The ubiquitous neon signs of Hong Kong lighting up the nightscape is just as iconic as the city’s skyline. The golden age of neon signs boomed from the 1950s through to the 1980s, when consumerism was abound and there were no governmental restrictions on sizes for such advertising formats. All shops that could afford them wanted an eye-catching neon ad hanging out over the street to lure in visitors, and the craftsmen simply made them as big as their clients requested. And boy, did they try to outdo each other. Getting ever taller and bigger, these chaotically beautiful signs loudly and proudly announced all types of businesses, from restaurants, pawnshops, and nightclubs to hotels, pharmacies, and mahjong parlours.
Neon signs are a vital part of what made Hong Kong the glittering ‘Pearl of the Orient’. Aside from being firmly embedded in our culture and collective memories, the warm fuzzy glow of the city has inspired and been featured in iconic films, such as the classic Blade Runner and our own masterpiece Chungking Express.
However, this indelible part of local history is being eradicated at an alarming rate due to safety regulations and the resulting government crackdown on outdoor structures, so neon is increasingly being replaced by more energy-efficient LED signs. According to the M+ exhibition on neon signs, the government has removed 3,000 noncompliant signboards a year since 2006. Here are some of Hong Kong’s best outdoor and indoor neon signs, both old and new. Be sure to catch the ones that are still around before the lights are dimmed on them forever.
In 1962, Japanese home appliance brand, National, installed a neon sign occupying nearly the entire side of a building along Nathan Road. Eight years later, this was replaced with an even more humongous National Panasonic neon sign, this time spanning the entire building front. Unsurprisingly, it held the Guinness World Record for the world’s largest neon sign in that decade. Panasonic’s neon presence has since been relocated to the top of Wan Chai’s Elizabeth House in the brand’s blue font. Nowadays, Nathan Road is much more subdued in terms of decorations, and the handful of neon signs to look out for include Chi Kee Seafood Restaurant, Japanese City Karaoke Night Club, and the famous Koon Nam Wah Bridal.
Wan Chai’s Lockhart Road was mainly a red light district, and no other neon sign showcased this as much as Suzie Wong Topless Club. Ostentatiously wrapped around the roof structure, this neon sign was brazen in its message of drunken debauchery. Lockhart Road is now a lot less seedy and is mainly filled with pubs catering to beer-bellied, sports-watching white folk, but happily still retains some of its neon signs. Look out for the ones belonging to San Francisco Club, Crazy Horse Club, Coyote, and various mahjong parlours. Come out from MTR exit C and stroll under these lights at night, or exit from A2 and gaze out over it all from the overpass above.
This iconic three-by-four-metre neon cow has hung over 204–206 Queen’s Road West since 1977, bathing the corner where Sheung Wan turns into Sai Ying Pun in its soft green glow. Unfortunately, it was dismantled in 2014 due to its size but was quickly acquired by M+ Museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District (and the 1976 Kai Kee Mahjong sign featuring a rooster soon joined them). The restaurant itself was facing closure in 2017, but managed to defy the odds and remains in business today, though their iconic neon cow is no more.
Tung Choi Street is always crowded in the daytime, but by night, the neon glow manages to soften the jarring hustle and bustle, covering the whole area in a nostalgic vibe. Though significantly lessened when compared to its heyday, the streets are still lined with neon signs proclaiming restaurants, pharmacies, hair salons, and nightclubs. Paired with the throngs of red minibuses milling around and a little imagination, you can still catch a glimpse of what it would have looked like in the 1970s. We recommend going onto Tung Choi Street overpass to view them.
One of Hong Kong’s oldest cafés, Mido sits on Temple Street right next to the Tin Hau Temple. Its two-storey-tall neon sign is minimalist compared to a lot of other flashy designs—a simple red font bordered with green for readability—but paired with the curved wall of the cafe, the mosaic-tiled interiors, metal latticework, and window frames, it makes for an absolutely nostalgic and romantic scene. This very vibe has been featured in the movie Moonlight Express; we weren’t kidding when we said you’ll feel as if you’re in a Wong Kar-wai film.
Taking over Boca’s space a couple of years ago, 65 Peel doesn’t try too hard in terms of interior design, preferring to let their nibbles and drinks speak for themselves, but we do love that they’ve incorporated neon signs in their aesthetic. Their tongue-in-cheek Chinese name 何蘭正 is hilarious to locals because the words phonetically sound like “so f*cking awesome” in Cantonese. This pun is proudly displayed above their door in neon, while one of the walls inside is decked out with four words that proclaim “Gweilo herbal tea”—a nod to how Hongkongers refer to beer as the Western equivalent of Chinese cooling herbal drinks.