The shelves of Wu Chi-kai’s workshop in an old industrial building in Hong Kong, are stacked with hollow glass rods. Each contains a layer of phosphorus and is pumped with neon or argon gas that lights up when electric current passes through it. A network of Bunsen burners includes one that looks like a tiny volcano which can reach temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius. I watch as he heats a glass rod just to the point of pliability, a delicate procedure that demands perfect timing, because the glass will shatter if it gets too hot. It’s dangerous work too, but Wu, dressed in a white T-shirt and a gold chain, prefers not to wear safety goggles.
Wu used to make the type of neon signs that populate the gaudy streets of Hong Kong’s night-time economy. Today he is moulding a spaghetti-tangle of tubes into shapes that will eventually spell out a quotation attributed to Mao Zedong: “The world is yours, as well as ours, but basically yours.” The work is a commission for an artist, Sampson Young, who represented Hong Kong at the Venice Biennale in 2017. It was due to be exhibited at M+, Hong Kong’s new museum of visual culture.
Neon is a family trade. Wu’s father was in the business too: his job was to climb up bamboo scaffolding to hang signs over the streets of Hong Kong, a perilous task that he encouraged his son to avoid. During the post-war boom of the 1950s, demand for neon signs was so strong that workshops churned them out 364 days a year, with one day off for Chinese New Year. Every kind of business had its own bright logo, from the seedy (girlie bars, massage parlours and gambling halls) to the respectable (department stores, tea houses and DIY shops).
The symbols can make it easier to navigate the city, even if you don’t read Chinese. Restaurants commonly choose the animals used in their dishes, hotels use moons, while pawn shops go for bats and coins. For decades a giant yellow hammer hung outside Tai Tak hardware on Shanghai Street. My favourite sign is a huge flashing rainbow outside Victory Mahjong, a club where people play the popular tile-based game.
In its heyday, neon-lit Hong Kong literally outshone communist China. But the industry had dwindled by the turn of the century because of competition from the mainland and the introduction of cheaper LED lighting. Gentrification has also played a part in the decline: as neighbourhoods become more upmarket, old buildings are torn down and, with them, their neon signs. Health and safety has dimmed the lights too. Traditional signs use heavy electrical transformers, and the government has become understandably cautious about these cantilevered monsters hanging over roads. Many are in dire need of repair, but it’s cheaper to remove them. The authorities removed nearly 3,000 signs in 2016 alone and they are making it more difficult for existing ones to pass inspections.
As the streets grow dimmer, there has been a revival of interest in neon lighting. The few remaining neon-masters, who come from working-class backgrounds, are reluctant to define themselves as “artists”. But increasingly others are recognising them as just that. Sampson Young insists that Hong Kong craftsmen are the only ones able to render his visions in lights. M+ has an archive of neon signs and has rescued at least six famous neons from the skip. One of them, a giant cow, enticed diners into the Sammy’s Kitchen steak house for 40 years.
I had been introduced to Wu by Cardin Chan, a Hong Konger who works for Hong Kong Neon Heritage, an organisation that promotes interest in neon lighting. The tours and workshops that she organises are always oversubscribed. It is not just hipsters and tourists who join them – many older locals come to her events too. In a city typically so unsentimental about reinvention, Hong Kongers are now taking pride in their bright heritage. But it may be too late to avert a darker future.