Hong Kong, 23 Feb. Hong Kong’s iconic neon lights, the financial city’s cityscape for decades, survive today under the threat of new technologies and ever-tighter regulations as some artists attempt to reclaim their legacy.
With the rise of LED lighting, the market for traditional signs has shrunk considerably in recent years, from hundreds of professionals creating their own neon signs to just over a dozen.
These glass tubes, hijacked into typography and pictorial designs, have thrilled the streets of the so-called “Pearl of the Orient” since the 1950s, but more than 90% have already been removed, becoming an art on the way. ‘extinction.
LED screens have established themselves as the preferred nighttime advertising medium, but amid Hong Kong’s chaos, perched on scaffolding between alleyways and tall buildings, traditional neon signs still survive, advertising everything from massage parlors to restaurants and shops.
Neon signs advertising pawnshops are as much a part of Hong Kong’s heritage as the Star Ferry’s passage through Victoria Harbour, but all survive under threat from economic crisis or technological obsolescence.
With its intense glow, neon has been part of the fabric of urban nights and has inspired Hollywood blockbusters, computer games and artists for decades.
Today his legacy has aroused the interest of new generations who, out of recognition and nostalgia for a crucial element of the city’s cultural heritage, have tried to recover and repair many abandoned lights so that the signs reappear again. in galleries and exhibitions. .
Among the lot of young artists, familiar with new technologies and trying to keep the profession alive, stands out Karen Chan, better known by her stage name Chankalun.
The designer describes herself as a “neon nomad”.
With a minimal grant from the local government, Chankalun hosts EFE in his studio to show how he learned the ins and outs of a barely surviving art.
“I spent time in New York and Amsterdam, where I studied with Dutch neon artist Remy de Feyter, which contrasts sharply with the traditional style of Uncle Wah, my teacher from Hong Kong. Neon lights require the talent and perseverance of an artist’s hands and the mind of an engineer, as well as years of practice,” he told EFE.
The process involves transforming glass until it almost melts, bending and blowing the tubes into extraordinary shapes over blue flame burners, which can reach 1,000 degrees Celsius.
The artist notes that his experience in the Netherlands allowed him to “construct luminous shapes resembling bamboo”, mold glass from fruit and fuse neon with plasma globes that project crackling rays that sizzle against fingertips like bottled éclairs.
“Older generations of neon masters are reluctant to pass on their skills,” says Chankalun.
And it is that few take up the torch of this technique, “the transmission of this know-how is done from father to son, as tradition dictates”.
For her, this job can be compared to an Olympic sport which requires “strength, precision, flexibility and great concentration”.
“You have to be agile, but sometimes you lose your concentration and you mess up. I have to balance the working hours,” explains Chankulan, who sleeps in the same studio where he produces.
Other enthusiasts have noticed and have set to work to preserve neon lights in different ways: this is the case of the M+ museum, which collects these signs and works on their heritage.
Among his accomplishments was acquiring classic ’70s emblems like the cow that had hovered over Sammy’s Kitchen spit for three decades and that many used as a point of reference.
The owners were ordered to get rid of the cartel in 2010 or pay a hefty fine and spend a year in jail.
The Hong Kong government regulated the structures that contain the signs hanging in the streets more than a decade ago, removing thousands of signs that operated without a license within a few years.