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Updated on Jul 24, 2008 – SCMP

Urban Hong Kong is one supersized billboard. Is anyone bothered? This city has always had many neon signs hanging along the busiest roads. Photos to promote tourism show these streets and Hong Kong’s buzz of activity. Owners compete by putting up bigger signs. Building owners are paid for allowing advertising; this has been seen as “normal” for the city’s commercial life.

In reality, putting up signage has been poorly regulated, even though signs can cause injuries if they should fall – indeed, one advertising sign crashed to the ground recently, killing a passer-by. No one in authority or political life seems too concerned about this overall state of affairs, however.

The smaller signs jutting out from buildings along narrow, busy streets are one thing, but the massive advertising signs that go on buildings and walls, and on top of buildings, are probably some of the largest in the world. There has been a quiet revolution in recent years; they have grown ever larger due to technological advances that allow advertising graphics to be enlarged to cover the side of a whole building.

You cannot escape several large signs hawking famous brands, when going up Cotton Tree Drive, for example. Building owners who are property developers like to place giant advertisements for new properties on their existing buildings.

Take the Cheung Kong Center in Central – an expensive building on Queen’s Road. On one side of the building, the developer has created a permanent structure to hold a large advertising sign to sell its new properties. Likewise, China Building, further down the road, also has advertising wrapped round one side of it. Thus, aesthetics and taste must take a backseat to the opportunity for a hard sell.

When the Ritz Carlton Hotel closed, the owners allowed a giant advertising sign, for men’s underwear, to cover one whole side of the building, and the owners of the Mandarin Oriental didn’t want to lose the opportunity to earn a few dollars, allowing a sizable sign for women’s cosmetics to go up for a few months while the hotel was renovated.

When we look across the harbour from either side, one unmistakable aspect is the multitude of massive signs, flashing their brand names, on top of many buildings. Some show moving images and light up even during the day, so you can’t miss them. That is the point, of course.

Whether massive, big or small, these advertising signs also consume a lot of electricity when lit. A scarce resource – energy – is being wasted. Moreover, Hong Kong uses electricity to advertise itself. The evening light show has become famous with tourists. Traders can afford to do so because the world is not yet pricing energy appropriately, and material consumption is good for business.

At various times, critical voices have been heard against either the subject matter of some adverts – such as emaciated, seemingly just assaulted, female models selling fashion items, or on environmental grounds; using energy causes pollution and exacerbates climate change. There have also been longstanding complaints from some residents, whose comfort and sleep is disturbed by glaring billboards and flashing lights.

Government officials, politicians and business leaders essentially take a commercial view that the city’s lights are part of promoting Hong Kong. When a sign falls off and hits some unfortunate soul, there are whispers that something may need to be done to fasten them more securely. But there is no discussion about whether things have got out of hand altogether.

Many people are bothered; it’s just that there hasn’t been a comprehensive look at the many disturbing aspects of “billboard” Hong Kong. A thunderbolt may come from outside. Remember how upset our leaders were when a tourist guidebook put a hazy picture of Hong Kong on its cover and talked about our air pollution? What if we were voted the most energy-wasteful city?

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange

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