Overlooked icons

Overlooked icons

They are found everywhere in Hong Kong, but these lesser-known symbols carry a lot of meaning


(From top) A red lampshade seen at wet markets; a public housing estate; a pawnshop's bright red and green neon sign; a sturdy nylon bag that symbolises hardworking Hongkongers; and a minibus.
(From top) A red lampshade seen at wet markets; a public housing estate; a pawnshop's bright red and green neon sign; a sturdy nylon bag that symbolises hardworking Hongkongers; and a minibus.
Photos: SCMP
Hong Kong is well known for its world-class skyline, the Star Ferry, dim sum and its lumbering trams. But these are not the only symbols of the Pearl of the Orient, as poignant and striking as they are. The following are five of the lesser-known emblems of the city, all of which are equally representative of Hong Kong's character, people and history.

Red lampshades

The red lampshade has been seared into our memories from the time our mothers dragged us to the wet market to go grocery shopping. Hanging unevenly by varying lengths of cord, the lampshades swing above the stalls of butchers and greengrocers, creating an organic feel. The warm light is said to make the food look more appealing, especially for thousand-year eggs - which explains the lampshade's alternative name, egg lamp.

Recently, the red lampshade has been reinterpreted and revitalised by the art community as a definitive symbol of Hong Kong. It has also been seen as a quirky, untraditional lighting fixture at home. It is well on the way to becoming a design classic, with its authentic roots in Hong Kong's collective consciousness.

Red, blue and white striped bags

Seen everywhere and known by many names - including Hong Kong's Burberry and amah's bags - the red, white and blue nylon bags are a symbol of our determination and hardworking nature.

The rugged bags can hold anything you throw in, regardless of the weight. These cheap bags do their jobs so well that the same material, with the same colours, is used to shelter the flimsy walls of many dai pai dong and construction sites.

Largely ignored by the world of art and design, this classic got its break in 2008 when local artist Stanley Wong reinterpreted it to represent all things good about the Hong Kong people, showcasing his work, RedWhiteBlue, at the prestigious Venice Biennale art show in Italy.

Pawnshop neon signs

Wooden screens may keep pawnshops' business hidden from the outside world, but their outdoor neon signs have established themselves as a permanent fixture of the city's night-time landscape. When you see the brilliant red, white and green lights beaming down on you, you know you are in Hong Kong.

The sign's peculiar shape is intriguing. It represents a bat holding onto a coin - the bat is a symbol of fortune because the Chinese character for "bat" is very similar to the character for "luck".

In this light, pawnshops can be seen as a reminder of the financial drive that Hong Kong is built upon - and would be nothing without.

Public housing estates

Public housing estates make up a large chunk of the landscape, unlike any other place in the world. They symbolise Hong Kong's obsession with building skywards and its need to house a growing population of seven million on land that is hardly ever flat.

The scale of these buildings can frequently be lost on us, but photographer Michael Wolf gave it international exposure. In his project, Architecture of Density, Wolf takes photos of buildings in such a way that they seem infinitely tall, showing to Hongkongers just how frightening these high-rises can seem to visitors.


If housing estates represent our never-ending struggle to reach for the heavens, then red and green minibuses are a symbol of our fixation with speed and a fast-paced lifestyle.

The minibus prides itself on covering as great a distance in as short a time.

The speedometer behind the driver is a symbol of the many hair-raising trips that minibuses have made in their 40-year history, barrelling down to Central from the Mid-Levels or weaving through traffic on Nathan Road.

Many of the destinations displayed atop the minibuses also hark to a bygone era, using the names of places that no longer exist, such as Daimaru, a Japanese department store that went out of business in 1998. Still, locals know them all well enough to get around.



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