Meet Rui de Brito, the man behind The Hong Kong Neon Heritage project whose finding creative ways to save the traditional vintage neon signs of this city.
Not long ago, the streets of Hong Kong were filled were neon signs until the government decided to replace them with practical LEDs in an attempt to save maintenance costs, and as a solution to Hong Kong’s environmental issues. Replacing old signs with LEDs was an action no one had predicted as a solution.
Although this city has been demolishing the neon lights since the 1990s, this was heartbreaking news for Rui de Brito. In an attempt to put a stop to this, Rui created ‘The Hong Kong Neon Heritage’, a community who seek creative and effective ways to save the vintage neon signs.
New to this city, Rui spends his day managing his production company in Lisbon, Portugal and working on the Hong Kong Neon Heritage. On a rainy Thursday afternoon, we touched down with Rui to discuss why he sold everything he owned, how the community started and what lies ahead.
Can you tell us more about your background?
I’m a Creative Director from Portugal and I’ve worked in television for almost 20 years. It’s an amazing job but it’s always the same thing so I decided I needed a change in my life. Thanks to technology, I can travel and work at the same time so I decided to sell everything including my apartment, my car and my office to travel the world.
Why did you decide to move to Hong Kong?
When I sold everything, it was interesting because all of my expenses disappeared- now I live around the world. When I left Lisbon, I went to New York but life wasn’t much different so I decided to experiment with Asia. One day, I was browsing online and thought ‘I’m going to try Hong Kong!’ So I came here and fell in love with the city, the people and the culture.
What are your thoughts on Hong Kong?
Hong Kong still has a romantic yet mysterious aura with the mix of old and new cultures. Every street corner has a surprise and I love going through the pathways between the buildings where you can find small shops. When I came here, I knew nothing about Hong Kong and I am still discovering.
What was the trigger to start The Hong Kong Neon Project?
One of the things that attracted me to come to Hong Kong was the neon signs. The first time I got out of the MTR in the old part of Tsim Sha Tsui, it was raining, the streets were full of people and a big neon sign was in front of me. That was such a beautiful moment and my first contact with neon signs. The next day, as I was walking around, I noticed either neon signs were being shut down or they weren’t working.
After doing some research, I found out Hong Kong are shutting down the neon signs, and this news broke my heart. It’s really sad be- cause neon signs are part of Hong Kong and I don’t know if shutting them down is the solution to this city’s issues. Once they are gone, they are gone forever, but for me, neon signs are an art; they’re crafted by hand.
We have to find creative ways to keep them on the streets. It’s all over the news that Hong Kong is s shutting down the neon signs and when I saw these articles, I knew somebody had to do something about it.
How did The Hong Kong Neon Heritage start?
Sometimes it needs to come from someone an outsider perspective. When someone from the outside looks at it for the first time, they notice it in a different way and that’s what happened to me. Being here for the first time and finding out neon signs are being turned off or demolished- that triggered a spark to do something about this.
So I thought I’d help spread the awareness of neon signs by starting a Facebook page to see if people would react positively to the issue and the idea. Because of the Facebook page, people start to see the signs in a different way and that’s when we know we are doing something right.
What are you up to at the moment with The Hong Kong Neon Heritage?
We have volunteers taking photos on every street corner so we can document this on a website. The website will connect to a mobile app for everyone who wishes to visit the signs. For example, if there’s a famous movie scene filmed in Hong Kong with a neon sign in the background, through the website or the mobile app, people can visit the signs.
Of course, there’s a serious part of the project too. In the future, we’d like to give suggestions to the government to preserve and protect these neon signs. We want to create a non-profit platform to help maintain the neon signs and create new ones by working with urban artists and old craftsman to continue the art of neon. There’s a lot of things happening and this is just the start if all goes well.
What are the difficulties so far?
Unfortunately, it’s a dying industry so young people don’t want to bet on a dying art. We have to find ways of showing the beauty behind it. Yes, the LEDs are newer and cheaper but you can find them anywhere in the world, like New York and London.
When everyone starts to use the same LED signs, they start looking like each other and I don’t want Hong Kong to look like New York or London. That’s the problem with globalisation, there are good and bad sides to it, but it’s scary when everything looks the same- Hong Kong needs to keep its uniqueness.
How can people help to The Hong Kong Neon Heritage?
Every day, I receive photos from people photographing the neon signs which has helped spread the awareness of The Hong Kong Neon Heritage. At this stage, we need volunteers to help by documenting this.
Find out more about The Hong Kong Neon Heritage here.
Feature image by Cardy Chan
Image 1 by Ringo Ma
Image 2 by Simone Fassan
Image 3 by Walter Koditek
Image 4 by Edwin Miu