Neon signs witness the history of
Hong Kong

says Brian Kwok from PolyU’s School of Design, June 2021

Hong Kong has been renowned for its night scenery for many years, and one of the reasons is undoubtedly the neon signs that have lighted up the city in the evening. Brian Kwok, Associate Professor at the School of Design of PolyU, who is particularly interested in the neon signs, will share more about his research project on this subject.

Brian had his training in visual communication design in the United States, after which he worked in various multimedia design firms and advertising agencies. He then pursued further studies and obtained an MA degree in Design from PolyU and an MA degree in Visual Culture Studies and an MPhil degree in Communication from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Brian started his teaching career at PolyU in 2006 and he is now the leader of the BA (Hons) in Communication Design programme and the Information Design Lab.

Neon signs tell the history of Hong Kong

Brian started the research project on Hong Kong neon signs in 2016. One of the team’s critical tasks was to photo-document the neon signs that could still be found in different districts in Hong Kong. While neon light manufacturing is a sunset industry in Hong Kong, the team managed to interview some neon masters and visited the neon light manufactories.

“Surprisingly, we were lucky to discover about 1,000 original neon sign artworks in one of the local neon light manufactories! These artworks were all hand-painted and are still in good condition, and more importantly, they have never been seen by the public,” Brian said.

The owner of the neon light manufactory was very supportive and donated all the artworks to the School of Design for educational and research purposes. Subsequently, these artworks have been documented, categorised and digitised in a neon sign artwork archive.

The fabulous thing about this batch of neon sign artworks lies in their quantity, originality and completeness. These artworks have more than 60 years of history, and are therefore very rare and precious. Each piece of these artworks was drawn by hand. That is to say, the neon artists visualised the clients’ ideas and concepts all by hand, unlike using a computer nowadays.

Brian said, “These artworks are an invaluable reference for studying Hong Kong's design and visual arts history. Besides, these artworks can also give a peek into Hong Kong's social, economic and cultural development in the past. Thus, my attempt is to explore more interesting Hong Kong stories and unique local visual culture from these artworks, exploring and examining the interrelationship between the aesthetics of neon signs and the development of local industries.”