Hong Kong’s Skyline Icons: Rooftop Billboards

More than six years ago, when Zolima CityMag was first launched, we published an article that reflected on the significance of Hong Kong’s skyline. “A city’s skyline is many things. It’s a brand, a visual spectacle, a symbol of power and hierarchy,” we wrote. “And Hong Kong, with its instantly recognisable panorama of skyscrapers framed by green peaks and shimmering water? Hong Kong’s skyline is the skyline of a city where money counts above all else.”

That isn’t true in an oblique sense. For decades, Hong Kong’s skyline has been a giant advertising placard. Companies are eager to take advantage of the spectacular scenery to erect huge rooftop billboards advertising their brands and products. As we continue to explore Hong Kong’s skyline icons, it’s impossible to ignore the advertising that adorns the skyline like jewellery or—less generously—like barnacles on the hull of a ship. 

Rooftop signs and giant billboards are hardly unique to Hong Kong. Nearly every city has them, and some have become icons, like the giant neon Citgo sign that has loomed over Boston since 1940, or the Tio Pepe sign—another example of classic neon—that has stood guard over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol since 1936. But almost no other city matches the scale or scope of Hong Kong’s frenzy of harbourfront billboards. If you put all of them together, they would cover 13,860 square metres, according to advertising firm POAD. It’s like Times Square writ large and extended across an entire cityscape.

“[It] ​​speaks to a city of superlative ambitions that helped set the stage for our collective image of the future, in which the city becomes little more than a substrate for advertising, brands become deities – a kind of Blade Runner-esque vision of the future that’s both exhilarating and horrifying at the same time,” says Aric Chen, former architecture and design curator for M+ museum and the current director of the Het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. 

Chen notes that billboards first proliferated with the rise of the automobile in the United States, “designed to catch the attention of drivers speeding by in their cars.” By contrast, “in Hong Kong, it was more a product of density – the need to stand out in a crowded landscape, in which the city can only be seen either close-up or from far away. By virtue of its density, in Hong Kong, there is no middle ground.”

It’s not clear when Hong Kong’s first rooftop sign was erected, but they were already beginning to multiply in Causeway Bay in the 1950s. One postcard from the era depicts neon billboards for Coca-Cola, Rolex and Longines, among other brands. As the city began to go vertical in the 1960 and 70s, the signs followed suit, towering over the city from hundreds of feet in the air. 

In most cases, they were made of neon, just like the signs that were quickly filling Hong Kong’s streets. But there was a crucial difference between the neon in the streets and the neon up high along the harbour, according to Brian Kwok, an associate professor at the School of Design of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, who has studied the history of Hong Kong neon. “[In the streets], the brands are really local – restaurants, cha chaan teng, theatres,” he says. “But for the neon signs situated along Victoria Harbour, they aren’t just an advertisement. They’re a way to classify a brand as international.”

As Hong Kong’s renown as an economic hub grew through the 1970s and 80s, its skyline became a calling card, an instantly-recognisable vista documented in countless movies, news reports, travel brochures and postcards. Erecting a billboard along the harbour wasn’t just a way to advertise yourself to the Hong Kong market: it was a way to reach out to the entire world. 

The landscape of these signs was always in flux. From the 1950s to the 70s, Western and local Hong Kong brands dominated the skyline. But the 1970s and 80s saw the emergence of Japanese brands like National, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, JVC and Panasonic. In the 2000s, mainland Chinese brands entered the picture with giant neon billboards like the one erected by China Mobile on the façade of the Great Eagle Centre in Wan Chai, or China Construction Bank’s glowing emblem on the roof of the Sheraton in Tsim Sha Tsui. 

The enormous size of these signs set them apart from other types of Hong Kong neon. Some were made by local neon craftsmen, but others—like the Panasonic sign that stood atop Elizabeth House in Causeway Bay until recently—were manufactured overseas and shipped here in pieces. Cardin Chan, a Zolima CityMag contributor who is the general manager of Tetra Neon Exchange, which aims to preserve Hong Kong’s neon heritage, says there is still a lot of work to be done to collect the stories behind these rooftop neon signs. 

Doing so is becoming increasingly urgent, because like other neon signs, rooftop neon is quickly disappearing. Whereas neon signs in the streets are vanishing outright—the victims of new Buildings Department regulations that make it too expensive for most businesses to maintain their neon—rooftop neon is being replaced by new technology: animated LED screens. The Panasonic sign on Elizabeth House was removed late last year and is already being replaced by a new video screen. Chan and other neon conservationists tried to find a way to save it, but the logistics proved too complicated.

“I appreciate the popularity of the LED screens because with one click of the button they could play whatever clips they want to play,” says Chan. “From a business point of view, they need to maximise investment. It’s not cheap to get space along Victoria Harbour.”

In fact, rooftop LED billboards are a particularly lucrative investment, with annual rental yields of up to eight percent, compared to the two or three percent that could be expected from renting out a building, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. “Some buildings are generating higher income from advertising than the rental from their office or retail space,” advertising executive Mak Siu-tong told the newspaper.

It’s hard to argue with that kind of money. But anyone who mourns the loss of neon in Hong Kong’s streets will also lament the decline of rooftop neon. “Neon has a nostalgic feeling,” says Kwok. “It has a human touch – it’s the cultural heritage of neon craftsmen.” In other cities, vintage neon billboards have become tourist attractions, like Osaka’s ​​Dōtonbori district, whose collection of classic neon includes the Glico Running Man, which was first erected in 1919. Kwok thinks there’s no reason that Hong Kong couldn’t establish a similar kind of preservation district where historic neon could be exhibited. 

But he concedes this is unlikely to happen. After all, if Hong Kong’s skyline offers us one lesson about this city, it’s that money counts above all else.

 The neon Panasonic billboard depicted in this article’s thumbnail was removed in 2021.

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