The neon lights of Hong Kong

I last visited Hong Kong at the very beginning of the Year of the Horse and here I am, 12 years later, in the same year but a different place. Back then, the city had been reunited with mainland China for only five years and it was struggling to find its new identity. Now, in 2014, the streets in the CBD are closed by student protests. The wheel of change is turning again.

To find out what Hong Kong thinks of itself, I made my way to the amazingly modern Museum of Art sitting on a new waterfront right beside the old Peninsula Hotel. The outside is decorated with posters of previous exhibitions, luring me inside to promised delights. Disappointingly, half of the building was closed for refurbishments so all I could look at was a visiting exhibition and the rooms dedicated to Hong Kong. I noted that I still had to pay the full entrance fee.

Some things never change or disappoint, however, and one is that Hong Kong always gives us a spectacular show of neon lights. Walking the streets at night always feels glamorous, exciting – and a little dangerous. Regular street lighting creates strong, multi-directional shadows that conceal dark corners down alleyways and behind the bushes in the park, but neon lights everything equally and leaves few hiding places. Neon lighting was first invented in the mid 1800s but only took off when it was exhibited at the Paris Motor Show in 1910. Now, it is used all over the world, with mostly Americans and Chinese having exploited it for street advertising.

Here in Hong Kong, the gaudy signs advertise businesses old and new. I like the old fashioned graceful curves of long established restaurants and all the beautiful Chinese calligraphy that seem to dance in the sky. Spring Deer Restaurant, the cow of Sammy’s Kitchen, Wah Fung Medicine Co and the Tai Phat Pawn Shop. Layer upon layer of sky signs recede into the distance turning the skyscape into a patchwork of layered symbols, writing and pictures. It is dazzling.

If you look across the harbor from the Star Ferry landing, you can witness the entire downtown Hong Kong skyline lit up, each tower block competing with the next to put on the best light show. You would think the reflection of all these lights would be dazzling in the evening waters, however, because it is one of the busiest harbors in the world, it’s rare for the waters to be still enough to perfectly reflect what’s above. All that neon and plasma does a great job of lighting up the clouds above, which glow pink and yellow against the night sky. The Peak, too, is gently illuminated and outlined with the twinkling highlights of apartment windows lit up for the evening.

Now that I am living in Vietnam, I will not leave it another 12 years before returning to the mystery and glamour of Hong Kong’s night lights.

Illustration by Bridget March