Cover "I like to give new meaning to fading technology and crafts," says Karen Chan. "It's my artistic philosophy." (Photo: CeeKayEllo (CKL))

Neon signs, part of Hong Kong’s visual heritage, have been fading away. Karen Chan shares how she learned this “secret trade,” the messages behind her favourite works, and her mission to make neon shine as an art form

Sometimes you have to leave a place to realise what you love about it.

When native Hongkonger Karen Chan felt homesick while studying design in the UK, she found herself craving dim sum and seeking out visual cues that reminded her of home. She would look for pawnshop signs and draw neon back in her room. “There’s something in me that I like the theatrical and dramatic, and neon streetscapes exactly give me that feeling,” says Chan, also known by her artistic name Chankalun.

Back in Hong Kong in 2018, Chan organised a neon group exhibition My Light, My Hood and was surprised to discover that many streets she recalled as full of neon had already been stripped bare or replaced by LEDs. She persuaded Master Wong Kin-wah, a neon bender in his 70s, to lead a workshop for the exhibiting artists and got her first try at the craft. 

It took convincing because the mentality among longtime masters has been to pass skills onto family members, not strangers who might become the competition. “Craftsmen in Hong Kong used to learn because they wanted to make a living, and they had to learn by observing and experimenting,” explains Chan, noting there are no neon textbooks or standardised courses.

See also: 7 Things You Will Only Find in Hong Kong

Neon is one of the most demanding crafts; it involves glassblowing and bombarding (the process of injecting gas into the glass tubes), meaning you need some understanding of chemistry and engineering. Chan likes to describe it as combining skills from different sports: the strength of a weight lifter to hold the glass; the balance and flexibility of a gymnast; and the mental recall of a chess player to replicate the same angle with precision.

“Through this practise, I understand myself more and accept myself more,” says Chan. “I have many physical traits that I just can’t deny, so it’s more about how I view them and make them my strengths.” She adds that she has thin arms unlike most male benders but strong legs from ballet training and they give her stability and control while working. A high tolerance for pain also helps. Chan doesn’t wear gloves and has been burned repeatedly; once she even got heat stroke and vomited in Master Wong’s studio.

After studying with him for months, Chan launched The Neon Girl project to learn neon bending techniques around the world, from Taiwan and South Korea to France and Italy. So far she’s connected with artists including Remy de Feyter in the Netherlands and James Akers and Jess Krichelle in the US. Each is pushing neon in experimental directions, say, incorporating airbrush painting or multimedia elements. 

“The new generation of neon artists, how I see it is everyone is open sourcing knowledge and sharing opinions and experiences to make it move forward,” says Chan. “And that is very interesting because it’s so different to the older generation.”

So how bright is the future of neon in Hong Kong?

While she wants to see existing signage preserved, Chan's focus is on exploring the possibilities of glass and gas as a modern art form—and teaching the skills. She runs HK Crafts, an NGO that hosts workshops to promote and reinvent fading traditions, and recently began collaborating locally with another young neon practitioner.

“I hope both of us can keep spreading neon culture and showing the general public the possibilities of neon,” says Chan. “Then we will see more experimental neon art pieces in the city, not just traditional ones, and we can really make it live as a new memory and landscape.”

Below Chan shares the stories behind three of her favourite neon art works, each with a powerful social message. 

Chan elaborated on paving her way in the neon world at the TEDxTinHauWomen event in December 2021, for which she created the neon logo sign; participants also included Arcadia Kim on reframing our relationship with screen time. 

Every Body Is a Beach Body

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Neon pink heart by Hong Kong artist Karen Chan
Above This neon heart was part of the 2021 ExtraOrdinary Exhibition organised by the Karen Leung Foundation

Neon is not just about making graphics, it’s also about glassblowing techniques. I tried to blow this glass into different organic, bubbly shapes to create a heart for self-love; we should love our own body shape regardless of how it is. The form is actually inspired by my female friends who I asked to share pictures of their silhouettes (some hesitated at first). I injected xenon gas into the piece to create a wiggly lighting effect while based in Brooklyn; neon benders don’t use xenon in Hong Kong. 

See also: Can Art Raise Awareness of Women’s Health? The Karen Leung Foundation Director Thinks So

Haiijaii installation at Wonderfruit Festival

We were an international artist collective creating this piece for the 2019 Wonderfruit Festival and wanted to send a message about global air quality (the name haiijaii means breathing in Thai). We did data scraping to detect the air quality in various places each day: if it was super bad, the neon blinked like crazy, like a warning alert. If the air quality was good, it would blink smoothly, as if breathing with a slower pace.

Most of the decorative pieces that we used in the installation were upcycled. We wove together mats we found on Thailand's Pattaya Beach and used broken pieces of neon that I sourced from the streets of Mong Kok. With the neon, I wanted to represent different countries by using slightly abstract, but still readable words.

See also: Young Women Lead Climate Change Activism, But Who Sets the Policies?

Shhh (樹) interactive installation

My very first neon piece was a response to Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018. I wanted to use neon to represent the brokenness, what the typhoon cost us, and how it destroyed our community. So the installation has a blinking effect because usually when you see blinking neon, it means that they are broken. I also deconstructed the word tree to give it a sense that it is breaking. When two people touched poles that were connected to the installation, the neon in the middle of the canvas lit up, representing that if we join hands, we can rebuild our community together.  

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