Hong Kong’s Ghost Signs: The Toxic Legacy of Cigarette Ads

In this unsentimental city, ghost signs give the briefest of glimpses into the past, flattering it with the soft focus of nostalgia. It is easy to question how anybody could treat these treasures with so little care if one forgets that the past was never ideal. Ghost signs can reveal far more complex truths.

Fading in the sun and obscured by trees, one ghost sign haunts a monolithic warehouse standing by the side of Shek Pai Road in Tin Wan. Motorists might catch a glimpse of the ghost proffering a gargantuan pack of cigarettes before receding into the rear view. This ghost sign is all that remains of a massive tobacco advertisement for Good Companion Cigarettes, its faded colours a reminder of a recent but startlingly different past. 

The Good Companion ghost sign is just one example of the legions of tobacco advertisements that once plastered Hong Kong. Normally noted for its idiosyncratic style and humanity, the loss of hand painted signage should be a cause to mourn. Not so for painted tobacco advertising, a vestige from a darker time. It was removed intentionally and, unusually, we can actually identify who excised it.

The Hing Wai Ice & Cold Storage Co. Ltd. building, Aberdeen, with a ghost sign of Good Companion Cigarettes. February 2023. Photo by Ben Marans.

Dr. Judith Mackay sits at her dining table, flanked by a quartet of winsome coquettes, glancing over bare shoulders and batting their eyelashes. These painted beauties, elegantly draped in silk qipao and pearls, are the subjects of antique cigarette advertisements. The strategy and underlying message is one that the tobacco industry abides by to this day in associating cigarettes with sophistication, beauty and youth. Displayed as one might hunting trophies or the captured arms of vanquished foes, these posters are a nod to Mackay’s life work as an advocate for tobacco control.  

“They had different themes but often they were things like sports, people on ski slopes, clear blue skies, macho rugged guys,” she says. “With women they were always glamorous and slim with lots of friends. It’s always those same concepts and images.”

Mackay arrived in Hong Kong in the midst of the 1967 riots, and she began her working life here as a civilian medical practitioner at the Kai Tak Army Clinic. After taking up positions at Queen Mary Hospital, she eventually moved on to Kwun Tong’s United Christian Hospital in 1976. “Our wards were filled with people with late stage illnesses like incurable chronic bronchitis, stroke, heart disease and cancer,” she recalls. “They were usually coming in too late for any kind of cure.” 

The throughline between these patients was painfully clear and would set the doctor on a path that she continues to this day. “They were all smokers. I came to realise that health in Hong Kong would never be improved by curative medicine, so I made an ideological change to preventive health. I [also] got involved in women’s health. I came to realise that tobacco was killing more women than every method of birth control combined and the tobacco industry was marketing to, no, targeting women. Women and children – new markets.”

In 1979, Mackay began a series of columns about women’s health in the South China Morning Post on topics ranging from menopause to cancer with two devoted to the harmfulness of tobacco and proposing a ban on tobacco advertising, an unthinkable proposition at the time given how normalised it was. “I can’t even think of a place where there wasn’t tobacco advertising, to tell the truth. It was absolutely everywhere. On buildings, on the Star Ferry, outside schools.” 

With profits waning in Europe and America, the tobacco industry had set its sights on Asia and Mackay’s articles triggered what she calls the “scream test.” “If the industry screams [about something I’ve done] it must be worth my doing it,” she says with a laugh. “They scream about tax, they scream about ad bans and promotion bans.” 

Multinational tobacco giant British American Tobacco was first to rise to the bait and inadvertently inspired Mackay to fully commit to her cause. “They published a booklet about the anti-tobacco movement in Hong Kong, which was just me at the time,” says Mackay. “They wrote that the anti-tobacco movement was unreliable whereas they, the tobacco industry, were the best reliable source on tobacco and that it had never been proved that tobacco is harmful to health. I was so outraged at this that I just left hospital medicine and moved to full time [tobacco control work] in 1984.” The notorious Dr. Mackay would soon become known and feared by the entire tobacco industry and its supporters.

“They called me every name you can imagine. They’ve likened me to Hitler and to a jihadist. I’ve twice been threatened with lawsuits by the industry that came to nothing. The Secretary for Security offered me 24-hour protection, but I said no.” Tobacco control would bring Mackay across the world, from the Indonesia to North Korea. “I’ve worked with communists and kings. If they’re having problems with tobacco, those problems and the harm to health are the same.” 

With travel came risks and wherever she went to advise and testify, alerts went out to ensure that she would be turned back or that her luggage would be lost. “I met a whistleblower from the Philippines [who warned me],” she says. “I said that I only travelled with hand luggage.” His reply was ominous: “We know.”  The International Tobacco Information Center, an international tobacco lobbying organisation better known as INFOTAB, once named Mackay one of the three most dangerous people in the world. “I was terribly proud of that,” she says.

Today, the most effective tool in curbing tobacco uptake is effective taxation policy, but in the 1980s and 90s there was another problem – advertising. “It was absolutely everywhere. All over Hong Kong all these advertisements showing all Western women. Glamorous, slim. Absolute icons.” The tobacco industry’s mantra has always been that advertising  was for targeting middle aged smokers so that they might switch brands, not for enticing non smokers. “It was simply not true,” says Mackay. “Look at their advertising. They were all trendy young people and women.” 

Until a Broadcasting Review Board ban in 1990, Hong Kong television was lousy with cigarette advertising. “They were in every gap in every single program. I’m not even exaggerating,” says Mackay, who gives praise where it is due, conceding to the quality and guile of these ads. “Boy, they were good advertisements. They were an iconic sight. The Marlborough cowboys galloping all over the place, drummers on the Great Wall for Chinese New Year. They were absolutely surreal.”

Then there were the arts and sporting events which pulled in thousands of spectators and tens of thousands more in broadcast. “There was the Salem Open, of course – they got people like Pat Cash and Michael Chang.” Chang, an American tennis star of Chinese descent, was a hero to Hong Kongers who saw in him a bit of themselves. “We got TVB to interview children,” says Mackay. “10 to 12 year olds. We asked them ‘Do you know what cigarettes Michael Chang smokes?’ Every one of them said Salem. Now, Michael Chang didn’t smoke. He was a healthy young guy, but the association he portrayed in Hong Kong was very harmful. We gave him a very hard time and he had to put in a disclaimer that he didn’t smoke and that he didn’t support it.” 

It took years to denormalise smoking, with many of Mackay’s efforts culminating in the Smoking (Public Health) Ordinance and its subsequent amendments. Tobacco regulation was initially met with resistance from many sectors, and to realise reforms, Mackay and her colleagues worked tirelessly to counter disinformation put in place by the tobacco industry. Often, solutions lay in the simple matter of profit. 

When we banned smoking in restaurants and bars, the tobacco industry arranged a study saying that a ban would cause the loss of 19,000 jobs and billions of dollars. I got the tax returns of [many] restaurants and bars the month before the ban and then got the same two years later. Profit had gone up 32 percent. Restaurants did much better after the ban because people went more with children, they stayed longer, they bought more food or just enjoyed it better.” 

When regulation on tobacco advertising was enacted, Mackay did much the same in assuring media outlets that they would not lose advertising revenue. “In the very early days, you never went from full advertising to no advertising in one step. We banned it progressively until the ads [would show only after] 10:30 [pm]. Then it came off television entirely. Then we put pack warnings on cigarettes.” These warnings extended to the painted adverts that used to dominate entire buildings.

“[The tobacco industry] is very careful to come right up to the red line. As far as the law goes,” says Mackay with a wry smile. “They never break the letter of the law but they certainly never respect the spirit of the law.” 

In response to Mackay’s efforts, a niche advertising specialty arose to circumvent regulations. “They were very clever about it,” she says. “They’d have a six-storey high advertisement and would hide the warning right at the bottom so you couldn’t see it. There were trees and railings. Something to obstruct it. When we said the warning had to occupy 10 percent of the area, we got 10 percent, but it was painted grey on grey or the writing would be so small you couldn’t see it. We had to specify that the characters had to be so high and so wide. That they had to be black and white so that you could actually see them.” 

There was, however, one instance in which Mackay wholeheartedly approved a tobacco advert. “They had this massive advertisement on the side of a funeral parlour at the mouth of the Cross Harbour Tunnel, so I wrote in to the South China Morning Post that at last the tobacco industry was advertising in the right place.”

Furrowing her brow, Mackay turns her steely gaze to the photograph of the Good Companion Cigarette ghost sign. “It’s very difficult to get rid of these vestiges of tobacco advertising,” she says, rising from her chair and going to her computer. 

Her screen lights up with terabytes of tobacco advertising – a personal archive of photos and videos that Mackay has taken and recorded personally. There amongst the grinning models, cowboys and blue skies is an image of Sai Kung’s town centre, almost indistinguishable from modern day but for the cigarette ads audaciously painted several storeys high. To the right sits a Good Companion sign, pristine and freshly painted. It is a jarring sight, leading one to ponder if perhaps it might be worth hanging on to one or two examples of these enormous tobacco adverts, if only as an aid to foster discussion. A reference to say, “Can you believe the way things used to be?”

Despite her past successes, Mackay is not content simply to look back. Now a Senior Policy Advisor to the World Health Organisation, she has turned her attention to vaping and heated tobacco products. “It’s the same,” she explains. “They say it’s to get middle aged smokers off cigarettes, but the advertising is all trendy young people going to gigs and things.” The vestiges of tobacco advertising live on in subtle forms to push new products. The insidious use of social media to embed messaging makes painted signage look positively quaint but in the face of these new threats, Mackay remains resolute. 

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