M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Kai Kee Fun Den Co. Ltd., 2013, © Kai Kee Fun Den Co.Ltd. Photo: M+, Hong Kong
Do you remember the big neon rooster in Yu Man Square, Kwun Tong?
Well, it’s now on display in front of you here at M+: the Kai Kee Mahjong parlour’s neon sign. It was the first Mahjong parlour in Hong Kong, established in the 1930s. And there’s an interesting story behind the name ‘Kai Kee’.
My name is Wilson, I’m the third-generation Operator of Kai Kee Mahjong School. In 1911, when My grandfather Lam Kwan was just thirteen years old, he fled Xinhui in Guangdong Province, by sneaking onto a boat to Hong Kong.
He had no one and nothing here, so he lived on the street at the entrance of Tin Hau Temple. The temple attendant in charge took sympathy on him, took him in, and got him a job. My Grandfather diligently worked at a chicken stall and gradually built some savings. When the owner of the chicken stall retired, he bought the stall and ran the business himself. Many locals bought from him and—not knowing his name—started to call him ‘Ah Kai’, ‘Ah Kai’, literally meaning ‘Mr. Chicken’ in Cantonese!
In 1932, my grandfather switched to selling fruits as it was more profitable, but the locals still called him ‘Ah Kai’. Then one night, grandfather dreamt of a rooster crowing to wake him up, so he got up very early and happily sold all of the fruits for that day. He walked passed a store and bought a lottery ticket—and won one hundred and five dollars. So grandfather used the lottery money to buy his own store on Temple Street. Back then, The locals had nowhere to go in their free time, so they would gather at the neighbourhood store and play mahjong. Eventually more and more locals went to grandfather’s store to play mahjong, so he decided to stop running the store and rented another space next to it to operate a Mahjong School instead.
When you leave the museum today, remember Wilson’s story as you navigate the city’s streets—the neon signs around you are likely hiding their own, fascinating tales.
Neon sign for Kai Kee Mahjong parlour, Kwun Tong branch was produced by Universal Neon Lights Company in 1976. The medium includes exhausted glass tubes, neon gas, tin, steel, and paint. The neon sign measures 127 centimetres high, 559 centimetres wide, and 51 centimetres deep.
The neon sign is a huge horizontal metal base plate with Chinese text. On the top of the base plate is a rooster sign, which looks as if a rooster is standing on the horizontal sign. This single-sided sign was mounted on the Kwun Tong branch of the mahjong parlour overhanging the pavement and road so that it could be seen from a distance.
The metal base plate is pale blue in colour and has a frame of pastel green. The huge base plate is made of smaller plates pieced together, and rust stains can be seen along the joints. On the pastel green frame are mounted thin glass tubes filled with neon gas. Craftsmen heated these tubes to make them malleable then bent them by hand. When the sign is illuminated, the neon tubes glow in a reddish orange colour.
On the base plate is the six-character Chinese name of Kai Kee Mahjong parlour. 'Kai' means chicken in Cantonese. The characters are die cut from white sheet metal and are read from right to left. On the sheet metal are mounted neon tubes that are bent to outline the characters. When lit, the yellowish-orange light is reflected by the white sheet metal and looks as if it’s filling the inside of each character with colour, which makes the strokes appear bolder.
Above the base plate, at the centre, is a rooster sign that’s also die-cut from sheet metal. The full-length profile of the rooster is painted in pale red, pale blue, and black. The rooster’s beak points to the right, looking brisk and vigorous with his chest puffed out and his tail raised. His size is one-and-a-half times that of the character ‘Kai’ on the sign. The rooster’s head, crest, and cheek are painted in red; the body is in brownish-red with touches of black; the raised tail is in pale blue with touches of green; and the feet are yellow. The rooster is also mounted with neon tubes that outline his shape. When lit, the outline glows in reddish orange; the wings glow in green; the tail and the claws glow in yellowish orange.
The neon sign is single-sided, with no neon tubes on the reverse of the sign.