Header image courtesy of Artur Kornakov (via Unsplash)
Hong Kong—the city that never sleeps, lit up by a lurid visual cacophony of neon. It’s a vivid impression of Hong Kong that thrived post-World War II and was popularised by the likes of The World of Suzie Wong and Chungking Express, inspiring the landscapes of many cyberpunk films and capturing the public’s imagination. But today, Hong Kong’s neon-drenched nightscape is quietly vanishing as LED lights take over. As the city loses its unique sheen and turns less dimensional, it also loses its visual heritage and the craftsmanship of the art. We dive into the fading history of Hong Kong’s neon lights before they dim forever.
One of the last neon light sign makers in the city is 53-year-old veteran Wu Chi-kai. Master Wu has been in the trade for more than 30 years now, having first gotten into the business through a summer job when he was just 17. “My dad was a neon lights installation worker, and one summer, he said to me, ‘Why don’t you take up a job?’ so I went to work at his company,” explains Wu. But the teenager did not exactly follow in his father’s footsteps. “Dad knew that working outdoors—especially in high places—is dangerous, so instead, he arranged for me to work in the workshop and make neon lights.”
Wu was a keen learner and quickly grew familiar with the craft. Once a client has sent in their design, Wu uses gas heaters to warm up glass tubing and mould it according to the design. When the shape is set, electrodes are installed in the ends, and air is pumped out from the tubes so that neon or argon gas may be pumped in. Pure neon gas is used to produce shades of red and orange, but one may be surprised to learn that most other hues are purely mixes of argon and mercury and don’t have any neon in them despite their name.
These signs were built to last for a while—around a decade—though they would lose their luminosity over time. Considering the amount of custom labour and time put into them, with orders taking weeks to months to make depending on their size, it’s a pretty economical and viable option in the long run. Different workshops also source their materials from different countries, such as the US or UK. This explains some of the odd patches of colours in signs as repairs may have been done using materials from another place or workshop.
Back in the 1980s, it was a booming business, too. “We made all kinds of neon lights back then. Restaurants, game centres, banks—every shop on the street wanted their sign to be visible, and using neon lights was the obvious answer because they’re pretty and flashy,” recalls Wu. What seems to the untrained eye a jumble of lurid lights is, in fact, visually coordinated to maximise each business’s exposure. In a bid to further distinguish themselves, wealthier corporations would commission even bigger signs, culminating in the Guinness World Record for the largest neon sign on earth—the instantly recognisable National Panasonic sign that covers an entire side of a building on Nathan Road.
However, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, the neon sign industry in Hong Kong began to slow as cheaper, more energy-efficient, and easily mass-produced LED lights took the spotlight. It didn’t help that the Hong Kong government began to crack down on illegal signage and imposed stricter size regulations, either.
Nevertheless, Wu stuck to his craft. “Not a lot of people did this job even back then so it was pretty special. Besides, I already learned all these skills, so it would be a waste if I just left and did something else.” Wu admits that he did try changing professions at one point, but came back to the neon business after a series of twists and turns. “I eventually realised that I can’t leave this industry because ultimately, there has always been a demand for neon in Hong Kong, but not a lot of people who know how to do it.”
Hongkongers have always been resilient and adaptable, and Wu is no different. Without lavish orders for the street neon signage of yore, Wu instead crafts smaller pieces such as shopfront signs and other indoor decorations, and collaborations with arts and heritage preservation organisations. As a result, Wu has gained more creative freedom in his work.
“I’ve only been more involved in the design end of my work these few years because previously I’d just build whatever design the client submits,” Wu says. “This made it hard for me to have a favourite neon piece because I was just following instructions.”
Clients in the past were also often unfamiliar with the craft and sometimes requested difficult designs with sundry colours concentrated in the same place, or designs with dense yet intricate linework; this is not a problem anymore with Wu at the helm.
Wu estimates that there are only seven or eight neon light craftsmen left in the city today, even as sites such as The Hong Kong Neon Heritage and NeonSigns.HK spring up. Yet Wu remains reasonably optimistic about the future of neon in the city. “When there’s less of something, people value it more and start thinking about how to preserve them,” he muses. “And when there’s a demand, this city will always have people who know how to do neon.”