March 20th, 2014

Neon Gets Its Due

Bus stop reflection

For decades, neon has defined Hong Kong’s cityscape, bathing its skyscraper canyons in rainbow hues that have provided a memorable backdrop to films like Chungking Express
and The World of Suzie Wong – and inspiration for classics such as Blade Runner.

But Hong Kong’s neon signs are starting to vanish, which has prompted the city’s future museum of visual culture, M+, to launch an online exhibition dedicated to the city’s neon heritage. Mobile M+: NeonSigns.HK goes live today and will be continuously updated over the next three months.

“These signs are starting to disappear quickly, and as the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” says M+ architecture and design curator Aric Chen. “What we can do is help people appreciate the value of neon signs.”

That is a situation M+ hopes to redress. NeonSigns.HK includes a video documentary about neon signmaking, a crowd-sourced map of neon signs and contributions from cultural luminaries like photographer Wing Shya and cinematographer Christopher Doyle. There will also be a series of real-world events over the next three months, including nighttime bus tours, workshops and self-guided audio journeys through Hong Kong’s neon landscape.

Chen says the catalyst for NeonSigns.HK was the iconic cow-shaped neon sign outside Sammy’s Kitchen, a family-run steakhouse on Queen’s Road West. Though the sign has loomed over the street since 1977, its removal was ordered last year after the government’s Buildings Department found it contravened local building codes.


February 20th, 2011

Lockhart Road’s Neon Signs

Strip clubs often have fabulously kitschy neon signs. In Hong Kong, all of those signs are conveniently located in one place: Lockhart Road, scene of the city’s most debauched nightlife. Strip clubs, hooker bars and other places of ill repute have existed here since World War II, when American soldiers landed at the nearby Wan Chai docks for rest, relaxation and possibly venereal disease. This is the part of town that inspired that paragon of Far East film clichés, The World of Suzie Wong.

Lockhart Road is as salacious as it ever was, though Suzie Wong has given way to women of Filipino and Thai origin. Clubs advertise cheap drinks in the hope of luring men who are then expected to spend lavishly on the women inside.

As the patronage of these bars skews white, male and anglophone, this is one of the few parts of Hong Kong where most neon signs are in English rather than Chinese. Though they blink frenetically and feature amusing names (Crazy Horse, Show Biz and so on), they aren’t quite as outlandish as you would expect, given the nature of the neighbourhood. (This is not Montreal after all; animated neon lap dances probably wouldn’t fly here. Hong Kong is permissive, but in a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of way.)


January 18th, 2011

Gunting Rambut

Posted in Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Hair salon, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur
November 8th, 2010

Giddy Neon

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

Hang Heung bakery, Yuen Long

Sixty years ago, when Yuen Long was still a country backwater, trapped between some scraggly hills to the south and a closed border to the north, two bakeries opened on its main street. Somehow, despite the odds, both of those bakeries became famous, spawning chains that now have locations all over Hong Kong.

One is Hang Heung, known for its wife cakes. Another, less than a block away, is Wing Wah, which made its name with mooncakes. As you might expect from a couple of bakeries in Hong Kong in the 1950s, each sought to distinguish itself with extravagant neon signs. Since then, Yuen Long has seen its population explode; far from being a backwater, is now perfectly positioned between Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

But the neon signs survive.


September 29th, 2010

Miss Villeray

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

Miss Villeray by day…

Whenever I wander up to Villeray, usually after a trip to the Jean-Talon Market, I make sure to take Henri-Julien so that I can pass by Miss Villeray. That’s because this neighbourhood bar is adorned by a particularly comely neon sign. It wouldn’t have turned any heads in the 1960s, when this bar first opened and Montreal was filled with neon, but is now one of the last of a dying breed. Luckily, Miss Villeray was bought by a new owner in 2009 who restored many of the bar’s period details, including the sign.


July 24th, 2010

Beirut: Signs of Postwar Politics

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Public Space by Patrick Donovan

Beirut signs

Posters along the former green line calling for “real change.”


After years of foreign/militia rule, the Lebanese navy reasserts itself through this poster featuring a group of scowling teenage boys. “We’re back!” reads the caption in the lower left. Should we feel threatened or reassured?
June 13th, 2010

Plus ça change…

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

Kate McDonnell pointed the way to some Flickr photos recently uploaded by Michel Gravel, a photojournalist for La Presse whose career has spanned more than 40 years. Many of the photos are street scenes from Montreal in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. What amazes me is how Montreal’s essential character has remained intact despite the fact that it has changed in so many ways — physically, demographically, linguistically, politically — in the past few decades.

The above photo of people lining up to board a bus in a winter snowstorm is a perfect example. When I noticed that the bus was the 80 — the same bus I took up and down Park Avenue every day for years — I started looking for clues as to where on Park Avenue the photo was taken. None of the signs were familiar, nor were the two buildings on the left. After a few seconds, though, I recognized the building in the middle distance as the block at the corner of Park and Bernard, home to Cheskie’s and the dépanneur where I bought newspapers, beer and monthly transit passes. The buildings on the left have been radically made over, but the three businesses visible in the photo — a hardware store, a restaurant and the corner dep — remain, just with different names and owners.

Gravel captured other scenes that are instantly recognizable today: orthodox Jews walking around Mile End, laundry hanging heavily over a laneway, L. Berson and Son’s tombstone workshop, riots, fires, people sweating it out during a heatwave, the dépanneur tricycle.


May 23rd, 2010

Saved from the Scrapyard

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation by Christopher DeWolf

Portions of the old Warshaw and Simcha’s signs on display at the 2007 Main Madness street fair

I wrote a bit about Montreal signs a few years ago, including the memorable Logo Cities project, ghost signs, street signs and the fight to save the Farine Five Roses sign. Montreal’s linguistic diversity, penchant for kitsch and urban palimpsest have given it an exceptionally rich signscape.

Unfortunately, a decade of renewal and redevelopment have done away with some of the city’s most interesting signs. Farine Five Roses might have been saved, and the Guaranteed Milk Bottle restored (and re-graffiti-ed), but the signs that disappeared from the landscape include the St. James’ Church neon sign, the Warshaw sign and the magnificent Simcha’s sign (which you can see above in one of our title graphics).


October 30th, 2009

Election Sign Season

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


Not an election sign, but much more amusing

I arrived in Montreal just in time for the most exciting municipal election campaign in decades. All at once, a bit too early for Halloween, all of City Hall’s skeletons fell out of the closet, with revelations that construction contracts are rigged and accusations that the municipal government works primarily around a system of bribes and kickbacks. From what I saw, though, this year’s campaign posters are not nearly so dramatic.


September 3rd, 2009

Behind Ste. Catherine

Posted in Art and Design, Canada by Christopher DeWolf

Downtown alley

Downtown alley

Pigeons, a ghost ad and an old tavern sign in an alley between Mansfield and Metcalfe


July 14th, 2009

Reclaiming Public Space

Vernacular street art

Top left photo by John Batten; others by Christopher DeWolf

The brown leather chesterfield sits incongruously amid the parked buses, concrete paving and grey metal railings at the Tai Hang bus terminus. In the afternoon heat, a cat stretches over the length of the sofam but after sunset, it’s where bus drivers and passers-by sit and relax.

This kind of improvised street furniture is what arts writer and heritage activist John Batten calls vernacular or “nonchalant” art, an umbrella term for the everyday objects, street life and informal interventions in public spaces that are close to the heart of this city’s character.

“Hong Kong is a place that’s open to free expression, which is reflected in the clutter of our public spaces, our footbridges and ferry forecourts,” says Batten. “All of these bits of vernacular art and architecture are part of who we are. People overlook [such] simple things. But if you take them away, what are you left with?”


May 17th, 2009

East End, West End, on fume tout de même

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Heritage and Preservation, History by Christopher DeWolf

Ghost ad

Ghost ad

This is what makes ghost ads in Montreal more interesting than in most places: more than just a window into the past, they reveal the city’s linguistic geography, past and present. Here we have two examples of early-twentieth-century tobacco ads revealed by recent building demolitions. One, on east-end Masson Street in Rosemont, is in French. The other, on west-end Sherbrooke Street in NDG, is in English. It’s a pretty straightforward illustration of Montreal’s linguistic divisions, which exist to this day — you’re far more likely to hear English spoken in western NDG than French, and the opposite holds true in Rosemont.

Of course, there’s more than just linguistic history that can be gleaned from these old ads. Turret Cigarettes were produced by Imperial Tobacco in St. Henri, about four or five kilometres from the ad in NDG, and they were marketed as the poker-player’s cigarettes of choice. Enough boxes of Turret made you eligible to redeem a deck of playing cards from Imperial Tobacco’s warehouse in the present-day Gay Village — hence the seemingly cryptic slogan, “Save the Poker Hands.”

Old Chum, meanwhile, was a brand of pipe tobacco, also produced by Imperial, that was popular with the tobacco charities run by La Presse and The Gazette. The tobacco charities raised money to provide tobacco to Canadian soldiers fighting in the first world war. After troops complained of being given inferior tobacco, The Gazette commissioned Imperial to produce packages of Old Chum specifically for the troops. Smoking became a patriotic activity promoted by both the French and English press.

Top photo by xbourque; bottom photo by Guillaume St-Jean

April 27th, 2009

Hong Kong Doorways: For Rent

Posted in Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Vacant shop

Hong Kong is an entrepreneurial place. Even when a shop goes out of business, it isn’t out of the game: as soon as the shutter comes down, the broker signs go up. In most cities, a landlord might try to rent the space out himself, or hire to a single broker to do the job. Here, brokers compete for the space. Shuttered shops become symbolic battlefields on which brokers fight for a commission equivalent to a month’s rent — no small sum of money in a city where ground-floor shops go for thousands of dollars per square foot.

With retail on just about every street, many neighbourhoods have their fair share of vacant shops, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the next street over from my apartment, where this photo was taken, a restaurant found the sidewalk in front of an empty store the perfect place to set up a couple of tables and some stools.

April 19th, 2009


Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific by Christopher DeWolf

Macau street sign

Street sign on Taipa, Macau