Vanishing Glow: The Global Movement to Preserve Neon Artistry

Recently, many neon sign makers in Hong Kong have expressed concern that the art of neon signs will gradually be lost. The characteristic neon signboards on the streets of Hong Kong in the past are gradually replaced by LED lights. Master Wu Zhikai is one of the only remaining neon sign masters in Hong Kong. He has been making neon signs for more than 30 years.

Master Hu Zhikai said in an interview with Xinhuanet that he started learning to make neon lights at the age of 17. But now he has moved his original studio to a remote Kwai Chung industrial building, with an area of only 30 square meters, which is a bit crowded for making neon lights. Hu Zhikai only received a small number of orders this month. Liu Wen, who joined the industry in 1957, is also a Hong Kong neon sign maker and a colleague of Hu Zhikai. He said he was worried that this craft would be lost.
Hu Zhikai, a neon sign master, is the second youngest neon sign master in Hong Kong, but among the only ten or so remaining neon sign masters, none of them have anything to teach them. “Like any industry, if the business is booming, there will be new blood,” Hu Zhikai said. “If no one joins the industry, then there will be no business.”

Neon signs around the world are being demolished frequently

In 1898, the eminent Scottish chemist Sir William Ramsay discovered a gas that resisted liquefaction and turned bright red when electrified. He named this gas “neon”. In my country, in 1926, the first neon advertisement in my country appeared on the window of the Evans Library on Nanjing East Road, Shanghai. In 1927, my country’s first neon lamp was made by Shanghai Far East Chemical Manufacturing Factory and used in Shanghai Central Hotel. In the 1930s, my country’s neon lights gradually developed. By 1949, there were more than 30 neon light factories in the country. But now, neon lights are gradually withdrawing from people’s vision.

Billboards made of neon lights are a unique cultural landscape in Hong Kong. The overlapping neon lights announce the prosperity and excitement of Hong Kong. Looking at these brightly colored neon lights, first-time visitors to Hong Kong can better understand how bright the night of the metropolis is. For many Hong Kong people, neon signs are not only a sign for doing business but also contain Hong Kong’s daily consumption and film and television culture. In “Chongqing Forest” and “Fallen Angels” directed by Wong Kar-wai, neon lights play an important role in the development of the plot and the shaping of the character’s psychology.

A giant neon cow hanging from a steakhouse in Hong Kong’s western district has become a landmark. This restaurant is called Sammy Restaurant. The master who made the neon sign thought that the cow would look better with longer legs, so this sign became very unique. The Angus cow in the sign became the only blue-and-white cow with four long legs in the world. But in 2011, the Hong Kong Buildings Department considered the signboard unsafe and wanted to remove it. In August 2015, it was demolished. From the 1990s, neon lights began to decline in Hong Kong. The master who made the neon signs said that Hong Kong’s architectural planning became more and more strict. Now new billboards are made of LED lights, which do not have the warmth of neon lights. , but the advantage lies in the low price, easier maintenance, and longer service life.
In Shanghai before, neon lights were also a very famous landscape. There used to be a very famous bamboo branch poem in Shanghai that was widely circulated: “How bright are the trees and silver flowers, and there are many lights in the Western business competition. The electric halo is used as a signboard, and thousands of stars are everywhere.” This poem describes the night scene in Shanghai. The dazzling lights make the night in Shanghai more lively. Now you can also see some historic neon lights in Shanghai, but such signs are very few. A photographer named Victor Chiang is fascinated by the neon night scene in Shanghai and took many unique photos of Shanghai at night. In many photos, you can see the old streets full of neon lights. But we can see fewer and fewer “authentic” neon lights.

In the west, the grand occasion of neon lights is gone forever. Vancouver, Canada was once known as the “Neon Capital”. In 1950, various advertisements used neon lights for publicity, and the decoration outside the church also used neon lights. At that time, the output of striped neon lights in Vancouver ranked first in the world. On average, there was one neon sign for every 18 people and every 12 factories. The largest neon light in the world was also here. However, with the advancement of commercial technology, neon lights have not escaped the decline after all.

The unique artistic value of neon lights

The first appearance of neon lights was at the Paris Motor Show in 1910. The lights adorning the exterior of the building emitted different colors than before, and the attention of all the guests present was attracted by this novelty light. Neon lights cannot be used indoors, the best use is in commercial areas and street signs. The most widely used neon lights are in barbershops which then spread to all corners of the city. The urban temperament of Paris makes it a natural pair with neon lights. After a while, neon lights came to the United States. At the New York World Fair in 1939, neon lights decorated many signs, and many companies were willing to use neon lights to promote their products.

In addition to the commercial glory of neon lights, neon lights have also actively participated in the “political propaganda” of Eastern European countries. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union implemented the “ionization” of Eastern European capitals, intending to compete with Western countries for strength. In Warsaw, neon lights adorn the exteriors of many public buildings. So when Eastern European citizens go out and look around the world, they see very interesting scenes: they not only see old-fashioned political slogans, but also a lot of political propaganda posters surrounded by neon lights.

Custom neon signs are not just a decoration but also have high artistic value. Neon lights have become the material of many science fiction novels and have greatly promoted the development of cyberpunk art. It has become the iconic background of sci-fi cyberpunk movies because the brilliant colors of neon lights can show a variety of strong contrasts at the same time: the opposition between prosperity and decadence, the interlacing of future and reality, the contrast between rich and poor, which makes people feel Produces the feeling of interlaced time and space.

Cyberpunk is a branch of science fiction that tends to depict “a combination of high technology and low life”. Cyberpunk authors attempt to draw elements from detective novels, film noir, and postmodernism to portray an untold side of digital society in the last two decades of the 20th century. The dystopian world of cyberpunk is considered the antithesis of the utopian future most people envisioned in the mid-20th century. It is precise because of the style of cyberpunk that the adapted movies also like the feeling of interlacing light and shadow, and neon lights are the elements they often choose. Image credit: Cyberpunk conception via Sergii Golotovskiy

Neon lights also greatly promoted the development of Pop Art in the 20th century. Although Pop Art has become history, its influence on the American art world is enormous. Pop Art is a booster for the development of modern American culture. It is precise because of the development of Pop Art that various anti-art movements that shocked American society in the 1960s and 1970s emerged one after another. Driven by the wave of American consumerism, pop artists were not only influenced by the standardized advertisements on TV or magazines but also by the blurred neon lights at night. These artists have greatly incorporated the brightly colored elements of neon art into their work.
Artists save art in various ways

Although neon lights are replaced by more and more LED energy-saving lamps, and it is becoming more and more difficult to see neon signboards on the streets, more and more people begin to miss this kind of culture, and various regions and artists begin to use various way to save such a visual culture.

Many countries and regions have specially set up neon light museums to preserve these neon light signs. The “Museum of Neon Art” (Museum of Neon Art) in California, USA, has a collection of various neon signs. When you walk in, you will see all kinds of neon signs from various positions in the museum. The museum houses a collection of neon signs salvaged from old, dilapidated, and thrown-away neon signs. The source of most of the neon signs turned out to be dumped. The opening of the museum has set off a wave of nostalgia in the United States, and these old neon signs show the light that once shone in the city in the last century. In Hong Kong, a large number of artists and curators are rescuing such art, because custom neon signs also played an important role in the identity of Hong Kong people. The M+ Museum is a museum dedicated to collecting neon signs in Hong Kong. This museum specializes in collecting photos of neon signs in Hong Kong online and also collects some demolished neon signs. The demolition of the neon cow in the Sammy restaurant was once a pity, but it is now also housed in the M+ museum.

From February 24 to May 10, 2019, an art exhibition called “City Street·Signboard” is being held near Oil Street, North Point, Hong Kong Island. The exhibitors believe that in the history of Hong Kong, the neon signs on the streets have multiplied generation after generation, shaping the urban appearance of Hong Kong. The founders and architects Ken and Kevin hope to show the various characteristics of neon sign boards through the lighting installation of “City Street·Signboards”, to raise the public’s awareness of the artistic value of custom neon signs.
To save the neon culture, many artists have found another way. In 2014, Sas Simon and Lena Imamura co-founded NameGlo, a company that makes custom neon lights, mainly applying neon lights to interior design. NameGlo’s position is to make neon signs a meaningful work of art rather than just home decoration. Its unique point is to make the process of making neon signs transparent and transparent, allowing customers to make neon lights with their artistic style. “Neon sign art is still of great significance to modern art, and we hope that through services like our company, the distance between neon signs and customers will be brought closer,” said Lena Imamura. Neon art is by no means dead art. Someone set up an account for neon new york city (Neon lights in New York City) on ins. In the hearts of many people, neon lights are not only a symbol of nightlife and economic prosperity but also a unique art.

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