It’s five o’clock in Sham Shui Po and the district’s signs are beginning to flicker on – a pawn shop here, a sauna there, big metal structures that reach into the middle of the street, bathing their surroundings in a soft neon glow. At Wontonmeen, a coffee shop, hostel and creative cluster on Lai Chi Kok Road, Tiffany Tang sits beneath another neon sign, this one reading “Vacancy.”
“Sham Shui Po is our favourite neighbourhood,” says Tang, sipping on a cappuccino.
Tang works for Urban Discovery, a heritage advocacy group that develops the iDiscover series of walking tour apps for some of Hong Kong’s most fascinating areas. The tours are normally self-guided, but this weekend, architect and prolific Instagrammer Kevin Mak will be leading a walk around Sham Shui Po to investigate the district’s distinctive signs.
It may be one of the last chances you get to see them. “The rate they are disappearing is huge,” says Tang. A new government crackdown on illegal signboards has seen thousands of them removed over the past few years, including iconic signs like the giant neon cow that once advertised Jimmy’s Kitchen in Sai Ying Pun. Some of these signs have been collected by the M+ museum of visual culture, which mounted an online exhibition on Hong Kong’s neon in 2014, but many more have vanished without a trace.
This despite the fact that, more than any one building or style of architecture, Hong Kong is best known around the world for its unique signscape. The signs have provided inspiration to many films, perhaps the most memorable of which is the 1995 Japanese animé Ghost in the Shell, whose dystopian future setting is a barely-concealed take on Hong Kong. The loss of these signs is remarkable enough to have caught the addition of the New York Times, which reported on the trend last year.
Much of the attention has focused on neon, but other types of signboards are vanishing, too, which is something that Tang hopes to illustrate with the tour. One of the first destinations will be Tai Nan Street, which is known for its cluster of workshop signs, which traditionally consist of red Chinese characters on a white background, with one panel per character. “If you take a photo of Tai Nan Street, people will recognise it just from the signs,” says Tang.
But most of those signs have been removed over the past year. “[It] had been a very popular spot among the Instagram community,” says Mak. “I simply didn’t recognize Tai Nan Street anymore when I re-visited the street a month ago. It looks no different from any other street in Kowloon without the old signboards.”
The reason for the loss is simple. When they were first erected in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, most of the signs were never authorised by the government; they were just a portion of the huge number of illegal works undertaken by Hongkongers to make the city’s utilitarian concrete buildings more functional. Since the handover in 1997, the government has stepped up enforcement against illegal structures, stripping buildings of metal window boxes, rooftop structures and awnings.
Shop signs are the latest structures to face the scrutiny of the Buildings Department. But inspection does not necessarily lead to removal. Even if they were installed without authorisation, it’s possible for signboards be officially approved if they meet a number of requirements, including a maximum length of four metres. Such approval comes at a price, however: shopowners must hire a contractor approved by the government to inspect the sign and recommend improvements.
“It is cheaper to have it removed than to get [Buildings Department] paper,” says Patricia Choi, who owns Wontonmeen. She was able to install her neon sign because it is small enough to avoid the need for authorisation, but anything bigger would have cost more than she could afford. Choi blames the crackdown on local media reports about the dangers posed by overhead signs. “They ran surveys asking people whether they should be demolished and most said yes based on safety reasons,” she says.
That pragmatic attitude seems to be shared by many Hongkongers. Tang was walking along Tai Nan Street recently, taking photos of the remaining signs, when a shopowner asked her what she was doing. “I told him the signs aren’t there anymore, and then he looked up and yes, ‘Oh yes, they are gone!’ Then he added, ‘Okay la, they are useless anyway.’ It’s so heartbreaking to hear that they don’t even care. It’s intangible cultural heritage. It’s not just a sign – it’s part of what Hong Kong means.”
“For me, the cultural value lost by taking down an old signage is the same as taking down a heritage building,” says Kevin Mak. He mentions that his grandmother never went to school, so her reading material was limited to what she saw in the streets on her way to work. “She learnt [how] to read and write Chinese by studying signboards,” he says.
In an architectural sense, Mak considers the signs even more important to Hong Kong’s identity than most of its buildings. “Hong Kong is not a city that’s most famous for its individual architecture, but [for] the characteristics of every single element on the street,” he says. Whether you are in Ngau Tau Kok or North Point, most buildings look the same; what distinguishes each neighbourhood is the detritus of human activity that accumulates on each building like barnacles on a hull of a ship.
“I love the informality of signboard arrangement in Hong Kong,” says Mak. “They seem to be very random, but are in fact erected in a way that’s visually coordinated to maximise their exposure for commercial needs. Their density and the way that they occupy the sky adds a lot more vibrancy to our streetscapes in a three-dimensional way that cannot be found in any other parts of the world.”
Many of the older signs are forged by neon craftsmen or painted by master calligraphers, which gives them a handmade aesthetic far removed from the mass-produced LED or backlit plastic signs that replace them. That aesthetic has drawn the interest of new businesses like Wontonmeen, Ping Pong 129 in Sai Ying Pun and Tai Lung Fung in Wan Chai, all of which have commissioned new neon signs from old masters.
But those signs are modest in scale, and while they may help perpetuate the work of master signmakers, they won’t do much to maintain the distinct look of Hong Kong’s streets. This isn’t the first time Hong Kong’s cityscape has changed beyond recognition: before the 1960s, the streets were dominated by vertical signs painted on the columns of the city’s shophouses. Those columns have disappeared, along with the shophouses. Now the signboards may do the same.
Urban Discovery’s tour of Sham Shui Po will take place this Sunday 13 March, 2016. Click here for more information.