Where Did All the Hong Kong Neon Go?

It was never just about the neon, that Cubist, consumerist razzle-dazzle cantilevered over Hong Kong’s streets announcing pawnbrokers and mooncake bakers, saunas and shark’s fin soup shops.

It was never just about the signs, shining on teahouses offering the finest Iron Goddess of Mercy brew and on hotels paid for by the hour, or on Chinese medicine emporiums bursting with wooden drawers of seahorses and on mahjong parlors clickety-clacking with manicured nails hitting hard tiles.

Because while the government’s crackdown on the neon signs stems from safety and environmental concerns, the campaign evokes the fading of Hong Kong itself: the mournful allegory for an electric city’s decline, the literal extinguishing of its brash flash.

Nights in Hong Kong these days feel as if still in the pall of a plague, or a deep political malaise.

Many of the tourists and resident foreigners are gone, the old party spots unsullied by their beer-guzzling excess.

Hong Kongers have left, too. More than 110,000 permanent residents departed last year, and the city’s population of those worth more than $30 million shrank by 23 percent, according to government and wealth survey data.

Their departure, a quarter-century after the territory reverted from British to Chinese rule, has been spurred by the territory’s economic decline and by an acute diminishment of political rights.

Those remaining in Hong Kong are polarized between those who fear that the Communist leadership in Beijing is destroying what made the place special — including a free press and an independent judiciary — and those who think that the people here have always withstood the whims of those in charge.

Those whims lack any whimsy.

A national security law, imposed in 2020, criminalizes acts considered threatening to the state. Students, former legislators and a former media mogul sit in prison because of it. The chief executive, as the top leader is known in business-first Hong Kong, has been placed under sanction by the U.S. Treasury Department for undermining the territory’s autonomy. Expressing public support for such sanctions could itself be a crime.

Hong Kong today can feel like a city of shadows and metaphor, where a subject as innocuous as neon takes on shades of meaning.

The Hong Kong filmmaker Anastasia Tsang’s directorial debut, “A Light Never Goes Out,” is about a family coping with the death of a neon sign maker. The film, Hong Kong’s submission for next year’s Oscars, is an elegy for a disappearing craft that could also be a requiem for something larger.

“Hong Kong people have a very strong feeling of loss,” Ms. Tsang said. “Every day you’ve got a friend or relative who’s going to emigrate. Every day you feel like some part of your flesh is being taken from your skeleton.”

Since 2021, when she shot the film, many of the neon signs she used as a backdrop have disappeared.

“The change was so drastic and fast,” she said. “There was no way to save them.”

Cardin Chan runs Tetra Neon Exchange, a group dedicated to conserving condemned signs. She estimates that tens of thousands of signs, mostly neon, have been taken down in the past decade, ever since the Buildings Department started cracking down on unauthorized structures. Separately, some businesses voluntarily replaced neon with cheaper LED displays.

Ms. Chan talks to those served takedown notices, documenting the visual history of their trade. Pawnshops advertised with outlines of bats clutching coins because the word for the winged mammal sounds like “fortune.” Symbols — teeth, glasses, tea leaves — were once important for customers who could not read.

“Neon is a kind of city emblem, an embodiment of Hong Kong stories,” Ms. Chan said. “But it’s not only neon that’s undergoing a transformation. It’s the whole city, right?”

Some of Hong Kong’s defenders, who praise the city’s current incarnation, or at least its talent for reinvention, say that the neon cityscape never truly defined the territory. It was a kitschy tourist pitch, they say, from a movie set of kung fu kicks or cheongsam-clad women walking rainy streets with only the dirge of a cello to accompany them. Most Hong Kong residents lived far from the lurid glow reflected in puddles, crammed into Tetris blocks of tiled buildings that sprawled toward the border with China.

The art of neon — bending glass tubes that are filled with neon and other inert gases — came to Hong Kong, in part, from Shanghai. When the Communists prevailed on the mainland in 1949, and over successive decades of turmoil, captains of industry and millions of other refugees fled to the British crown colony. By the 1970s, the streets of Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui, Central and Yau Ma Tei, thrummed with neon-tinged commerce, the electric signboards hung in profusion like L.S.D.-fueled Picassos.

It seemed fitting that in the 1980s the world’s biggest neon sign, for Marlboro cigarettes, was in Hong Kong. Some of the neon was in English, some in Arabic, some in Japanese. Most were in the traditional Chinese characters used in Hong Kong but not in mainland China. To fashion glass tubes into such complicated calligraphy — it takes 16 strokes to write the word “dragon” — took a painterly skill.

By the time Jive Lau was interested in the craft, only a few neon masters were still working, down from about 400 at the peak. He learned the art in Taiwan.

“I know neon is dying here,” he said, “but it’s the icon of Hong Kong, so I want to keep it alive somehow.”

Mr. Lau shapes glass tubes turned molten by flames in a government-funded arts center. Even as some of Hong Kong’s other virtues have eroded, its rulers, directed by Beijing, have seized on culture as worth keeping.

A new cultural district has been built on land reclaimed from Victoria Harbor, and it includes a visual arts museum called M+. The museum has collected drawings of neon designs, as well as a few well-known signs, including a huge Angus cow for a steakhouse.

“We were really interested in signs that are landmarks,” said Tina Pang, the museum’s curator. “But it’s not ideal for a museum to collect them because they have become really disassociated from the whole context that makes them alive.”

Ms. Pang said that as much as safety edicts may have doomed Hong Kong’s neon, the global trend toward homogeneity, where cities all have the same stores, is also imperiling the territory’s unique streetscape.

In September, the government unveiled a campaign called Night Vibes Hong Kong “to attract citizens to go out and revitalize the city’s nightlife.” The logo for the campaign, naturally, featured neon.

For Peter Tse, a nearly 20-foot-tall neon sign symbolized the longevity of his Tai Tung bakery, which survived the Japanese occupation during World War II, when the hungry would snatch its pastries from customers.

During Hong Kong’s boom years, Tai Tung stuffed mooncakes — made to mark the Mid-Autumn Festival — with honeyed oysters or 10 egg yolks, although, Mr. Tse admitted, 10 was nine too many.

Mr. Tse, now 90, has outlasted the bakery’s neon sign, dismantled last year. It was too big and too old, and not in compliance with regulations, Mr. Tse was told.

“It lasted over 50 years, through typhoons, no problem,” he said.

He still comes to the bakery every day. He misses his neon sign.

Mr. Tse plans to install a smaller one, even if it will cost up to $80,000 to fulfill the government’s requirements. His son has returned from Australia to guide the bakery into the fourth generation.

“I want Hong Kong to be vibrant,” Mr. Tse said. “I want it to feel like Hong Kong.”