HK’s ‘Santa’ lights up the night

LIGHT FANTASTIC::Hong Kong’s bright skyline is revved up each Christmas by a lighting expert who says the weak economy has set more lights ablaze

NY Times News Service, HONG KONG

Wed, Dec 26, 2012 - Page 4

For the past few weeks, Santa Claus, looking cheerful and surrounded by twinkling stars and ornaments, has been dancing on the sides of skyscrapers.

The images, rendered in tens of thousands of lights across Hong Kong, are varied: In one part of town, Santa is riding a dolphin; not far away, giant ribboned parcels decorate the exterior of another building, blinking many floors above the ground.

Chinese culture adores lights and the Hong Kong skyline has some of the biggest, brashest and most colorful in the world — all year round. Shop fronts, signposts, entire buildings are lit up — some with undulating and flickering effects — as the sun sets each evening, enveloping the entire territory in an orange glow.

However, this time of year, the spectacle ratchets up several notches. Out come vast, multicolored, complex designs that span many floors and make Rockefeller Center in Manhattan and Oxford Street in London look dim by comparison. Frolicking reindeer, bobble-hatted snowmen and enormous Christmas trees adorn dozens of buildings, sometimes to startling effect.

The man behind many of these images is Terence Wong, who trained as an electrician and once did stage lighting work for theaters.

Thirty years ago, Wong was asked by a Hong Kong property developer to add a bit of seasonal pizazz to a new complex of office buildings in Tsim Sha Tsui East, an area that was then off the beaten track. He has not looked back.

“It is my passion,” Wong, 54, said in an interview in his office, which is filled with files and lighting accessories. “I never want to stop.”

The first job involved simple stars suspended from the tops of buildings. Over the years, Wong has made the displays ever more complex, as he and his workers have learned how to affix strings of light bulbs to the glass facades of buildings using window-cleaning platforms.

The displays, typically cost between HK$20,000 and HK$100,000 (US$2,600 and US$13,000), depending on the size and intricacy of the image, Wong said. Yet for many building owners, sprucing up exteriors is as much a part of the holiday season as tree lights are for operators of shopping centers or private citizens in Western cultures.

Downturns in the economy, do not prompt building owners to hold back, Wong said. When an epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) hit Hong Kong in 2003, causing tourism to evaporate and the economy to buckle, building owners actually spent more on the displays, he said.

Likewise, spending this year has not changed, even though the Hong Kong economy, hit by the global downturn and slower growth in China, is estimated to have grown just 1.2 percent this year. That is down from 4.9 percent last year and 6.8 percent the year before that. The displays are typical of the resilience in consumer spending in Hong Kong, where unemployment remains low — 3.4 percent, the latest Hong Kong government figures show.

Light displays are deeply ingrained in Chinese folk culture. Lanterns have been objects of artistic expression and status symbols for centuries, as have the elaborate fireworks displays that feature in major celebrations to this day. In the same vein, prominent buildings are brightly lit all over China at night, often changing colors every few seconds, while light shows are a popular form of public entertainment.

In Hong Kong, the phenomenon has an extra intensity. Unlike places on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong has sizable Christian and Western communities, so Christmas and Jan. 1 join the Lunar New Year as important festivals.

Then there is the sheer commercialism of Hong Kong, which derives a large part of its wealth from millions of Chinese tourists.

“For every mainland Chinese who visits Singapore or New York today, there are 20 or more who go to Hong Kong,” HSBC economist Donna Kwok (郭浩庄) said in a research report this month.

By 2015, these visitors are expected to spend US$55 billion, she added.

Attractions like the territory’s nightly light-and-laser show, which involves more than 40 buildings and is organized by the Hong Kong tourism board, are important draws. Visitors flock by the thousands to see the light show each evening.

The holiday bonanza of decorative lights on buildings lasts about three months. Once Christmas and the Western New Year are over, the displays are changed to focus on Lunar New Year celebrations — the high point of the Chinese calendar — which fall in January or February.

“Merry X-mas” wishes are replaced with Chinese characters wishing good luck and wealth for the coming year. Santa Clauses become Chinese money gods, and symbols of fortune and happiness replace stars and snowflakes.

Wong’s illuminations started going up late last month and will stay up until a week or two after the start of the Year of the Snake on Feb. 10.

However, Wong stays busy year-round, looking after the manufacture of the strings of light bulbs and other equipment he needs and preparing the designs for the next season. He never recycles old images, but designs three new proposals for each decoration job that Shun Sze Lighting, the company he founded in 1976, bids for, he said.

Given that Shun Sze does about two dozen buildings a year, that is a lot of drawings, but Wong does not seem to mind.

“Every day, I think about Christmas — all year,” he said. “Santa Claus is coming — every day!”