A school girl hurries home through Jardine’s Bazaar. Her saddle shoes pleat the surfaces of murky puddles, reflecting coloured lights that play and glint in the gathering dusk. Straining under the weight of her bag, she glances up at an aurora of neon signage sparking to life, bathing the market in warm radiance. The air courses with energy as rarefied gases ionise and bloom: neon to red, argon to blue, helium to pink.
As the 1990s wore on, the girl watched Causeway Bay’s neon signs fade along with old shops, shuttered and forgotten as the neighbourhood changed. Neon-adorned family businesses were replaced by anonymous chain stores, assaulting retinas with cheap LED signage. Holdouts slowly surrendered their distinctive neon in the face of a bureaucratic framework that disingenuously offers old signs a path to legality, but bars any realistic prospect of success. While it is possible to lawfully erect approved neon signage, it doesn’t make commercial sense to invest in a volatile landscape where businesses no longer pass down through generations but open and close at the whim of landlords. In some cases, the best case scenario is for an old sign to be saved and preserved in storage, as Zolima CityMag did for a classic dim sum parlour sign in Happy Valley.
Today, the little girl who admired the neon in Causeway Bay is Hong Kong’s only female neon apprentice. Her name is Karen Chan, known now by her handle Chankalun. Bathed in the glow of a computer screen and haloed by a shock of bleach blond hair, her effervescence belies the early hour as she bridges time zones to speak from France, the birthplace of commercial neon lighting. She is doing research on international neon sign making.
Chankalun, a set and exhibition designer, had long been fascinated with neon’s otherworldly glow but never imagined that she could one day shape that light with her own hands and breath. This changed in 2018 when she crossed paths with neon master Wong Kin-wah, or Uncle Wah as he is affectionately known. “It was by luck that I found Uncle Wah,” says Chankalun. “My friend happened to know his daughter, Kitty. People who come into the workshop often say, ‘You’re so lucky, Wong Sifu doesn’t teach – I’ve been asking him for 10 years and he still won’t!’” Cajoled by his daughter, the reclusive Uncle Wah reluctantly took Chankalun on as his apprentice.
Like all Hong Kong craftsmen, Wong learned his skills through a traditional apprenticeship in which sifu—masters—taught with harsh words and minimal instruction. It was up to apprentices to learn what they could through observation and emulation. As Wong’s apprentice, Chankalun has not been spared. “Aiya! No! No! No! Not like that!” an exasperated Uncle Wah often yells. Chankalun contorts her face in mock horror then laughs. “This is part of the fun. We have different learning experiences and expectations between generations. This is why most masters have rejected teaching young people. They think that we aren’t serious.”
Wong demonstrates and Chankalun does her best to follow along. The process is arduous and sometimes painful. Chankalun has felt the sharp burn of an open flame and the crystalline slice of glass against her lip. There have also been practical difficulties in being Hong Kong’s only female neon apprentice. Uncle Wah’s techniques have had to be adapted for Chankalun’s considerably slighter physique. “Most of the sifu probably have larger hands than me and the glass tubes can be very heavy.”
Neon signs are shaped over open flames and bent by hand in a process known as wat1 gun2 (屈管, tube bending). Tube benders must act quickly and precisely to form shapes from deliquescent material that shifts from solid to liquid and back in seconds. Every piece must be perfectly free of air bubbles; a single flaw could cause the assemblage to shatter when heated and vacuumed of impurities. When a slip of paper, laid across the hot glass, bursts into flame the tubes are ready to be filled with noble gases. Throughout the bending process, a craftsperson must turn the tubes with synchronised hands to prevent the soft glass from twisting into airflow-choking kinks.
“My hands aren’t synchronised,” Chankalun explains, “so I only move my left hand. My right hand just holds the glass. Somehow it just works.” On first observing this unorthodox manoeuvre, Uncle Wah protested but eventually accepted it: “Aai1! M4 lei5 nei5!” he exclaimed (唉! 唔理妳!) – “Eh! I’m going to ignore you!”
“It’s a lot of trial and error and communication which the sifu isn’t used to,” says Chankalun. “We are both learning together and I totally make him very lou4 hei3 (勞氣, annoyed), as he always says.” Though vexed by his impetuous pupil, the kindly Uncle Wah never stays mad. “He is a bit softer and more tender to me. With me being a girl he probably thinks of his own daughter.”
Hong Kong’s neon signage artistry, while highly traditional, is excellent. Chankalun has benefited from Uncle Wah’s teaching, and may one day master the skills born of her home city – but she has also come under the tutelage of others. Researching international neon design and craft traditions, Chankalun sojourned in Amsterdam and studied at Dutch neon artist Remy de Feyter’s studio Ray of Light. De Feyter’s experimental approach contrasts wildly with Uncle Wah’s traditional style. His work pushes the boundaries of glass bending, even featuring aspects that Hong Kong masters might consider mistakes.
De Feyter’s experiments have seen him constructing luminous bamboo-like shapes with imperfectly joined glass, moulding glass out of pineapples, and melding neon with plasma globes that send crepitating rays sparking against the tips of fingers like bottled lightning. “The neon signs that I see in Hong Kong are usually regular shapes or parallel neon tubes,” says Chankalun. “I’d never seen neon pieces like his, where he’s really playing around with the shape and quality of glass and gases to achieve different effects. That opened my mind.”
It is Chankalun’s hope to fuse experimental techniques and international influences with Hong Kong’s illustrious neon making tradition. “This is something that I really want to share with people in my home city. Maybe neon, apart from its commercial uses, can be a form of neon glass art.”
“There are ways for Hong Kong neon to innovate,” says Zolima CityMag contributor Cardin Chan, who also works with Tetra Neon Exchange, an NGO dedicated to promoting and conserving neon. “Because cheap LEDs came along, neon’s natural evolution was cut short – the cost made it unattractive to innovate. The next step for neon may well be for it to transform from outdoor signage to indoor objets d’art.”
Speaking amidst the hushed murmur of a coffee shop in Tai Kwun, Chan addresses a rapt audience. She has worked for years in researching and conserving neon heritage, taking on such Herculean tasks as preserving the immense Tsui Wah sign that once presided over Parkes Street in Jordan. With Hong Kong’s neon tradition in steady decline, experts like Chan know that the work of one individual cannot stem the bleeding. She sees a need for a concerted effort to preserve and evolve the craft.
She says there needs to be more people like Chankalun to keep Hong Kong’s neon heritage alive. “We need to understand the struggles of people in the industry and without getting your hands dirty, you can’t understand.” Through hard experience, Chan has learned that the real danger is more pernicious than the mere destruction of signs – it is the loss of knowledge through apathy and a lack of recognition for Hong Kong’s skilled sign makers.
“Hong Kong has benefited from neon but it has disrespected it,” she says. “People conveniently neglect who is behind the scenes. Who makes the signs? We never pay them the respect that they deserve but they have names and faces. Who will be their voice? How many are interested in knowing the craft?” Chan recounts the tragic incident of a sign installer, Master Wun Ping Kong, who died before she could record his story. With little to mark his passing but a wreath from his signmaking peers, the master took irreplaceable knowledge to his grave. Until his death, the sifu had believed his work to be without value.
Chan is adamant that mindsets towards self worth must change amongst neon crafters who are notoriously insular and shun industry outsiders. Many don’t see value in their own work; most don’t even know which signs are theirs since neon works are made by several craftsmen working in isolation. They have no idea how the complete composition will look. Chankalun has observed this trait in Uncle Wah. “He’s a friendly old, little guy who is very shy and humble. When I tell him that the work he does for Hong Kong is amazing he doesn’t feel anything.”
In a bid to record the so-called “software” of international neon craft, Chankalun is throwing herself into writing a book about what she has learned. This, in concert with efforts by allies like Cardin Chan, might be Hong Kong’s best chance at rescuing a neon tradition that was once emblematic of the city’s bright promise. “Even [Uncle Wah’s] daughter said that he’s worried about me,” sighs Chankalun. “He doesn’t know how I will make a living out of this passion.”
Struggling in the face of impossible odds, passion may make all the difference for people like Chankalun and Chan, just two of a handful of Hongkongers who have devoted themselves to safeguarding neon craft. “Hopefully [one day] I can be part of a younger generation that can teach others. Maybe the craft can bloom again,” says Chankalun. Though the darkness encroaches, somewhere there is a light that never goes out.