Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A History of Asia's Neon Signs

One of the most profound features of almost any of the major urban landscapes in Asia are the neon signs that illuminate the city. Over store entrances, on the sides of buildings, and elsewhere, neon signs and billboards light up the night sky in many an Asian city. They have made the atmosphere of countless movies (both in Asia and abroad) a little more saultry and made travel ads for these countries much more appealing. Tourists make special trips to cities such as Tokyo just to see the neon lights at night!

In Asia there are three cities where neon signs are particularly famous: Tokyo and Osaka in Japan, and Hong Kong. In each city these signs have their own history and their own special meanings. Let's learn a little more about the  neon signs of these cities!
Neon signs in Kabuchiko, Tokyo.

One of the world's "neon capitals" is without a doubt Tokyo. The very first neon sign in Japan was set up in 1926 by Tokyo Pan Bakery in Shinjuku district to advertise their business. During and after World War II, neon signs gradually became a popular form of advertising in the country and at the very end of 1957, the Totsuko company erected a huge neon billboard modeled after New York City's famous billboards in Sukiyabashi, which is located in Tokyo's Ginza shopping district. The switching-on of the lights on this billboard was a nationally-televised event, and when the lights came on, the new name of Totsuko was revealed to the world: Sony.

After this sign became an instant Tokyo landmark, more and more businesses in the city saw the value of having their own neon signs. Throughout the 1960s, Tokyo's shopping districts were plastered with neon signs ranging from giant billboards to tiny window signs, trying to outdo all the other nearby businesses and make their brand a popular one. Over the past few decades, entire streets blanketed in neon lights have become a trademark image in Tokyo. Also, other cities in Japan have followed suit and erected neon signs over their own businesses and shopping districts.

The neon lights of Dōtonbori, Osaka, Japan. Notice the Glico Man in the foreground.

One of these is Osaka - and in particular the part of town known as Dōtonbori. At night, Dōtonbori turns into an amazing paradise of bright lights and gigantic mechanical crabs advertising the many restaurants and stores up and down the street, as well as Japan's (and other countries') famous corporations. Dōtonbori can also lay claim to one of the oldest neon sign in Japan: The running man advertising the Japanese Glico candy brand! This sign, which has been around since 1935 (with some sources saying it was erected in 1919!), has become a city icon and has been used to advertise other sporting events and welcome international visitors to the city for venues such as the 2002 World Cup.

The 1960s saw neon signs start popping up in another major urban area of Asia: Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, neon signs can be found almost everywhere. As is the case with Tokyo, images of young couples walking underneath massive neon signs or lights of every color bouncing off a rain-soaked Nathan Road have become a trademark.

Portland Street in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Note the lucky bat in the top sign.

As was the case for Tokyo, the neon signs of Hong Kong were erected by shop owners to advertise their businesses and compete against "the other guys". The bigger and flashier the sign, the more business they could rake in. Over time these signs became a trademark of the territory that could be found everywhere from postcards to HK blockbuster movies of the 1980s and 90s. And of course, any person who has ever lived in or visited Hong Kong are all too familiar with the city's nighttime lights! Areas of Hong Kong such as Nathan Road and Portland street (see above) are particularly famous for their neon signs that turn the night into a dazzling landscape of colors.

As Christopher DeWolf discusses in his excellent article about the neon lights of Hong Kong, many of these signs use traditional Chinese symbolism to advertise their business. For instance, bats carrying coins are very common on pawn shop signs. In traditional Chinese beliefs, bats descending from the sky are a sign of happiness, as are bats featured on "eye coin" amulets. Naturally, coins themselves are also a sign of wealth! DeWolf also points out that many of these signs use traditional Chinese colors that were used to paint the signs of old. Red (traditionally a lucky color), white, and green were the most common colors.

Hong Kong is also famous for being the inspiration for the city scenes in director Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner. With all of its amazing neon signs illuminating the night streets in a blanket of light, Ridley couldn't have picked a better inspiration for a futuristic Los Angeles than Hong Kong on a rainy day!

Over the course of the mid to late-20th century, neon lights became as much a part of many Asian city landscapes as their temples, parks, restaurants, and other buildings. To some they may be an annoyance, but to others they are valuable pieces of the cities themselves that are more than just an advertising medium. They light up the city at night and create a beautiful nighttime atmosphere for everyone to enjoy.

For more about the neon signs, here are a couple of sites for you:
http://www.darkroastedblend.com/2007/09/japans-neon-vision-lights-up-night.html (Steve Levenstein's article about Tokyo's neon lights.)
http://randomwire.com/hong-kong-nights (A blog post from Random Wire about Hong Kong's neon signs.)

Image Copyrights:
Tokyo: Puffyjet 
Dōtonbori: JoopDooresteijn
Portland St.: UCLARodent
All images used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Neon And More said...

Thanks for the helpfully post :-)

Neon Signs

Josh said...

You are most welcome! Glad you found it informative!

Anonymous said...

There are lots of cities come in the History of Asia, having different prestige and culture.

Josh said...

Thanks for the feedback axat. There most definitely are lots of historical and prestigious cities in Asia! Some are many thousands of years old. That's what makes the region so fascinating!

Steve Devis said...

What a wonderful post. I have learnt so much from this blog.I like your blog.Thanks for the post.
Signage Companies New York

Josh said...

Thanks for the feedback Steve! I'm so glad you've enjoyed this blog and have learned from it. I haven't had as much time to write at this blog over the past few months due to some new projects that have kept me busy this year, but I've been thinking about writing some new posts when I get a little extra time!

Steven A. Chiang said...

Hey Josh, I am a research student who study the neon sign history in NYC currently. Your Asian neon history article is very informative! Could you recommend a few books in relation to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and HK's Neon history? Many thanks!!!

Steven A. Chiang said...

Hey Josh, Thank you so much for your informative story here! I am a research student who currently working on American neon sign influence. Do you have any recommendations in books or journal articles regarding neon sign History in Asia? May thanks :-)

Josh said...

Hey Steven--
You are most welcome, and very, very sorry for the late reply. As you've probably noticed, I haven't updated this blog in a very long time and haven't checked in in a while. I'm glad to have helped you out though.

Anyway, to answer your question, I've only seen one coffee table-type book regarding HK's neon signs at either a nearby Barnes and Noble or Half Price Books here in the USA. Other than that, books and scholarly articles on the subject of Asian neon seem to be pretty scant.

As far as general info goes, one Taiwanese blogger did a blog post on Taipei's neon signs from the 1960s-1970s. You can read their post here: http://blog.xuite.net/changraphael141/twblog1/124636078-%5B老照片%5D+這是那裏%3F This post features pics of some of the most memorable signs from downtown Taipei before its redevelopment in the 1980s, including the famous National sign.

A couple of other sites worth checking out is the Neonsigns.hk online gallery at http://www.neonsigns.hk/?lang=en and the homepage of the Showa Sign Museum in Tokyo. While the Showa museum deals mainly with traditional wooden store kanban, they have some parts from early electric signs on display. Their homepage is at http://www.showaneon.co.jp/museumu.html

In addition, I stumbled across some info (and pictures) about the construction of Ricoh's illuminated Ginza sign on their Japanese-language homepage not too long ago, but I didn't save the URL. I wish I had now....

Good luck with your research and hope these links help you out at least a little!

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