Collecting Neon Signs from Hong Kong’s Streets
For the past several years, the government has been flagging Hong Kong’s neon signs for removal due to safety concerns over their condition and size. Since 2013, M+ has been collecting some of these neon signs, five of which are now in the M+ Collections, alongside a large archive of neon sign design drawings and photo documentation.
The acquisition of these condemned neon signs is in recognition of the important role they have played in the visual culture of Hong Kong: more than just advertisements, they are objects of craftsmanship, graphic design, illustration, and architecture. With reproductions in movies, photographs, artworks, and video games, they are also one of the most recognisable identifiers of the city of Hong Kong.
Collecting giant neon signs, however, is not a simple task. In fact, it is a first for a museum in Hong Kong. Below, two M+ team members—Chloe Chow (Associate Curator, Hong Kong Visual Culture) and Bernadette Lai (Associate Registrar)—discuss the immense challenges and rewards behind collecting these unusual objects.
What has been your involvement with collecting neon signs?
Chloe Chow: The curatorial team was interested in neon signs early on. They’re such a compelling way of looking at Hong Kong visual culture from the perspectives of design, typography, the urban landscape, craft, and industry, as well as cinema and visual art—all things that M+ is about.
However, the actual trigger for our first conversations around collecting neon signs was a news article in 2013 about a notable sign that was slated to be removed: the Sammy’s Kitchen neon cow. The curatorial team started to plan out the logistics of what it would mean to collect neon signs—were we ready, and did we have the expertise? No museum in Hong Kong had done this before, but we decided to go for it. We were able to connect with the owners of the Sammy’s Kitchen neon sign, and that’s how everything started.
We began to realise that, even though we see them every day, there wasn’t much research about neon signs available in books and archives. We decided to take the lead. That’s why we started NEONSIGNS.HK, our online exhibition project. Neon signs are embedded within the fabric of Hong Kong, so we felt that the best way to conduct research was to ask the public. We created an online map where visitors could submit photos of neon signs around Hong Kong. We interviewed masters who worked with neon signs. We were also lucky to secure a very good archive of neon drawings from manufacturer Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical.
Bernadette Lai: Three months after I joined M+, one of my first off-site projects was to go to the storage facility to cover the Sammy’s Kitchen neon cow with plastic sheeting in order to minimize its exposure to dust, humidity, and light. It was a challenging task to fully cover a nearly 500x400 centimetre neon sign, with only myself and one art technician at that time. In the years since, the Collection and Exhibition Department has grown its team of conservators who can look at the neon signs in storage to check their condition and research how to conserve them.
My first project involving neon sign removal was the Law Fu Kee Congee and Noodle Expert fish neon sign. For a registration team, to practically execute the dismantling of a neon sign is a complex and specialised project. We learned about the different procedures needed and different application forms required to submit to government authorities, and we had to work closely with the contractor.
What does the process of removing and collecting neon signs look like?
Lai: There’s a lot of coordination involved, as most neon signs are located along pedestrian roads. The Shun Hing restaurant sign that we collected in Sham Shui Po was situated right above high concentrations of hawkers and local stores. We had to consult with the store owners to get their formal agreement to the scheduled dismantling, as some of their businesses might have had to modify their operations for a morning in order to accommodate our project. The application process also included checking with the Transport Department and Building Department; notifying the traffic police about the need for a temporary roadblock; and alerting the Environmental Protection Department of the construction noise.
The removals themselves become events on the street, with lots of people watching. In Sham Shui Po, locals in the community gathered around and observed the entire process with us for hours. Some of the neighbourhood grannies heard that the sign would be collected by West Kowloon but did not know about our institution. By chance, in Sham Shui Po, there is a West Kowloon shopping centre (Dragon Centre)—they thought that was where the neon sign would be moved to.
In a normal industrial removal process, the contractor will usually just cut the neon sign in half to make it easier to handle. But because we are treating it as a collection object, we require artwork handling standards to ensure the long-term preservation of the neon sign. We decided to build metal frame structures to secure the whole sign. Once we remove a sign from the building, the frame acts as a support structure. There are also wheels underneath the frame for easy handling.
The time constraint is a challenge too. The Building Department sets a deadline by which the neon sign has to be removed. The application procedure beforehand also takes time, and we have to coordinate with different parties—the donor, contractors, and several government departments.
Chow: Time is really a complicating factor. As Bernadette mentioned, there are so many practical stages we have to go through. And often we have almost no advance notice: neon workers will come to me and tell me they are going to take down a sign tomorrow, asking if we want to collect it. But before collecting, we need to research the sign, discuss with the team to see how it fits with our existing collections, and go through a long acquisition process. So time constraints are truly challenging.
There are so many things we need to consider when deciding whether to collect a neon sign. Space limitations in both our exhibition galleries and storage facilities are a big factor. Some signs can be more than ten metres long, and we simply wouldn’t have the capacity in the future museum to showcase works of that size. We also don’t want to collect something and then just put it in storage, never to be seen by the public again. It’s not only about keeping the neon signs but also showcasing the stories and cultural context behind them.
What are the stories behind some of the neon signs that you were involved in collecting?
Chow: The first one I was involved in removing was the Sammy’s Kitchen neon sign. The owner remembered every step of the design process of the cow. He had worked in restaurants for a long time and was very familiar with the proportions of a whole cow. He based the design on an Angus cow. As such, it should have had shorter legs and a chubby body, but then the neon maker commented that it wouldn’t look like a cow from afar, so he decided to lengthen the legs.
When the cow was originally put up, it was very close to the building next to it. One apartment used to have a potted plant on the balcony. The plant was so close to the mouth of the cow that it looked like it was constantly eating the leaves. It’s these funny interactions that show how a neon sign can interact with their neighbourhoods in different ways. During the day of the removal, there was by coincidence a tiny little potted plant on that same balcony, so the owner felt like things came full circle. There are so many human touches associated with this cow.
Lai: The removal of the Shun Hing restaurant sign was special. This old restaurant had existed in the neighbourhood for eighty years. On the day that it closed, the family had a farewell gathering and documented the moment they switched off the light of the neon sign. On the removal day, the family wanted to witness the moment that it got taken down, but were unfortunately not able to come and have a look.
Because they missed the removal process, the family asked us if they could come to our storage facility and look at the sign there, because they knew it would be several years before it might go on display. The whole family—three generations—came to our storage space and took photos with the neon sign.
Registrars are always super excited when we examine an object and discover there are inscriptions, signatures, or other information relevant to its history. On this particular neon sign, we found a painted telephone number and the name of the company that made it, Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical. This was especially exciting for me, as I knew we already had a large archive of drawings by this manufacturer in the M+ Collections.
What is the importance of neon signs to Hong Kong visual culture?
Chow: Visual culture is about how objects around us become part of our lives. As an artifact, a neon sign involves artistic craftsmanship and graphic design elements. At the same time, it’s also a very iconic symbol, reflected in depictions of Hong Kong and reflective of our ways of seeing.
Recently, there has been another round of removals of neon signs. It is getting more and more difficult to keep the neon sign industry going. For me, it makes what we have done in the past few years feel more valuable, because we seized the chance to collect significant neon signs that captured people’s curiosity and to bring attention to the history behind them. In the coming years, I hope that we will be able to share the results of our efforts with the public, through showcasing the signs themselves, along with the archival material, and explain their importance to the cultural evolution of Hong Kong.
From time to time, people ask me how I envision neon signs’ presence in society in the future. I often use the example of vinyl records: They will never die completely; rather, they will continue to exist in society, but in different ways. Seeing neon signs being removed from the streets is sad, but there are multiple ways of preserving them beyond just keeping the physical objects. It’s also about preserving the intangible stories behind the signs.
Learn more about neon signs on NEONSIGNS.HK, M+’s online neon sign exhibition. As told to Ellen Oredsson. All images: M+, Hong Kong (unless otherwise indicated). This article was originally published on M+ Stories.