With the onset of more cost-efficient alternatives to neon, like LED, major manufacturers have made way for only a handful of remaining artisans. But, thanks to auteurs from Wong Kar-wai to Ridley Scott, who immortalised Hong Kong’s inimitable cityscape in their films, a new generation of artists, designers and historians are doing what they can to keep the neon lights shining.
One such creative is Karen Chan, an artist and designer who exhibits under quiettomymess, and also organises exhibitions dedicated to the traditions of Hong Kong. In early 2019 she curated a neon-led installation My Light, My Hood at Kong Art Space in Central in collaboration with one of the city’s last neon makers, Master Wong. “I felt it was very important to work with one of the oldest and most prominent masters in Hong Kong for the exhibition. He’s 70-something and he’s been in the industry for 60 years,” says Chan.
For Chan, neon is a “visual language” unique to Hong Kong, and by assuming an artistic approach to what was originally a commercial product, that language can take on new meaning. “We’re always talking about art and culture and how they are interlinked,” she explains. “Neon is integral to Hong Kong culture, and people are starting to see it as an art form. As we accept that it is part of our visual culture and language, so too do we appreciate the artisanal skills behind it and elevate it even further.”
“Hong Kong is a very exciting and dynamic city, and we are always looking to be better, to be more modern. But in doing so, a lot of our traditions might be lost or may fade,” Chan says. “That’s also why the neon light exhibition was important, for me and for the other artists, to allow us to explore how can we allow Hong Kong’s traditional crafts to evolve with time, and how our artistic approach can give them new meaning.”
And there is increasing evidence that her conviction is shared, as young, independent, homegrown companies — from restaurants to bars to fashion brands — seek to offer neon a new home, one that is away from the elements and given pride of place in the way that paintings often are.
“Neon is a very strong part of our local culture, of our visual language, and although we have been moving away from it, I feel positive,” says Chan. “I think we can find a way to preserve neon and to elevate it. That’s why, by helping the masters to collaborate with artists and designers, we can make it into an art form.”
Neon signs can still be found in some parts of Hong Kong: route for a neon-lit night, complete with tips to capture the best shots. Meanwhile, a slew of local bars and restaurants like , , and are paying homage to the art form; go find the lights at these hot spots, as recommended by Karen.