The neon lights of Hong Kong

In Cantonese, Mong Kok — where this scene was taken — means “busy meeting place”. “This market is at the heart of Mong Kok, one of the busiest places in the world. Thousands of people pass through every day, and the density of neon in this area is quite high.”

Mong Kok melee

Hong Kong has been called the city that never sleeps, and it’s a phrase embodied by the imposing neon lights that illuminate its streets until long after nightfall. “Neon signs are a trademark of Hong Kong’s streets and cityscape. They are deeply rooted in the visual culture here,” says photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze, who relocated to Hong Kong from his native France to shoot the brightly lit cityscape.

But when the government deemed these neon lights unsafe and illegal, a process began of systematically phasing out these signs and replacing them with regular LED lights or illuminated banners. When the West Kowloon Cultural District (M+ museum) launched a crowd-sourcing project to gather photos of these neon signs in March 2014, Jacquet-Lagrèze heard about it. “I got quite hooked by it,” he says of the interactive exhibit that would celebrate these cultural icons on the brink of extinction. “On top of that, M+ contacted me to take some photos that could become the [leading] photos of the project.” He commenced work in the spring of 2014, and has been shooting neon signs since then.

Jacquet-Lagrèze is passionate about the project, and it shows in the photos on these pages. First introduced to the former British colony in the 1930s, the art of neon sign-making was perfected by specialists who welded and burned glass pipes into unlikely shapes that came to life with electricity. “Neon signs require a lot of expertise and craftsmanship,” says the photographer. “They are all handmade by Hong Kong neon masters. The glowing part of the neon is put inside a glass tube that is shaped following very complicated patterns, like traditional Chinese characters for example.”

While there is no stopping the government’s plan to phase out these neon signs, Jacquet-Lagrèze’s enthusiasm shows no sign of waning. “I see these signs as a record of what used to make Hong Kong so unique visually,” he says. Through his photographs, he hopes to preserve the memory of the city’s bright lights for many generations to come.

Above: Taking this photo in Hong Kong’s red-light district required some derring-do. “It was actually quite challenging to create, as I had to put my camera and tripod in the middle of the street, with many cars passing,” recalls Jacquet-Lagrèze. “I had to find the perfect timing, between two cars, to accomplish the shot. On top of that, a bunch of suspicious-looking people stared at me while I was taking the photo.”
Above: Taking this photo in Hong Kong’s red-light district required some derring-do. “It was actually quite challenging to create, as I had to put my camera and tripod in the middle of the street, with many cars passing,” recalls Jacquet-Lagrèze. “I had to find the perfect timing, between two cars, to accomplish the shot. On top of that, a bunch of suspicious-looking people stared at me while I was taking the photo.”
Above: This is one of Jacquet- Lagrèze’s favorite photos, which depicts the traditional pawn-shop neon sign. “Since it is a close-up, we can see the details and imagine the work the craftsman put into it. The Chinese character looks like some kind of calligraphy art. On top of that, we see all kinds of colors with the other neon sign of a sauna in the background, so it’s a good representation of the vivid colors of Hong Kong’s streets.”
Above: This is one of Jacquet- Lagrèze’s favorite photos, which depicts the traditional pawn-shop neon sign. “Since it is a close-up, we can see the details and imagine the work the craftsman put into it. The Chinese character looks like some kind of calligraphy art. On top of that, we see all kinds of colors with the other neon sign of a sauna in the background, so it’s a good representation of the vivid colors of Hong Kong’s streets.”

 

This very tall neon sign — located along Tung Choi Street in Mong Kok — hangs quite far from the building wall. “The government said it might be a danger for pedestrians or cars, and is actually one of the reasons the government used to eliminate most of the neon signs in Hong Kong.”
Above: This very tall neon sign — located along Tung Choi Street in Mong Kok — hangs quite far from the building wall. “The government said it might be a danger for pedestrians or cars, and is actually one of the reasons the government used to eliminate most of the neon signs in Hong Kong.”

Also read: 9 unique experiences to try in Hong Kong

This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Smile magazine.

Photographed by

Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze

Written by

Maya Calica-Collins

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