There are a thousand different things that make Hong Kong look like Hong Kong. Some are big, like the green mountains that disappear into banks of winter fog. Most are small: ceramic tiles, neon, red-white-blue fabric, grey roadside fences, rushing red taxis. Each of them is an element of the city’s DNA; taken together, they form the visual landscape that makes Hong Kong different to every other city in the world.
Some of those elements are more obvious—and more ubiquitous—than others. The red market lamp is one of them. Also known as a butcher’s lamp or an egg lamp, these red plastic lampshades are found in virtually every wet market and street side hawker stall, from butchers to fishmongers to purveyors of farm-fresh vegetables. They’ve also made their way into less traditional businesses, and even people’s homes and offices, valued as an unmistakable symbol of Hong Kong.
“It’s another one of those ‘HK originals,’” says Goods of Desire founder Douglas Young, who has replicated the red lamps in his miniature sculptures and repurposed them in art and design projects. He designed a special cluster device to attach multiple lampshades, which he uses in his office.
Independent design curator Jennifer Wong notes that, like so many emblems of Hong Kong, red lamps were conceived as utilitarian objects. “The butcher’s lamp went from being just a functional product design to a place marker, signalling the presence of a grocery shop, butcher’s stall, wet market, and, at this point, even the city itself,” she says.
Like so many aspects of Hong Kong’s vernacular culture, the precise origins of the red lamp are hard to trace. It was first introduced by Star Industrial, whose Red A Plastic brand has produced many classic objects, from cups and chairs to faux-crystal bowls and chandeliers; a number of them have been collected by M+. Wong made a video on Red A for the museum in 2017, but she didn’t have a chance to discuss the market lamps in detail.
So we reached out to Jessica Leung, who along with her sister Veronica is the third generation of the Leung family to run Star Industrial. Founded by their grandfather in 1949, the company is headquartered in San Po Kong, where it manufactures more than 1,700 products, from fly swatters to specialised medical equipment. The red lamps are “a top five product” in terms of online sales to consumers, she says. But in the grand scheme of things—including the business-to-business sales that are the bedrock of Red A’s business—“it’s not a big seller.” Leung says the company manufactures about 3,600 to 4,800 of the market lamps every year. “It’s still 100 percent made in Hong Kong.”
But the lamp’s origins are a bit mysterious, even for Leung. She says her grandfather told her it was adapted from a common British lampshade that was often found in hospitals and other public institutions. It first appeared in Red A’s catalogue in the late 1960s, available in two colours: red and white. The white version is rare, used mainly by pawnbrokers; white is generally an inauspicious colour in Hong Kong, as it is associated with funerals. But the red lamp quickly became ubiquitous. Hawkers liked it for the appetising red glow it cast over their food – fresh meat and eggs in particular.
Like many aspects of Hong Kong’s visual identity, the lamps went unacknowledged and unappreciated for many years. “When my grandfather produced it he wasn’t trying to make an icon for Hong Kong,” says Leung, who only recognised the significance of the lamps after years of living in the United States and Taiwan.
But an icon is exactly what they became. With the surge of interest in collective memory and local identity that began in the 2000s—fuelled by events like the fight to save the Central Star Ferry terminal from demolition, and nurtured by locally-inspired designers like Douglas Young—the red market lamp became seen as a symbol for Hong Kong. In 2011, an exhibition called Butcher’s Deluxe brought together 13 local and international designers to make variations of the lamp. Since then, it has become a go-to design object for anyone who wants to convey a sense of Hongkongness.
“I have a friend who is a lawyer and one time she told me she would like to order 20 of our lamps because she was redecorating her house,” says Leung. “I said, ‘Are you sure you want to have that in your house?’ And she said it’s very traditional but it can still mix and match with modern design. It’s something I had never thought about.”
These days, Leung takes pride in the way the lamps have become a symbol of Hong Kong identity. Although the lamps are also used in Macau, Shenzhen and other parts of the Pearl River Delta—mostly imitators made in mainland China rather than the Red A originals—nowhere are they as plentiful as Hong Kong. “Even M+ has them at its main entrance – not the exact same one, but inspired by it,” says Leung. “I’m happy to see them nowadays in places like museums, in people’s houses. I guess it’s become a legendary product.”