Perched on scaffolds in Hong Kong’s dense canyons of buildings, neon signs paint the city in a glow. But these signs—for everything from foot massage parlors to restaurants to diamond merchants—are gradually disappearing.
“It was the visual identity of Hong Kong for foreigners, for tourists, and for Hong Kong residents,” says photographer Pascal Greco. “Unfortunately, I think the citizens see that they’re losing part of their history.”
In a new book, Greco attempts to preserve some of that history. Featuring 170 Polaroid photographs, the book documents these iconic and endangered neon signs, and includes interviews with two of the few remaining neon sign masters still working in the city.
Greco says the signs were largely unregulated before the 1997 handover of sovereignty over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China, but new rules have since been put in place that govern the size, location, and energy use of the lights. Combined with rising real estate prices and smaller companies going out of business, many neon signs are being removed or replaced with LED. Greco started photographing these neon signs in 2012 and completed the project in 2019. In less than a decade, many of the signs he shot have been removed. “More than two-thirds of the content of my book doesn’t exist anymore,” he says.
Greco, who’s based in Switzerland, says he was inspired by the Hong Kong-based films of director Wong Kar-wai, such as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, which are resplendent in the glow and saturation of the city’s neon lights. “It’s cliché, I know,” Greco says. He started the project while working on another photography book on the architecture of Hong Kong. He’d take black-and-white photos of buildings during the day, then switch to color and refocus on neon at night.
As a photographer, he says, the appeal of neon was irresistible. “It’s beautiful,” he says. “You can see how the light can build some mystery or poetry on the walls of the buildings.”
In line with the signs’ precarious existence, Pascal has used another nearly extinct method to capture them: Polaroid 100 instant color film, which the company stopped producing in 2008. Greco photographed dozens of signs on annual trips to the city, composing his shots either head-on or at a 45-degree angle, with the background appearing almost pitch black. He used a Polaroid 600SE camera, which uses lenses with a fairly limited aperture. “You don’t have a lot of light coming in the camera,” Greco says. “You see the light tubes but you don’t see the glow around them.”
The limitations of the lens and the instant film results in incredibly detailed photos saturated with color. “It’s just the neon in black space, levitating,” Greco says. “I really like this aesthetic, fortunately, because it was a technical imposition.”
As part of the project, Greco also made a short film of the signs, many of which flash in sequence and appear up close like futuristic highways. The film also shows sign makers working in their studios, forming the intricate shapes of traditional Chinese characters, which are being slowly removed from the urban atmosphere through Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule over the territory.
Greco says the disappearance of neon is a huge loss for the city and its cultural history. And though he says some new neon signs are still being installed—much to the delight of the city’s Instagrammers—they’re far outnumbered by LED signs that use less electricity. Hong Kong will continue to have a colored tint at night, but Greco says nothing can replace the unique colored glow of its dwindling neon signs. “It’s the special light they deliver,” he says. “You don’t have that in normal outside urban light. You don’t have it in LED. It’s not the same.”