PHOTO STORY: The Neon Lights That Once Lit Up Taiwan

PHOTO STORY: The Neon Lights That Once Lit Up Taiwan
Photo Credit: Hsu Jian-hao (徐健豪)

What you need to know

Walking down streets in Taiwan, LED lightboxes dominate one’s sight, especially at night. Yet this wasn’t the case until the 1980s. Before that, it was neon lights that drew in customers.

Words by Olivia Yang
Photos by Hsu Jian-hao (徐健豪)

Like those of any major city, the streets of Taipei are usually bustling with people and traffic, but a unique background falls behind all this — an endless throng of signboards.

The LED lightboxes dominate one’s sight, especially at night, yet this wasn’t the case until the 1980s. Before that, it was neon lights that drew in customers on the island.

Neon light signboards started popping up around Taiwan in the 1950s when the country’s economy was on the rise. The Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan had ended in 1945, but the influence of Japanese culture could still be seen in the Japanese characters that would appear on the signboards.

In the 1960s, acrylic signboards emerged, panicking the neon light signboard industry for a short while. But acrylic signboards had little flexibility in design and repairing broken light tubes were inconvenient, so neon lights made a comeback in the 1970s. Yet the industry wasn’t so lucky when LEDs arrived a decade later.

Neon light signboards were then forced to give way to the new technology that was brighter and provided more display options. LED signboards are cheaper and faster to produce with lower maintenance costs, but led to duller designs and the dwindling of neon light signboards.

The growing clamor of LED signboards have come in all shapes and sizes since then, and increasingly more people have complained about them ruining the aesthetics of cities.

Early last year, Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) after returning from a trip to Japan said the city government would start regulating signboards to improve Taipei’s “urban aesthetics,” starting with those near the historic Beimen, or North Gate (北門). Almost a year later, in January, store owners in the area started complaining the regulations lacked supporting measures and the size restrictions made the signs too small to be effective. Many owners expressed concerns that business would further decline.

While LED signboards are currently facing the possible fate of being taken down, some former makers of neon light signboards are attempting to revitalize the industry through making neon light art, such as artist Huang Shun-le (黃順樂). Others have taken up photographing the neon light signboards that remain, hoping to highlight their beauty.

Graphic designer Hsu Jian-hao (徐健豪), 26, started taking photos of neon light signboards around Taiwan last summer.

“I think they’re beautiful,” says Hsu. “After all, neon light signboards were once a mainstream culture, and I think their aesthetic is irreplaceable.”

Hsu says now he specifically looks for these signboards on the streets, and under his influence, some of his friends have started to take notice of them as well, informing Hsu of any neon light signboards they come across.

“I think there are many things in Taiwan people don’t notice, probably because they have grown used to them,” says Hsu. “Some people might think the streets of Taiwan lack beauty, but I try looking at them through the eyes of a foreigner or tourist to discover the unique characteristics of Taiwan, and maybe I’ll see something different.”

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All photos are courtesy of Hsu Jian-hao (徐健豪) and may not be reproduced without permission.

Editor: Edward White