Master Wong and the art of Neon

Blog — 04 Apr 2024

As China asserts its authority Hong Kong is changing. It is visible in the bars and hotels, once the domain of the expat community, the clientele is very different today. At last week’s art fairs, Art Central and Art Basel, the demographic felt notably more Asian than past years. Hong Kong was slow to move out of Covid and the impact on the economy is still being felt. Not only have the expats left but around 150,000-200,000 Hong Kongers have migrated to the UK alone. As well as the economic impact, this has also left a gap in the local labour market

Art Central Press area, designed by Stiff+Trevillion

The Hong Kong Government and Tourist Board are investing substantial sums to attract overseas visitors, Teamlab’s installation “Continuous” at Tamar Park is a good example.

However, the fairs were well attended and back up to pre-covid levels. It was the first time since 2019 that Art Central was staged in a tent on the Harbourfront, and it attracted over 40,000 visitors during its five-day tenure. Hong Kong is still a vibrant, energetic and fun city, its cultural draw is getting better all the time with new galleries and museums of world stature. (M+ and the Palace Museum for example).

'Continuous' Tamar Park, Hong Kong

But some would argue that the place is losing its identity. One of the iconic features of the city was its neon signs that cantilevered across the streets advertising everything from restaurants to snooker halls. These signs have been a feature of streets like Nathan Road since the 1920s. Sadly, they have been deemed dangerous structures and swathes of them have been removed over that last 4 or 5 years, radically altering the visual identity of the city. The signs are historical artefacts, which will continue to gain in cultural value as the last ones vanish.

Nathan Road, Hong Kong

The Art Central site is leased and managed by an events company called Serious Staging, the MD is David Rule, and he has already saved 70 of the original signs and has catalogued the remaining 500 or so that still exist. He hopes to build a collection of 120 – 150 and find a way of permanently displaying them, preferably in an urban street.

Once taken down they are restored and placed in storage in the north of the region. The restoration process is a challenge, not least repairing or replacing the damaged neon tubes. This is a craft that is in danger of disappearing as new signs are usually made using LED and plastic tubing.

The art of bending glass tubes, to form complex letters and characters, and then filling them with argon or neon gas is intricate and skilful. Master Wong is 82 years old and one of the few remaining neon craftsmen in the city, he has been doing it for 60 years. I was fortunate enough to be taken by David to Master Wong's small workshop in Kowloon to witness the process which has not changed from its early days. Bending the tubes needs incredible hand to eye coordination, and remarkable dexterity. Filling those tubes with argon or neon and a tiny ball of mercury and then firing them up with 10,000 volts is like witnessing alchemy.

Master Wong will soon retire and he is passing on his knowledge to his daughter and an apprentice, but it will take them years to master the process. Preservation of these crafts is as important as the conservation of the artefacts that they made. Let’s hope the Hong Kong Authorities recognise that there is an exceptional opportunity to reinstate these iconic signs which are unique to this great city and continue the matchless tradition that they foster.

Master Wong at work
Tools of the trade
Work in progress

You can read more about Hong Kong's vanishing signs here: Fading glory: the fight to save Hong Kong’s beloved neon signs

And watch a short film about David Rule's restoration work here: