Hong Kong’s iconic neon lights: a dimming shimmer

By Mar Sanchez-Cascado

Hong Kong, Feb 23 (EFE).- Hong Kong’s iconic neon lights, the urban landscape of the financial city for decades, survive today threatened by new technologies and increasingly strict regulations, while some artists try to recover their legacy.

With the rise of LED lighting, the market for traditional signs has shrunk dramatically in recent years, from hundreds of professionals creating their own neons to just over a dozen.

These glass tubes, twisted into typography and pictorial designs, have illuminated the streets of the so-called “Pearl of the Orient” since the 1950s, but more than 90 percent have already been removed, becoming an art in extinction.

LED screens have established themselves as the preferred nighttime advertising medium, but amid the Hong Kong chaos, perched on scaffolding between alleyways and large buildings, traditional neon signs still survive, advertising everything from massage parlors to restaurants and shops.

The neon signs that advertise pawnshops are as much a part of Hong Kong heritage as the passage of the Star Ferry ship through the port of Victoria, but they survive threatened by the economic crisis and technological obsolescence.

With its intense glow, neon has been a part of the fabric of city nights and an inspiration for decades for Hollywood blockbusters, computer games and artists.

Now, their legacy has aroused the interest of new generations who, out of recognition and nostalgia for a crucial piece of the city’s cultural heritage, have tried to recover and repair many of the discarded lights so that the signs resurface again in galleries and exhibitions.

Among the batch of young artists, knowledgeable about new technologies and trying to keep the trade alive, stands out Karen Chan, better known by her stage name Chankalun.

The creator describes herself as a “neon nomad.”

With just a minimal subsidy from the local government, Chan welcomed EFE in her studio to show how she learned the ins and outs of a barely surviving art.

“I spent time in Amsterdam and studied at the Dutch neon artist Remy de Feyter studio. De Feyter’s experimental approach is in stark contrast to the traditional style of Uncle Wah, my own master,” she said. “This is really hard. It takes the hands of an artist and the mind of an engineer, plus years of practice.”

The process consists of transforming the glass until it almost melts it, bending and blowing the tubes to give them extraordinary shapes over blue flame burners, which can reach 1,000C.

The artist said her experience in the Netherlands allowed her to “construct luminous bamboo-like shapes,” molding glass out of fruit and fusing neon with plasma globes that shoot crackling rays that sizzle against fingertips like bottled lightning.

““Older generations of neon masters, or sifus, are reluctant to pass on their skills,” Chan said.

Few people pick up this technique, and “the transmission of this know-how is from father to son, as tradition dictates.”

For Chan, this profession can be compared to an Olympic sport that requires “strength, precision, flexibility and great concentration.”

“You need to be reactive and agile, but I often get tired, lose concentration and mess up. I have to dose my working hours (sic),” said Chan, who sleeps in the same studio where she works.

Other enthusiasts have taken notice and have gotten down to work to preserve the neons in different ways: this is the case of the M + museum, which is collecting these signs and working on her legacy.

Among her achievements, acquiring classic emblems of the ‘70s such as the cow that she had hung over the Sammy’s Kitchen spit for three decades and that many used as a reference point.

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