seen as a symbol of prosperity, resplendence, and especially when they are set against the jet-black sky. Even as the night creatures emerge from their caves, the neon sign still shines brightly on the city’s stage at night. The neon sign’s visual stimulation seems to reflect urbanites’ desire for prosperity. Capitalist society relies on urban dwellers’ desire and ability to consume. The term ‘the cities that never sleep’ is now synonymous with the city of desires. Neon light is the most suitable form of illumination for lighting up the city. It was precisely the combination of the dazzle of the desire that made New York City’s Times Square neon-lit show the perfect foil to faceless loners, such as Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976). Neon lighting would only’stab’ the eyes in an urban mirage, as in Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence (1964): When my eyes were stabbed with a flash of a bright light The mentality as well as the materiality of a city are constantly changing.

Under the glow of neon, there is dejection. However, in the shadows of radiance, lies loneliness. This is accompanied by an unmistakable feeling of desire. These diverse representations are often used to magnify neon signs in music, literature, and movies. There are many notable examples. Eileen Chang (1943) – When Bai Liusu (the female protagonist) docks in Hong Kong, Chang describes Bai’s obsession with the blue and green colors of shop signs. Chang does not show neon signs as being as widespread as they are today. Although I am unable to determine the date that the neon sign first appeared in Hong Kong literature as a single imagery, I can confirm that it was featured in Cao Juren’s 1952 novel The Hotel. The story was set in 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party controlled the mainland. It tells the story of a young man who fled with his father and flees to Hong Kong. He works at M Salon as a shoe shine boy and meets a girl next door, a fellow refugee. Cao tells how the young man noticed a neon sign reading ‘Ching Wah Ballroom.’ The fictional hotel, which is named after Nathan Road, is a hotbed for lust. Signs are found everywhere in Hong Kong, including on Nathan Road. Liu Yichang’s classic The Drunkard (1963), shows them in full force. The story opens with a writer, alcoholic, and server chatting up promiscuous women servers at a nightclub. Liu wrote that Liu was evoking this scene. “Not all of those on the prowl are brave; especially in neon-lit thickets. the innocents in the swing set are few and far between.”

A cluster of illuminated neon signs was placed on building facades along Nathan Road in the 1960s. Credit: Old Hong Kong Photo

Cinematic World. Aesthetics from the Mise-en-Scene

It is easy to see the neon sign as a landmark in the Hong Kong streetscape. Wong Karwai’s While Tears Go By in 1988 and Chungking Express in 1994 are some examples of the artistic interpretation of the neon-lit urban setting. Clifton Ko’s Devoted to You (1986), stands out for me in terms both of visual execution and artistic intention. Two high school classmates, May Lo (rich) and Rachel Lee (poor) begin dating Jacky Cheung (biker-gangster) from Canada. Lee and Wong kiss in a passionate scene. The neon signboard for TDK is a large bright-red neon signboard. The scene takes just two minutes to complete and the neon signboard goes black. This scene contrasts with Lo’s rendezvous scene with Cheung under the gentle lighting of Charter Garden. The film’s neon lighting sets the scene for blazing desire, especially when it is red.

Lee and Wong share an intimate scene. The backdrop is a giant “TDK” neon signboard from Clifton Ko’s Devoted to You. All Rights Reserved

Legends of the Fallen City. Urban Nocturnes

Slowly fades. The neon light only appears briefly in some songs. These include Streaks of rain’ by Hacken, Shadow Dance’, and ‘One Night City’ (2011). Mavis Hee’s The Fallen City’ was a great example of how the neon light is tied to the city’s imagery. The final seems ever more touching. Although the song appears to be a love ballad, Wyman Wong refers throughout to the neon lights, making it ‘the backdrop for the vanity fair which has finished its course’. Even the most striking neon sign will eventually die, and the most touching song will end. This makes it hard to know if the song refers to a romance or the fate of a city.

Upon the entire city. Is a new direction.’ Various types of lights (traffic lights as well as lights on lampposts, waterfront promenades in parks, etc.) As one drives down streets, the lights flash past. However, the coldness and despair that these incandescent lights can mask are not easily hidden. And a child in despair longs to see the darkness of night more than ever. Then march forth. Has seen its last hurrah.’ These lyrics by Keith Chan sound alarmingly like a final judgment on Hong Kong during its pre-handover transition, amid all the questions and uncertainties. MTV’s 1987 version of the song features the lead singers in all-black clothing with shades. They weave through traffic in neon-lit streets including Nathan Road.

The neon light only appears as a cameo…

Gradual Transition

Every golden age will see its end just as Walter Benjamin sees ghostly ruin lurking at capitalism’s zenith. As the decades go by, any trending product in the city will begin to age. This is just like the dust that has settled on the neon signs over retailers selling herbal teas, bird’s nests, and long johns as well as old-style steakhouses, nightclubs, mahjong shops, and pawn shops. Wanchai’s Lockhart Road has titillating neon signs for sale that remind us of Suzie Woong’s world. It was where US Navy crews used to spend their overseas leave. Even though they are no longer in their prime, the neon signs for sale have retained their charm. Sloppy maintenance has resulted in missing strokes or entire radicals. The neon signs radiate an unexpected sense of humor, decay, and humor in the city’s forest, lights, and shadows. Some have outlived their useful life, as is the famous ‘Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium sign. Some shops display both neon and led signs, which show generational succession in one space. McDonald’s has a McDonald’s sign that marks the line between the past and the present. They have neon lights in red and yellow, while the new signs are equipped with standard-issue yellow, white, and fluorescent spotlights. The neon sign, which has existed for generations through prosperity and devastation and created desire and stoked it, has slowly disappeared, leaving behind an unintentional image of nostalgia, sadness, and despair. But it is too soon for Hong Kong to lose its neon glow. Signs still light up the streets. A gradual transition is required, and it can take many years for the signs to fade. After the historical mission of the neon sign is completed, it will most likely not disappear overnight.