It’s a rainy evening in Hong Kong. The young man gets ready to go and leaves the apartment. He takes the bus down Lockhart Street. His surroundings are dotted with neon signs. He passes CLUB CELEBRITY. The OK, CLUB HOT LIPIS, and the PALACE SAUNA. There are other signs too flashing by too quickly for him to see. The night is bright red, green, yellow, and pink. There are neon signs for sale in Chinese. English signs are available. There are many types of signs: horizontal, vertical, wavy, small, large, and half-circles. The colors, letters, lines, and symbols are reflected in the puddles along the street, as well as the bus windows. The rearview mirror shows the face of the young man: sleepy, dreamy, and even innocent. He’s about to kill someone.
We’re currently watching Fallen Angels (a 1995 classic film directed by Wong Kar Wai in which Leon Lai portrays a professional assassin). Lai’s character will walk into a restaurant to complete his job in a matter of seconds. He will leave behind half of the bodies and then return to the same bus route to continue up Lockhart Street passing through the neon. It is one of the most memorable sequences in a film. The scene is set at night and is lit up by many city lights including jukeboxes. The city splits into many glowing lights, much like multiple personalities. Some are mobile. Some remain in one spot. These are too numerous to ignore. Neon’s transcendent beauty makes it even more compelling. It makes us forget all the victims of our melancholic killer. The city’s realities are lifted by the pulsating tube.
However, they are a vital part of their culture. It is not a surprise that neon lights play an important role in Wong Kar Wai’s electrifying film. The film was made in part to capture Hong Kong’s spirit. 1 The city’s visual language was provided by the colorful, gas-filled tubes made of glass. The Hong Kong Report for 1963 states that a million neon signs are visible on the streets, proclaiming messages in every color. 2 Designers have been able to take on new and innovative projects because of the local creativity combined with the influence of Western visual culture, the 1930s-1940s, and low production costs. 3 Hong Kong’s densely populated areas were a battleground for attention. Neon became a crucial tool. Signs used by business owners were often larger than those of their competitors. Or, they used signs that were so iconic they became landmarks in the city. One of the most notable examples is the Emperor Watch & Jewellery sign, which juts above Nathan Road. Another is the Sammy’s Kitchen neon cow, which is an airborne neon cow. 4 Although the tubes created a lot of attention, they also established a tradition. Simon Go, the historian, points out that entrepreneurs would put their money into a sign that would be durable, so it could be passed from one generation to another. 5
But a neon sign for sale has always played an uncertain role since its remarkable red hue was first discovered in a London laboratory in the late nineteenth century. On one hand, neon’s flashing tubes seem to be distinctly urban. Their vibrant colors have ignited squares and streets all around the world with their pulsating energy. Numerous films, stories, and artworks of art have used neon to depict these streets and squares in vibrant and often violent settings. From small-town America depicted in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita (1955), Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller Blade Runner (1982), and contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin and Bruce Nauman, the arc stretches across the globe. But glowing tubes didn’t shape cities like steel, concrete, and giant LED screens. This force is too much for neon tubes, which are far too small and fragile to handle. Glass tubes, made of natural gas and hand-crafted by meticulous craftsmen, have an elegant fragility that contrasts with urban monumentalism. This is why neon has always flickered in urban cultures. Lockhart Street is a sad example of this. All signs in Fallen Angels that were supposed to work their magic have disappeared.
History of a Natural Product
Basic chemistry mirrors this tension. Neon is 0.00046% of the atmosphere. It’s not synthetic. It’s everywhere, in every part of our bodies and our lungs. British chemist William Ramsay, a future Nobel laureate and British chemist, discovered the gas during a campaign to fill the remaining gaps on the Periodic Table. To identify the substance, he put it in a glass vessel and charged it with electricity. Soon, he noticed a blaze of color that held him and his coworkers ‘for some time spellbound’. The ‘dramatic way” the gas appeared in their apparatus and its magnificent range amazed them. 6 London, like many other European capitals, became a major center for illuminated advertising and electric light during this period. Ramsay did not intend to use his invention for commercial purposes. The neon father compared the brilliant glow to a natural phenomenon, the Northern Lights. These are the spectacular displays that occur when electric currents color our skies. 7 Neon is often used as a metaphor for artificiality.
Paris saw a shift in the world. Georges Claude was a French engineer turned entrepreneur who made electric tubes and commercial signs. He created the first neon letters advertising a company in 1912: PALAIS COIFFEUR gleamed above Boulevard Montmartre. To increase the neon’s glow, Claude widened the glass containers. His customers were able to choose from argon gleamed violet to xenon pale blue to helium pink to krypton silvery-white. These gases were combined to expand the options, with tinted glasses and colored metallic adding more options. The custom neon sign was not garish at this stage. The new tubes proved to be easier on the eyes than the earlier, more blindingly round incandescent lightbulbs. Some writers compared the softness and glow of neon to that of glowing candles. Claude’s slender tubes illuminated the Paris Opera and banks as well as luxury stores, luxury shops, and churches. They were perceived as signs of sophistication.
People in Paris saw the City of Light as a glowing city and decided to take some home. Los Angeles car dealer, who had just returned from Paris in 1923, installed luminous orange letters spelling PACKARD high up above the streets. Neon arrived in America and was immediately noticed by motorists. Georges Claude created the franchising model that made Neon a global success. His patents were crucial and he sold global licenses to all customers around the world. Claude Neon Associated Companies existed in the United States, Canada, Mexico City, Havana, and Cuba as early as 1930. There were branches in Australia and Paris, Neon signs, 1931. New Zealand, Tokyo Osaka, and Shanghai. 8 A Claude shop in Hong Kong was also opened in 1932. A company magazine called the Claude Neon News kept its readers updated on the latest developments and legal troubles facing anyone who infringes on Claude’s copyrights. An article in Claude Neon News praised the New Lights of Tokyo’ in early 1930. It had four signs. One advertised an automobile company and one a newspaper. The fourth was a textbook publisher. The fourth, which was located in Asakusa, indicated the route to the “Headquarters of Beef Pot”. 9
Neon quickly spread throughout the world, with the first neon sign appearing in China in 1926. This was an advertisement for Royal typewriters at Shanghai’s Nanjing East Road. However, the United States was the epicenter in the 1930s. These tubes became an integral part of a vibrant pop culture that was struggling to overcome the Great Depression’s profound economic crisis. The neon was essential to the success of America’s new movie theatres. One Hollywood entertainment palace stated its philosophy in a glowing letter: ‘Through this portals pass the best girls in the universe.’ The neon was the centerpiece of New York’s most intricate visual effects. Advertisements depicted neon fish as big and as big as whales. Neon roses 30 meters high sprang up, then faded again and again. New Yorkers were amazed by the coffee advertisement featuring neon and the actual smell of coffee. An attentive pedestrian could spot 300 neon installations from any corner in Times Square. Broadway, which was previously called ‘The Great White Way,’ was renamed ‘Rainbow Ravine,’ in this new age of colored lights.
The center of New York was still flooded in 1950 by neon signs. Louis Faurer, bus No. 7, New York City, 1950. Photograph, 20.7 x 30.5″, Gift of Gordon Lee Pollock. 1989.544.5
Times Square gave neon life-size proportions. Claude’s patents had run out, so the signs still had a very human touch. These tubes were produced in small workshops. These tubes were made by artisans who created letters and symbols to meet the requirements of their customers. After they settled on a design they used their breath to form glass containers. They then used their hands to form desired shapes. Rudi Stern (New York neon guru and founder of the legendary workshop Let There Be Neon) stated that glass-bending is easy. Stern highlighted the importance of touch, breath, and experience in bending simple circles. To sense heat in the glass, one needs to have a wealth of experience, Stern said. You must be able to recognize the right moment to mold the fragile tubes into their correct form. 10 It takes a certain level of mastery to work with neon tubes. This skill now endangered by the industrial revolution. Richard Sennett, a sociologist has just published The Craftsman. It is a study that praises craftsmanship as a way of living, a commitment to ‘to live life with skill’. 11 This way of life was maintained by the neon-sign maker in their workshops.
However, this ability would soon become less in demand. The 1950s saw the United States redesign its cities to accommodate automobiles instead of pedestrians. Larger signs were required in an increasingly suburban country. These signs, made of plastic, were more durable and powerful than their neon counterparts. Plastic signs were made by machines, and also by new advertising concepts of a motel or restaurant chain chains. In America’s middle class, neon was gradually pushed aside and left to hang around above motels and bars. It was a dimming light in postwar-era areas. There is a close connection between inner city decay and neon’s fall. The glitzy American downtowns of the first ten years of the twentieth century became crashlands. A symbol of the down-and-out and the red light district was created by an advertising technology that was once used for decorating churches and luxury stores. Before neon, it had been used to advertise the ETERNAL SOUND and WONDERFUL TREASURES OF Egypt high above Parisian street streets. A lighting fixture in Times Square had also asked passers-by: HAVE YOU WRITTEN To MOTHER LATELY?” Now, it is old, decrepit, and carelessly treated. In Times Square, a neon fixture asked passersby: HAVE YOU WRITTEN TO MOTHER LATELY? However, its casinos and hotels went on to become other forms of advertising within a matter of years. While Asian cities had been spared much of the American urban decline, there was no denying that neon’s seedier associations would be a problem in these places, which included pawn shops and massage parlors as well as hostess bars, pawn shops, and other venues of ill-repute. Neon had hit a low.
Neon’s Friends and Foes
Writers and intellectuals revived Claude’s tubes. However, they did so accidentally because neon was a symbol of a worldview they disliked. Insisting on the energy of mass culture, a postwar generation discovered that neon was a useful metaphor for modernity’s superficial flashiness. Theodor Adorno developed a theory on music in the late 1940s. He attacked the all-powerful neon lights style’ of the culture industry. Adorno saw genuine art as a dark, complex, and deep counterforce to the entertainment industry’s superficial terror of commerce, brightness, and entertainment. Guy Debord’s concept of the society of the spectacle in 1967 is similar. Visual effects hypnotize customers, reducing their worlds to a conglomeration of images and products. 12 Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 masterpiece Lolita was a strong metaphor in the realm of fiction. The novel’s obnoxious and violent narrator, who rapes the object he desires ‘in the neon lights 13 Theodore Roszak was a cultural critic who wrote an essay in the early 1990s titled “The Neon Telephone”. It attacked technology and consumerism. Lauren Langman, an American sociologist and author of ‘Neon Cages’, depicts modern consumer spaces in the context of techno-fascism. It describes shopping malls as a utopian environment where everything is controlled. Pei-Chia Lan used Langman’s terminology when she studied the work habits of Taiwanese cosmetic saleswomen. Lan examines the new ‘neon cells’ that keep women constantly exposed to bright lights. They must perform constantly and are under constant surveillance. 16
Even though it was not a viable technology, the use of neon as a metaphor has grown to be more extensive. Langman’s ‘cages,’ Lan’s, might not be lit by neon at any time — or by argon and xenon or other noble gases Georges Claude once experimented with. Instead, these sociologists appear to refer to spaces lit by fluorescent tubes rather than neon. (The term doesn’t sound half as elegant). However, even “good old neon” doesn’t always sound so innocent. 17 Neon fans need a certain amount of willful naivety and a willingness to change from pulsating Sauna to Pulsating Sauna, from CLUB CELEBRITY, CLUB HOT LIPIS, and to see these signs only as signs. Their beauty makes it easy to forget about the bodies at the office and the bodies on sale. It is a bit of a postmodern flirtation to follow Learning from Las Vegas and to hail a recognized gambling hell on the Nevada desert as one of the most fascinating places modern architecture has ever created. We are all too quick to ignore urban realities. We tend to be drawn to gimmicky capitalist spectacles that look great, and even better in the rain. Some cultural critics, however, take a different approach. Bruce Begout was a French philosopher who once found himself in Las Vegas. He looked at the giant neon cowgirl, known as Vegas Vickie, and saw only the “boundless cruelty” of a “celestial, mechanical whore”. 19
However, neon’s story has a lot more to it. While glowing tubes might have made grotesque cowgirls, However, they were also used by individuals and groups to create niches. They worked with neon to establish themselves in urban areas. In neon workshops, artisans maintained their independent craft for an as long time as they could. Neon was a delicate lighting technology with a limited range that linked neighbors. Some authors even noticed. Nelson Algren, a Chicago novelist, created the term ‘neon desert’ in late 1940s Chicago. Algren describes poor and marginalized communities in cities as they struggle to resist the modernizing forces. He does this with great humanist empathy. 20 Peggy Lee (a jazz singer and Algren’s contemporary) co-wrote and sang ‘Neon Signs(I’m Gonna Shine like Neon Too’), an upbeat song celebrating the city as a joyous place. 21 These texts acknowledge that neon can be distracting from urban reality. However, they insist that the glowing symbols and letters are a reference to communal institutions that have the potential to transform cities from the ground upward.
This was the context in which neon’s most recent transformation occurred. American cities were home to the first generation of light artists in the 1960s. They lived and worked in neighborhoods caught in rapid de-industrialization. These areas were void of blue-collar jobs. Hardware stores, industrial items, and even the idea of craftsmanship seem outdated. These artists used glass tubes as detritus along with a variety of seemingly useless materials. Joshua Shannon, an art historian, describes the late 20th-century movement of resistance to the service industry taking over artists’ environment. 22
Neon looked like a boring and insignificant technology. Then it became an inspiration material for conceptual art, confessional installation, and minimalist experiments. Bruce Nauman’s installations hypnotized audiences with simple linguistic and corporeal forms. Dan Flavin developed a language to represent space in space, even though he used neon-free fluorescent tubes. Joseph Kosuth did philosophical research on the neon signs for sale. Artists such as Lili Lakich, Chryssa, and others used neon to create life narratives that were closely connected to urban spaces. British artist Tracey Emin discovered neon in her search for a sensitive and fragile material that could be used to express intimate feelings in public spaces. Her first encounter with neon was in Margate, an English seaside resort that was in decline. Because neon is symbolic of cities in crisis, artists today did more than simply breathe new life into old advertising technology. Neon art — light art — has revitalized cities by being displayed on streets and squares as well as in art spaces.
Similar stories may unfold in Hong Kong. Neon sign for sale is losing their importance in Hong Kong. LED allows for brighter, more affordable light. These tubes were originally introduced to Asia through Georges Claude’s brilliant international franchising scheme. But, ironically, today’s global corporations are demanding that their advertising be consistent for all franchise branches. 23 Hong Kong’s independent eateries, which are decorated with neon and offer food on the outside, remain strong places for family and social ties. The gleaming signs are a link between a bustling metropolis and the small fishing community it was once. Neon pulses: It is a part and a stranger to the city.