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On the Job With: Karen “Chankalun” Chan, neon artist

By Jianne Soriano 16 March 2023

Welcome to On the Job With, an interview series on Localiiz that chronicles the highs, lows, and unexpected quirks of various lesser-explored occupations around Hong Kong. From paint-toting plumbers to beer brewers, every job has more to it than meets the eye. For our latest exploration into weird and wonderful jobs, we chat with Karen Chan—a neon artist—about what it’s like to be one of the few female practitioners of this fading art.

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“My neon-making journey is actually very complicated and long. My friends and I got the opportunity to do a neon installation in Thailand. I tried to seek other neon benders or artists in Hong Kong to teach me, but everyone refused. I turned to a glass-bending artist instead but he also doesn’t know how to do neon bending. He taught me for an hour after watching a video online. Within a week, I managed to bend some things for the piece, and then I just gave the remaining pieces to [neon master] Wong to bombard.”

“After that, I thought, maybe there are other neon vendors who would be more confident in my skills, but they still rejected to teach me. Luckily, I had the opportunity to learn neon-making in the Netherlands. It opened up my mind because my understanding of neon-making in Hong Kong is that it is only limited to bending neon and then bombarding it.

“I started the Neon Girl project maybe a year or two ago. I did workshops in Hong Kong, France, the Netherlands, and the US. I learned that neon-making is very similar in a lot of countries; a lot of craftsmen are not willing to teach all the skills to their practitioners or apprentices. In Hong Kong, they would prefer to transfer all their skills and knowledge to their family members. When you’re a stranger, they don’t want to teach you as much.”

“I always define myself as a neon artist or practitioner because I am really just practising it. I also do more experiments on glass or gas, or even electricity compared to others. I am not trying to do a very precise way of neon-bending. I am trying to see how neon can expand into another genre, or like, how you can keep up with different forms.

“When I step into the neon-making world in Hong Kong, I do not feel like I am being discriminated against as a woman, even if it is a male-dominated industry. I also do not feel like I get rejected because I am a woman. But I do feel I get more attention because of my gender. I think I am quite lucky that all the male neon benders or artists that I work with also see me as their equal. But I feel that when I am struggling in terms of the creative process, it is harder to reach out to the whole community.”

“I think there are not a lot of female practitioners because it is not an easy, accessible craft. It is actually quite hard to find neon vendors or artists to learn from, or even a workshop. The other thing is that maybe a lot of people will find it dangerous. It is a hostile environment, so maybe other crafts have fewer risks involved. When you are doing neon-making, you are dealing with glass fire, so I get a lot of cuts or burns.

“I personally really like theatrical or dramatic effects of visuals, maybe because of my own background, as I studied set design. That’s perhaps why I got into neon as well, because of the visual stimuli. When I create a piece, it has to be something that is very impactful to me personally. It also depends on the concept or message that I have to convey. Then I will just draw out what I think would be good, which could work with colour as well.”

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“When I am thinking of the design, I already have to think about how to install it. It has to be as precise as possible, because the piece is made with glass, and they are not cheap. After I do the design, I will use the burner to bend it. The burner could go up to maybe 600 degrees Celsius. After I bend it, I have to do another extra step called the blockage point. When the neon is lit up, there are parts that you do not want to show, so that is what you are blocking. Neon-making is actually bending a whole pattern with one shape of the glass.

“I also have to think of how to mount it. I use a supporter to mount it and then I have to put the cable in. I think one of the hardest parts is when you are bending the glass because you are dealing with fire. But you have to keep turning it while keeping it steady, and your body has to move while your hand has to be very steady. It is actually quite hard. It is a craft that needs definitely needs a lot of practice.”

“I like the piece Everybody’s a Beach Body because it promotes self-love and body positivity. I asked 13 of my girlfriends to show me their body silhouettes. Then I tried to blow the shape of the body with the glassblowing techniques, which forms into a heart shape. It shows that you should love whatever shape you have. It also gives out a special lighting effect, like when your heart is pumping so it is like you have an electrified heart.

“In order to teach someone, I really have to be very skilful. But what I could do is offer a space for people, I teach them some very simple skills, and then we just experiment together. There is no right or wrong way because I am learning as well. This is how I could see neon could thrive for new generations because there is definitely an interest in it.”

“As a neon practitioner, it means that I am still learning something new constantly, every day. Neon has become the teacher which I did not anticipate. Whenever I talk to a new neon artist or benders, I always learn something, whether it is about chemicals, physics, or it could be completely non-neon-related. I learned how different cultures form and that surprises me every time how the tiniest of details can represent a culture.

“Neon allows me to draw the similarities between life and glass. Life is hard but fragile, just like glass which can break easily. But at the same, when it breaks, you can always mend it. Like life, it has a lot of twists, turns, and bends. It just depends on how you want to shape it.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Jianne Soriano

Senior editor

Jianne is introverted by nature but adventurous by heart. This Hong Kong-born-and-raised Filipino, who also spent time in Japan, prides herself on being a fangirl. On days when she’s not writing or travelling, you can find her visiting art exhibitions, looking for the best new places to eat in town, or simply trying to learn another language.