Hong Kong loves lights. It loves shopping. And it loves any excuse to celebrate. So naturally enough, Christmas is a big deal here – and a very visible one. Every year, the city’s skyline enters into a yuletide frenzy of dancing Santas and blinking baubles.
All over the city, blinking Christmas trees are erected in shopping malls and apartment building lobbies. District councils sponsor enthusiastic (if geographically misguided) displays of penguins dressed in Santa hats and snowmen unperturbed by the weather, which may be chilly by local standards but certainly not those of the North Pole. These neighbourhood decorations range wildly in style, from plastic inflatables in Sham Shui Po to a pair of gold reindeer standing proudly over the nullah in Wong Chuk Hang.
But few parts of Hong Kong can match the enthusiasm of Tsim Sha Tsui East. For the past 35 years, the busy entertainment district has decked itself out in the city’s most extravagant Christmas lights. When the display was first unveiled in 1982, it was a symbol of an ascendant city with a booming economy and a newly robust middle class.
“It was a family thing,” recalls food blogger Kelvin Ho. Every year, he went with his parents to enjoy a Christmas buffet in TST East, after which they wandered around to admire the lights. They even spent the night at the Shangri-La or the Holiday Inn to more fully appreciate the spectacle.
Interior designer Keith Chan remembers seeing the lights every year. “[We went] both on foot and in my dad’s car – people drove slowly along the seaside.”
Hong Kong’s tradition of Christmas lights goes back to the 1950s, when property owners around Statue Square in Central and Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui strung up festive lights in December. The seasonal lights eventually became a way for developers to promote their new buildings.
The Landmark, which opened in Central in the late 1970s, had a particularly exuberant display. On Christmas Day in 1981, so many people came to admire the lights around Chater Road it led to a riot when a car hit a pedestrian as it tried to force its way through the crowds. Some angry onlookers began torching and overturning vehicles, which led the government to tamp down on the Central decorations.
That opened a door for the developers of TST East to shift the Christmas action across the harbour. The master-planned district had recently been built on land reclaimed from the harbour, and in 1982, property owner Sino Land commissioned a local electrician named Terence Wong to string up a colourful Christmas display on one of its buildings. Since the building had a curtain glass wall, there wasn’t anywhere to attach light bulbs, so Wong fixed them to wires and strung them like a canopy across the façade.
The display was such a hit that Wong was encouraged to devise even more elaborate displays. He soon came up with the idea of creating a grid of wires so he could firmly attach thousands of bulbs arranged to look like snowmen, angels and Christmas trees. By 1984, the display was drawing more than 80,000 people at a time. A few years later, the crowds had swelled to 500,000 people.
TST East helped turn Wong into Hong Kong’s so-called “King of Lights.” His company, Shun Sze, now creates illuminated Christmas displays for Harbour City, Admiralty Centre and Sun Hung Kai Centre, alongside the buildings of TST East. While he previously used hand-painted tungsten bulbs that needed to be discarded after each holiday season, he recently switched to reusable, energy-efficient LEDs produced at his own factory in mainland China. He has also installed video screens on some buildings like Tsim Sha Tsui Centre in TST East.
“The new lights are more complicated,” says Wong. LEDs are computer controlled, but remote signals often encounter interference when they are trying to reach the top of a 50-storey building. That can lead to malfunctions. “Light bulbs are easy – you just plug them in,” laughs Wong.
The lights don’t draw the same crowds they used to. “People didn’t have as much to do in the past,” he says. “Now there are many shopping centres and they all have their own decorations. It’s everywhere.”
But Wong is still busy. This year, he made displays for about 20 buildings. His designer Edmond Wong begins by offering each client three prospective designs. Some companies prefer religious displays, like Sun Hung Kai, whose building is decorated with the Three Wise Men. (The company is controlled by the evangelical Christian Kwok family.) Others, like mainland-owned Citic Pacific, prefer a more neutral “Season’s Greetings.”
It takes about 100 workers a month to install the lights, which cost up to HK$300,000 per building. The displays stay up until early January, when they are replaced with decorations for the upcoming Chinese New Year.
But that doesn’t mean the lights have to be completely taken down. In many cases, the difference between Christmas and Chinese New Year is just a few details. “They change from Santa to the God of Wealth,” notes Keith Chan. It’s still the same character – only instead of a pointy red cap with a white pom pom, he is now wearing a red hat with gold wings. The lights shine on and the celebration continues.