Neon Light makers – a vanishing trade

A festival of light in Hong Kong this week will, among other things, champion the city’s neon signage.

As well as teaming up with artists to create 16 works at sites on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon, Lumieres Hong Kong, which runs from November 23 to 25, has joined forces with the Hong Kong Neon Heritage group to draw attention to the rapid disappearance of those icons of city culture in the era of LED lights.

One of the few neon light sign makers left is Wu Chi-kai, 50, who has been in the business for over 30 years. His father introduced him to the industry when Wu was 17 years old and his focus to begin with was just on making the signs.

Neon Signs Wu Chi Kai One Of The Few Remaining Neon Sign Makers Left In HK SCMP 21.11.17

Wu Chi-kai, one of the few neon light makers left in Hong Kong, at his workshop in the Kingswin Industrial Building in Kwai Chung. Photo: Roy Issa Couurtesy: SCMP

My father didn’t let me do what he was doing – installing signs – because it can be very dangerous climbing up on the bamboo scaffolding,” he says.

At the time, Hong Kong was experiencing a golden age of neon signs that first started booming in the 1970s. Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui and Lockhart Road in Wan Chai were particularly well known for the colourful neon signs suspended above the streets.

“When Hong Kong was prospering, all the shops that had ground-level locations wanted to have neon signs to lure customers in. At the time, the government didn’t have by-laws on size restrictions for the signs. We just made them as big as the clients wanted them,” Wu says.

Neon Signs Wu Chi Kai B One Of The Few Remaining Neon Sign Makers Left In HK SCMP 21.11.17

Wu uses a rubber tube to blow into the glass tubing to help it keep its shape. Photo: Roy Issa Courtesy: SCMP

“Back then on Nathan Road, you could see signs that were horizontal and vertical. This is really special to Hong Kong. I have been abroad, not to many places, but from what I’ve seen, the neon signs are usually vertical and are attached to the wall; they wouldn’t be sticking out horizontally…

…the decline of neon began around 2000, Wu says, when the owners of neon sign workshops started taking orders to the mainland where they could be made cheaper. This was around the same time that LED lights were introduced, as well as when the Buildings Department began putting restrictions on signs, taking down those that were deemed a safety risk.(1)

Sources

  1. : The Bright Stuff: Shining Example of neon master SCMP 21st November 2017

This article was first posted on 23rd November 2017.

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