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They try to preserve the neon lights of Hong Kong

Hong Kong (CNN) – From Hollywood blockbusters to Wong Kar-wai films, neon signs have been an iconic portrayal of Hong Kong.

First introduced in the 1920s, these panels flourished in the second half of the 20th century amid the city’s economy. Restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, pawn shops and even mah jong parlors hung neon lights to announce they were open for business.

Each sign was individually made – incorporating western neon alongside local craftsmanship – rather than mass-produced in factories.

Now, neon lights are becoming increasingly rare. As the city transformed, businesses transformed from manufacturers to service providers, losing old traditional industries. Neon was no exception.

Visual memory

The book “Hong Kong Neon” by Swiss-born artist Pascal Greco explores the many neon lights that have illuminated the city’s streets for years.

Inspired by Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong films like “In the Mood for Love” and “Chungking Express”, Greco photographed neon lights on a Polaroid camera, capturing an endangered art form through a other.

He traveled to Hong Kong for a month every year for eight years, photographing 170 of its neon signs.

“About 70% of the neon signs in my book no longer exist,” Greco says.

In a city as dense as Hong Kong, neon signs have become inevitable victims of modernization. The old buildings without elevator are demolished and replaced by skyscrapers. Eventually, a lot of the old signs were replaced with safer and more energy efficient LED lights.

Only a handful of these neon lights have a rare house to be stored. Most end up in landfills.

But the crackdown on neon lights can go beyond simple security concerns.

Most neon signs in Hong Kong depict traditional Chinese characters. Mainland China uses Simplified Chinese, which may play a role in the disappearance of Hong Kong’s unique heritage, Greco says.

It is also a matter of hard work for minimal financial reward. The art takes years to master and requires skilled physical labor. Many neon artists in Hong Kong have no one to pass their heritage on.

“We were able to take neon, this alien invention, and add our own twist to it,” said Cardin Chan, spokesperson for Tetra Neon Exchange, a nonprofit neon conservation group.

She estimates that there were over 400 neon sign artists in Hong Kong at its peak, but only a dozen remain.

The neon masters don’t want their successors to fight in the dying industry like they once did.

“For a very long time, these people actually worked so hard for Hong Kong to create the landscape (of the city),” Cardin adds. “I think they deserve to be seen. They were the unsung heroes.”

Neon lights along a street in Kowloon, Hong Kong.

Reshaping the future

Karen Chan is the founder of CeeKayEllo, a local art design studio, and HKCRAFTS, a non-profit arts organization that promotes local crafts and artists.

She has been studying neon sign techniques since 2019 in hopes of keeping the art alive.

The neon industry is largely male-dominated in Hong Kong, making her the only female neon designer and practitioner in the city.

She also learned from different neon artists around the world in the Netherlands, France, Taiwan, the United States and South Korea.

But the 32-year-old says mastering the craft isn’t a piece of cake. “The physical part is definitely one of my weaknesses,” she said.

From folding and blowing glass to handling gas, neon signs require great attention to detail. “It’s also a question of training and muscle memory.”

Even through wrestling, Karen says it’s worth it because she keeps such a deeply rooted and treasured part of Hong Kong tradition alive.

While the neon lights can be tangibly removed, their memories continue to live on among Hong Kong residents.