Bright lights, big city

[South China Morning Post]

The neon lights that defined Hong Kong are disappearing, along with the artists who make them. Who will take their place?

In his 2002 photo book, Neon City, photographer Keith Macgregor said: “It is neon above all else that seems to set Hong Kong apart from other international cities.” But now the government is shutting off many of those neon lights in a crackdown on illegal structures.

One of the signs that will soon go dark is the huge Angus cow in bright orange, green and white, that has pointed to Sammy’s Kitchen in Sai Ying Pun for more than 30 years.

The good news is that the glowing landmark will join other ill-fated signs, all once a standard part of the city’s streetscape, at M+, the Museum of Visual Art in the West Kowloon Cultural District set to open in 2017. There, they will always be remembered.

As well as acquiring those dying signs, the M+ museum recently started a campaign to map the surviving signs online and tell stories of craftsmen through videos and guided tours, hoping to keep the neon legacy alive.

This is good news, because there are only a few ageing neon sign makers left, and not much young talent coming to replace them.

“Neon signs earned the city’s nickname ‘the oriental pearl’,” says 75-year-old Lau Wan, one of the last neon sign makers. He has been in the trade for 50 years and is still proud of his job. “They contribute to the city’s beauty, fame and success.”

Neon signs, invented by a French engineer in 1910, started lighting up Hong Kong’s streets in the 1960s. With businesses fighting for attention, the facades of buildings became more and more crowded with neon signs that got larger, brighter and more creative.

Some of the most famous included the peacock-shaped logo of the old Millie’s Shopping Arcade, the red rooster that belonged to Kai Khee Mahjong, and National Panasonic’s skyscraping neon sign on Nathan Road in the 1970s – it set a Guinness record for being the world’s largest at the time. Back then, even Hang Seng Bank, Hotel Miramar and Rado Watches would invest in neon signs.

At the peak of the neon trade, Lau would work frantically at Nam Wah Neonlight & Electrical, shaping and joining glass tubes into calligraphic Chinese characters with a six-flame burner. Then he would vacuum-seal the rods and fill them with colourless neon gas, which glows red when electrified. He has learned to hold the rods gently, and blow on them precisely so as not to break them.

“This is quite a tedious and repetitive job,” says Lau. “It’s not pleasant, either, to work in the humidity and heat with a torch that can get as hot as 800 degree Celsius. And when I over-heat the glass tubes by mistake, they would explode and my hands get punctured by glass shards. It has been hard to attract new blood.”

The handmade neon sign industry has slowed down since other advertising tools such as LED lights, light boxes and computer-assisted design came along. According to Lau, only about 10 of the 50 neon sign makers he knew are still alive and working in the industry.

But William Tam, Lau’s boss and the second-generation owner of the neon sign business, doesn’t think that it’s all doom and gloom.

With more options and less budget for advertising – partly due to soaring rents- Tam thinks it’s only natural that the market for neon signs has gotten smaller. “But neon signs still have an edge.”

He said neon lights are “more durable; typhoon, humidity and salty wind-proof; and easily repaired”. LED versions on the other hand, though brighter and cheaper, have electrical systems that are more sensitive to weather and pose a greater fire hazard.

It will be a good day when people start to miss neon lights and treat them as the city’s cultural heritage, he says. He believes that when people appreciate the craft, it will survive.

Read the original story ON YOUNG POST’S WEBSITE.
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