The Lonely Process and Lovely Work of Hong Kong's Neon Craftsmen

By Jordan Kushins on at

Hong Kong's neon sign trade is fading in the face of new technology, but there are still skilled workers who craft the glowing lights by hand. The process is, by their own admission, painstaking, solitary, thankless, and steadily losing popularity, but these guys are still going at it. Watching them make the magic fixtures is mesmerising—they are really good at what they do.

This mini-doc offers an intimate look at men who have been manipulating glass and gas for decades.

They know what style of script to pair with each commission; they can estimate heights, dimensions, and characters without so much as touching a ruler and they're able to masterfully manipulate tubes heated with the tip of a flame—the middle isn't quite hot enough—until it bends exactly they way they want it to. They use materials with names like "chicken intestines," "iron heart transistors," and "thousand-layer paper," and know, based on extensive experience, how to shape each piece to avoid burning fingertips.

The end result is beautiful but the business seems tough. "A lonely profession with nothing exciting to offer you," is one description that belies how fascinating it is to watch them do their thing.

The vid is part of a larger project by M+, the city's museum for visual culture, which launched an online exhibition devoted to preserving the craft. For the next three months, a load of new stuff will be added to the site: essays, galleries, timelines, and even an interactive map where visitors can upload specific locations and pics of notable must-see neon creation.

The Lonely Process And Lovely Work Of Hong Kong's Neon Craftsmen

As mass-produced LED illumination continues to phase out the old specimens and take over the streets, this kind of documentation might eventually be all that remains of the practical art—a strange reality that isn't lost on those behind the effort. Curator Aric Chen writes:

It might seem ironic that this project, dedicated to neon signs, resides on one of the mediums that's replacing them: a digital screen. However, as a craft born of industry, there has always been something inherently anachronistic about neon, and perhaps it's fitting that it's as an anachronism that neon signs might live on.

Explore the growing collection here. [Kottke]