Neon signs are nocturnal… It’s 10am; their bones protrude from buildings suspending their pale coloured bodies above the street. The lines of their glass tubes appear like a fragile exoskeleton whose form blends into the structures around it. They’re fast asleep but they subtly ask for your gaze. At 11pm; your pupils constrict from the luminosity of the lights. They’re awake. Now that it’s night time it’s as if they’ve gone through metamorphosis with their guts disappearing into the darkness. All that’s left are their floating exoskeletons that light up the streets in vibrant colours seducing you to come closer. In Sydney there is a scarce amount of neon signs that exist in the form of signage for local Chinese restaurants or trendy storefronts. While they do exist here, their presence can’t compare to that of in Hong Kong. Before I arrived I told a friend my focus for this task would be on neon signs, she told me it would almost be like the streets of Blade Runner in real life and she was right.
It was said that “if your store had a neon sign it was doing well” (Lau, 2015). When neon signs first emerged the business had boomed rapidly, there was no kind of signage at the time that could match the neon sign’s ability to seize the attention of a passer-by. A neon sign was the best type of sign a store could own. It was impossible not to see any neon lights while walking the streets of Hong Kong. I’d walk to the corner of a street and be able to see the glows from signs that are four blocks away then become lured to them like a moth to a flame. The statement from Lau Wan still stands today, stores with neon signs are usually an indication of quality or experience.
Crafting a neon sign requires a high level of care and dexterity, a maker needs to know which directions to bend the glass tube in a systemised way to avoid burning their hands and to overlap or underlap lines to create the illusion of one constant stroke. These skills take years to develop and are practiced until it becomes instinct. Like a calligrapher, a neon sign maker’s hand style is evident in the results they produce. The smoothness of their bends, the scale of their characters and the straightness of their lines are all determined by the maker’s hand. A higher quality sign may have the glass tubes outlining characters as opposed to being the strokes of characters in order to preserve the varying stoke widths created from a calligrapher’s brush.
With the introduction of LED lights in the 90s, lit up signs begin to lose some of these characteristics and are instead replaced with either monotonous or staggered rows of small armies of lights that make out the silhouettes of printed characters and words. Compared to a neon’s sign requirement of around 4000–12000 volts from a transformer, the LED sign’s maximum of 240v required input from a transformer is significantly more safe and energy saving. Businesses begin to prefer LED signage for their energy efficiency and low maintenance in order to save money. DIY signs become easier to create as anyone with basic electronical knowledge can set up a LED sign using preassembled strips or ropes as opposed to the high level of skill required to create neon signs.
The potential for LED lighting also grows to a significantly higher level than neon signs with applications not limited to small signage for local businesses. With over twenty buildings participating in the Symphony of Lights, LED has become a multi-million dollar market with buildings such as the International Commerce Centre and the HSBC building demonstrating how LED lighting can also cater to high profiled clients. Both buildings house over 50,000 square meters of LED lights that are able to be controlled through software to produce programmed light shows.
As time progresses it is inevitable for new technologies to phase out old technology. Aric Chen from the M+ museum describes of the neon and LED comparison as similar to analogue verses digital. He mentions that “It’s like the difference between a digital recording and a vinyl record.” (Chen 2014). With a broader horizon in LED lighting it would be rare for future generations to choose neon light making as a career choice over LED. With many signs being uninstalled after being deemed unsafe and no new signs being installed the future of neon continues to dim as time passes by.
Brian Nguyen is currently studying his third year of Visual Communications at the University of Technology Sydney.
- West Kowloon Central District, ‘霓虹的製作 The Making of Neon Signs | NEONSIGNS.HK 探索霓虹’, YouTube, viewed 5 February 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsIo57pH-pA>
- Tse, C. 2015, ‘Hong Kong Is Slowly Dimming Its Neon Glow’, NY Times, viewed 5 February 2016, <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/14/world/asia/hong-kong-neon-sign-maker.html>
- Li, Z. 2014 ‘Can Hong Kong save its neon signs? One museum hopes so’, CNN, viewed 5 February 2016, <http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/27/travel/hong-kong-neon/>