The Urban and Cultural Imagery of Neon

“Let it be light,” God said. It was only very recently that humans were able to use kerosene as a way to lighten their urban spaces. Kerosene lamps were first seen in streets, arcades, and on bridges throughout cities in the West only in the early nineteenth century. It would be another century until the “urban coloring,” or the dawning, of this new form of color. In 1898 scientists discovered neon. It is colorless and smells less gas that emits light red when injected in electrified vacuum tubs. The term “neon” was then translated into Chinese partially as a loanword. Intense color beaming under all weather conditions, neon lights quickly became popular in the city. It was used as logos in the commercial advertising and as navigation beacons on the air and water. The first neon signs were installed in Paris’s hair salons and opera houses in 1910. The neon sign was first introduced in Los Angeles in the 1920s. Then it spread quickly throughout America, resulting in spectacular neon scapes in Times Square in New York and The Strip in Las Vegas in the 1930s and ’40s. This was also the era when neon light became popular in East Asia. In modernizing metropolises Shanghai (and Tokyo) were the first to adopt the trend, while Hong Kong followed the example of Tokyo and Tokyo by the 1950s. The combination of Western technology, square-block Chinese logograms, and rainbow colors began to be reflected in our city’s night sky. Technology’s history is worthy of a separate essay. In this essay, I will explore the cultural images of the neon sign as artistic texts and urbanscapes.

A City’s Evening Makeup

Imagine the city as a night sky with a variety of colors, or as a woman applying her evening make-up. The bright yellow lights at night are the city’s foundation. The city’s neon signs for sale are bright and vibrant and represent its extravagant make-up. Neon is a pillar of the city’s signboard-lined streets, covering every place where people are active. Hong Kong, an urban spectacle unlike any other, has been decorated with stunning make-up for nearly 50 years.

The neon sign may seem to be a sign of prosperity or it could simply be a lure to attract urbanites.

Many businesses use neon signs in Hong Kong. Too many to mention. However, the image of the neon sign (or its symbolism) is often a marker of prosperity or resplendence, particularly when it is set against the jet-black skies. Even though the city is alive at night with the neon sign, it does not seem to be a stage where nocturnal creatures can escape from their caves. The neon sign may be the visual cue that urbanites seek to attract their prosperity, or the sign itself is the lure to their desire. Capitalist society rests on city dwellers’ desire for consumption. “The City That Never Sleeps” is thus synonymous with “The City of Desire”. This is why neon is the best type of lighting to illuminate a city. The combination of dazzle and desire is what made New York Times Square a perfect setting for faceless loners like Travis Bickle, and Robert De Niro as taxi drivers. That divided the night The mentality, as well as the materiality, of the city, is constantly changing.

Under the neon lights, there’s dejection. But beneath the radiant glow, there’s loneliness. And there’s always a hint of desire. These varied representations can be found in the local literature, music, and movies. There are many other notable examples. Eileen Chang has written Love from a Fallen City (1943). Bai Liusu, a female protagonist, docks with Hong Kong for the first time. Chang describes Bai’s obsession over the collision colors of shop signage reflected in the blue-green waters. Chang does not depict neon signs. While I don’t have any way to know when the neon sign became a distinct imagery in Hong Kong literature, it can be said that it first appeared in Cao Juren’s 1952 novel The Hotel. The story takes place in 1949. This was the year the Chinese Communist Party won control of the mainland. Cao tells us how the young male spotted the neon sign that said “Ching Wah Ballroom”. The novel’s title describes a lust-filled hotel on Nathan Road. Neon signs have been a fixture in Hong Kong for many years. Liu Yichang’s The Drunkard (1963), begins with a writer visiting a nightclub and chatting up the sexy servers. Liu writes: ‘Not all people on the street are brave souls. Especially in the neon thickets. But the innocents are few.’ This scene is evoked by Liu’s writing.

A cluster of illuminated neon signs is found on building facades along Nathan Road, in the 1960s. Source: Old Hong Kong Photos

Cinematic World. Aesthetics.

You can see how the custom neon sign, a prominent landmark of Hong Kong’s urban streetscape can be found in any Hong Kong film. Wong Karwai’s Tears Go By (1998), Chungking Express ( 1994), and Fallen Angels ( 1995) are three examples of artistic adaptations of the neon-lit urban backdrop. Clifton Ko’s Devoted to You (1986), however, is my favorite example in terms of artistic execution and visual intention. The two high school classmates May Lo, a wealthy girl, and Rachel Lee are in a relationship with Jacky Cheung, a Canadian university student, and Michael Wong the biker-gangster. Lee and Wong have a passionate kissing scene. Wong is set against a massive bright-red TDK neon signboard. The scene, which lasts less than two minutes and ends when the neon signboard turns black, contrasts well with Lo and Cheung’s rendezvous scene set under the soft lighting of the Charter Garden fountain. In the film, neon lighting is used to create a mood of blazing passion, especially red.

Lee and Wong have arranged an intimate scene in front of a large neon signboard indicating “TDK”, which is located in Clifton Ko’s Devoted to You. This contrasts with the dark corner where Lee and Wong hug each other, against the skyline of rooftop antennas. All Rights Reserved

Legends of the Fallen City. Urban Nocturnes

Cantopop: The word ‘neon’ is frequently used in the lyrics of popular songs such as Jacky’s Loving Each Other. Jacky Cheung said that ‘Each & every light The city’s bustle and bustle finally quiets down. The city’s hustle and bustle finally quiets down. At best, neon lights are only seen in passing, such as in the 1980s classic Streaks and Rain’ written by Hacken L., and Shadow Dance created by Alex To. Recent hits include One Night City (2011), by Ken Hung. Mavishee’s The Fallen City’ is the only one I’ll always remember. As the neon lights turn off, the world is left forlorn. Even the most stunning neon sign is going to burn out eventually and even the most touching tunes will be over. It’s difficult to tell if the song is about a romance or the fate of a city.

Another memorable song that I listened to growing up was Tat Ming Pair. ‘It’s A Starry Night’. The title begins with a neon reference. ‘Neon light shines through the night, As one drives through the streets, lights flash past. The feeling of cold, and bleakness is still present despite the incandescent glitters. A child in despair wishes for the darkness and silence of midnight more than ever. The song’s final few lines show the bustling metropolis as a snap: “Please take a last look at this glittering city. MTV’s version of the song, released in 1987 by Keith Chan, is memorable because it features the lead vocalists, wearing black clothes and shades, weaving in traffic along neon-lit streets, such as Nathan Road.

At its best, neon lights appear in cameos…

Soft Disappearance and Gradual Transition

Every golden age has its downfall, just like Walter Benjamin saw ghostly ruins amid capitalism’s peak. Any trend product from the city will undoubtedly age as the decades go by. The dust that has collected on the neon signs above retailers selling bird’s nests or herbal tea and longjohns, as well as pawn shops and mahjong parlors, old-style Steakhouses, and nightclubs, is a sign of this. Wanchai’s Lockhart Road displays titillating neon signs, reminiscent of Suzie Wang’s time on overseas leave. These neon signs are like a dying woman. Even though they lack the necessary maintenance, they still have their charm. Some of them have been retired, but others are still in use. The iconic Yue Hwa Chinese Products Emporium sign is one example. Some shops are equipped with both neon-lit and LED Neon Signs. This allows for the display of generational succession. McDonald’s clearly distinguishes the old from the new, with the neon signs featuring red and yellow lighting. While the new signage features standard-issue yellow lights and white spotlights, others, like McDonald’s, do the same. Although the neon sign was a symbol of hope and nostalgia for many years, it has become a lost art. Although signs are still plentiful on the streets of Hong Kong, it is too early to declare that Hong Kong has lost its neon light. Because disappearance is a gradual transition, it can take several years. It will not be easy for the neon sign to go extinct after its historical mission is complete.

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