Hong Kong’s famous neon signs might be fast disappearing from the city’s streetscape, but a new generation of artists, designers and historians are doing what they can to keep them shining. Artist and designer Karen Fong talks to Mercedes Hutton about the emergence of neon as an art form.
Artist and designer who exhibits under quiettomymess, and also organises exhibitions dedicated to the traditions of Hong Kong, Karen Fong recently curated a neon-led installation My Light, My Hood at Kong Art Space in Central in collaboration with one of the city’s last neon makers, Master Wong. “I felt it was very important to work with one of the oldest and most prominent masters in Hong Kong for the exhibition. He’s 70-something and he’s been in the industry for 60 years,” says Chan, whose connection to her hometown’s neon heritage was amplified during the decade she spent studying abroad.
“When you’re away from where you were born, you seek your identity even more,” she explains. “When I returned, I wanted people to realise there is a lot of our city’s identity that we take for granted every day, and it’s something we should cherish. My parents, who were born here and grew up here, they have seen neon lights every day of their life but they don’t understand how important they are.”
For Chan, neon is a “visual language” unique to Hong Kong, and by assuming an artistic approach to what was originally a commercial product, that language can take on new meaning. “We’re always talking about art and culture and how they are interlinked,” she explains. “Neon is integral to Hong Kong culture, and people are starting to see it as an art form. As we accept that it is part of our visual culture and language, so too do we appreciate the artisanal skills behind it and elevate it even further.”
“Hong Kong is a very exciting and dynamic city, and we are always looking to be better, to be more modern. But in doing so, a lot of our traditions might be lost or may fade,” Chan says. “That’s also why the neon light exhibition was important, for me and for the other artists, to allow us to explore how can we allow Hong Kong’s traditional crafts to evolve with time, and how our artistic approach can give them new meaning.”
And there is increasing evidence that her conviction is shared, as young, independent, homegrown companies – from restaurants to bars to fashion brands – seek to offer neon a new home, one that is away from the elements and given pride of place in the way that paintings often are.
“Neon is a very strong part of our local culture, of our visual language, and although we have been moving away from it, I feel positive,” says Chan. “I think we can find a way to preserve neon and to elevate it. That’s why, by helping the masters to collaborate with artists and designers, we can make it into an art form.”
Where to Find Neon Signs in Hong Kong
Bound by Hillywood, Prince EdwardIndie coffee and craft beer joint in Prince Edward spotlighting work by local artists and neon makers. facebook.com/pg/boundhillywood
Holy Eats, SoHoYou can’t miss the neon entrance sign at this Elgin Street bar repping an underground, edgy vibe. facebook.com/holyeatshk
Happy Paradise, SoHoCulinary queen May Chow bows down to her home city via playful iterations of Chinese dishes and craft cocktails mixed at the neon-lit bar. Staunton St, Central. www.happyparadise.hk
Ping Pong 129 Gintoneria, Sai Ying PunThis lofty ceilinged, former table tennis hall helped put Sai Ying Pun on the map, with its mix-match furniture, art and neon signage backdropping a strong list of G&Ts and Spanish dishes. pingpong129.com
Tai Lung Fung, Wan ChaiTucked behind the historic Blue House, this kooky neighbourhood bar riffs on local heritage with neon motifs and nostalgic memorabilia aplenty. facebook.com/大龍鳳-TAI-LUNG-FUNG-213196412025029
Shine the light on more of Hong Kong’s hot spots