Tomorrow’s Neon: A History
It is a rainy night here in Hong Kong. The young man is ready for work and leaves his apartment. He is taken down Lockhart Street by the bus. He is surrounded by neon signs. He passes CLUB CELEBRITY and the OK, CLUB Hot LIPS. Other signs flash too fast to be seen. It is a night of red, green, and yellow with baby blue. LED Neon Signs are available in Chinese. Neon Signs for sale are also available in English. There are vertical and horizontal lines as well as wavy lines. As do the windows of the bus, so do the street puddles. The young man appears in the rearview mirror: dreamy, sleepy, and innocent. He is on his way to killing some people.
We are watching Fallen Angels (1995), a classic Wong Kar Wai film in which Leon Lai plays an assassin. Lai’s character will soon get off the bus to walk into a restaurant and do his job. He will leave behind half a dozen people, but he will return to the bus line to go up Lockhart Street again, passing through the neon. This is one of the most memorable scenes in a movie set at night. He is energized by a multitude of city lights: jukeboxes and cigarette tips as well as elevated trains, and fluorescent lights. Plastic fast-food signs, small TV screens, and fluorescent lights. The city is split into many glowing objects, like a multi-dimensional personality. Some people move around. Some people stay put. They are all impossible to ignore. But neon’s transcendent beauty is what makes it so compelling. It makes us forget about the melancholic murderers who have been left behind. We are lifted from the city’s reality by the pulsating tubes.
They are part of the city. It’s no surprise that neon lights are a major part of Wong Kar Wai’s electrifying film. This film was created in part to capture Hong Kong’s spirit. The colorful, gas-filled, glass tubes that were filled with gas provided the city’s visual language since the 1950s. According to the Hong Kong Report for 1964, ‘A million neon signs illuminate the streets proclaiming their messages and in every color’. Designers were able to explore new and exciting projects thanks to local creativity and the influence of Western visual culture from the 1930s and 1940s. 3 Hong Kong’s dense, crowded areas saw many competitors for attention, including small shops, department stores, and restaurants. Neon was a powerful tool. Signs that were larger than the competition were used by business owners. They also chose signs that were so distinctive they became urban landmarks. Two of the most famous examples are the Emperor Watch & Jewellery sign that juts over Nathan Road and Sammy’s Kitchen’s neon cow. 4 While the tubes were fashionable and flashy, they also established traditions. Simon Go, a historian, notes that entrepreneurs would invest in a “sign that would last”, to be passed down from generation to generation. 5
Since neon’s discovery in a London laboratory late in the nineteenth century, when it first displayed its stunning red color, the gas has been playing an ambivalent role. The flashing tubes are a striking feature of urban life. Their vibrant colors have energized streets and squares all over the globe. These streets and squares have been depicted in countless films, stories, and artworks that use neon. This arc stretches from small-town America in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life, to Vladimir Nabokov’s provocative novel Lolita (1955), to contemporary works such as Tracey Emin and Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller Blade Runner (1982). However, glowing tubes have not been able to shape cities the same way as steel, concrete, or huge LED screens. These neon tubes are too fragile and small to withstand this force. The glass tubes are made from natural gas and were crafted by skilled craftsmen. They have an elegant fragility that is at odds with urban monumentalism. So neon has always been visible from the outside and inside of urban environments. This is evident on Lockhart Street. All signs that worked their magic in Fallen Angels are now gone.
The History of a Natural Product
Basic chemistry mirrors the tension described in this article. The atmosphere is composed of 0.00046 percent neon. It isn’t synthetic. It is everywhere around us and in our lungs. British chemist William Ramsay discovered the gas in an attempt to fill in the gaps in the Periodic Table. He placed the gas in a glass container and then charged it with electricity to identify it. He soon saw a “blaze of crimson” that kept him and his colleagues spellbound. They were astonished by the ‘dramatic’ way the gas and its “magnificent spectrum” appeared in their apparatus. 6 London was quickly becoming a capital for electric light and illuminated advertisement during this time, just like other European cities. Ramsay was not interested in commercial goals. Ramsay, the father of neon, compared the amazing glow to a natural phenomenon called the Northern Lights. This is a stunning spectacle that occurs in the polar region when electric currents color the sky. 7 Neon is often used to represent artificiality. It started its life as an organic product.
Neon is often used to represent artificiality. It started its life as an organic product.
Paris was a city that changed everything. Georges Claude, a French engineer, and entrepreneur turned electric tubes into signs for commercial purposes. He produced the first neon signs advertising a business in 1912. To intensify the glow of neon, Claude narrowed glass containers. He experimented with noble gases and was able to offer a variety of colors to his customers. The palette was expanded by mixing these gases, as well as tinted glasses with colored metal and tinted glasses. There was nothing garish or gimmicky about neon at this point. The new tubes were easier to see than the old, round, blinding incandescent lightbulbs that had been used for advertising. Some writers likened neon’s softness to glowing candles. Claude’s slender tubes lit up the Paris Opera, banks, and luxury shops, as well as churches. They were considered signs of sophistication.
People saw Paris’ City of Light glowing in 1920s Paris and wanted to bring a piece home. In 1923, a Los Angeles car dealer installed luminous orange letters that spell out PACKARD high above his home. The Neon sign was visible and stopped traffic. Georges Claude’s franchising system was the key to its worldwide success. He was a patent holder and sold licenses in regional areas to people all over the globe. Claude Neon Associated Companies was established in the United States and Canada by his company. It also had branches in Mexico City, Havana, Cuba, and the United States. There were also branches in Australia, Paris, Neon signs, and Paris in 1931. New Zealand, Tokyo Osaka, Shanghai. 8 In 1932, a Claude shop was opened in Hong Kong. The Claude Neon News, a company magazine, kept its readers informed about the latest developments in neon’s global story. It also warned them of the serious legal consequences for anyone trying to infringe Claude’s copyrights. A Claude Neon News article praised ‘New Lights In Tokyo’ in 1930. It featured four signs. One advertises an automobile company, one advertises a newspaper, and another advertises a textbook publisher. The fourth sign, located in Asakusa’s entertainment district, led to the Headquarters of Beef Pot’. 9
Although neon was quickly adopted around the globe, the first neon sign in China was placed in 1926. It advertised Royal typewriters located on Shanghai’s Nanjing East Road. The epicenter of neon in the 1930s was the United States. The tubes were an integral part of vibrant popular culture that fought the Great Depression’s severe economic downturn. Neon was the key to the new American movie theatres. The philosophy of a Hollywood entertainment palace was written in glowing letters: “Through these portals, pass the most beautiful women in the world.” In New York Times Square, neon became the main fixture of some of the most complex visual effects ever created in urban culture. Advertisements featured neon fish that were as large as whales. The neon roses, which were 30 meters tall, kept popping up and then falling, time and again. New Yorkers were captivated by a coffee advertisement that used neon and the true smell of coffee. A pedestrian can see 300 neon signs from any corner of Times Square. Broadway, formerly known as “The Great White Way”, was renamed “Rainbow Ravine” in this new era.
In 1950, New York’s central area was still flooded by neon signs; Louis Faurer Bus No. 7, New York City 1950, Photograph, 20.7×30.5 cm, Gift of Gordon Lee Pollock 1989.544.5
Times Square was home to neon in larger-than-life proportions. Claude’s patents were not enough to stop the overwhelming amount of neon signs from having a human touch. These tubes were made in small workshops. The letters and symbols were created by craftsmen according to their customers’ needs. After settling on a design, they used the breath of their customers to make the glass containers. Then they used their hands to form the desired shapes with their hands. Rudi Stern, a New York neon guru, stated that good glass-bending appears deceptively simple. He founded the famed workshop Let There Be Neon, in 1972. Stern stressed the importance of touch and breath. He said that it takes a lot of expertise to sense the heat buildup in the glass. It is important to be able to determine the best moment to form the fragile tubes into the correct shape. 10 The industrial age has made it difficult to work with neon tubes. Richard Sennett, the sociologist, has recently published The Craftsman. He praises “craftsmanship” as a way to live, and a commitment to “conduct life with skill.” This way of living was preserved by neon-sign manufacturers in their workshops.
But this would soon diminish the demand for these skills. The 1950s saw cities in America redesigned for automobiles and not pedestrians. Signs needed to be larger as the nation became more suburban. These plastic signs were stronger and less fragile than their neon counterparts. Machines and the new advertising strategies of restaurant or motel chains shaped plastic signs. The visual culture of middle-class America gradually lost neon — it was left hanging above the doors of cheap bars and motels. It remained in areas that were not affected by the prosperity of the postwar period. There is a strong connection between inner-city decay and neon’s decline. In the early decades of the 20th century, glamorous American cities became a wasteland. An advertising technology that was once used to decorate churches and luxury shops became a symbol for the red-light district and rundown. The neon advertising technology had previously promoted the ETERNAL SUNFIRE and WONDERFUL TREASURES of Egypt high above Parisian streets. In Times Square, a light fixture asked passersby: WHAT HAVE YOU WRITTEN TO YOUR MOTHER LAST? Now, the neon sign is a fading, neglected gadget. It promised accommodation in a dubious HOTL or the company of GI L S G RLS GIR S. Las Vegas was a neon city that emerged in the 1950s and 60s. After a few decades, the neon city’s hotels and casinos were replaced by other advertising forms. Even though Asian cities were spared most of the US’ urban decline, neon’s seedier associations – in the form of pawnshops, massage parlors, and hostess bars – would continue to haunt them. Neon had hit a low.
The visual culture of middle-class America lost neon over time. It was left to hang around above the doors to motels and bars.
Neon’s Friends and Foes
Intellectuals and writers revived Claude’s tubes. They did it inadvertently because neon represented a worldview that they hated. A generation of postwar thinkers became suspicious of the mass culture’s energies and found the glowing devices to be useful metaphors for modernity’s superficial flashiness. Theodor Adorno developed a theory about music in the late 1940s and attacked the ‘all-powerful’ neon light style of the culture industry. Adorno believed that genuine art was a deeper, darker, and more complex form of entertainment, countering the terrors of light, commerce, and entertainment. Guy Debord’s 1967 idea of the “society” of spectacles is based on a similar idea. Visual effects are used to hypnotize consumers and reduce their world to a collection of images and products. 12 Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece Lolita, a 1955 novel that was a work of fiction, used neon as a powerful metaphor. The novel shows the obsessive, violent mind of the narrator who rapes his object of desire “in the neon light “coming through the slits of the blind” 13 Theodore Roszak, a cultural critic, wrote an essay entitled ‘The Neon Telephone’ in the 1990s. It attacked consumerism and technology. Lauren Langman, an American sociologist, wrote an influential paper titled ‘Neon Cages.’ It depicts contemporary consumer spaces as areas of techno-fascism. She views shopping malls as a dreamlike environment where everything can be controlled. Pei-Chia Lan, a sociologist from Taiwan, used Langman’s terminology to study the work of cosmetic saleswomen. Lan examines the new “neon cages” of women who are constantly exposed to bright light. They must perform and they are constantly under surveillance. 16
Although it was a terrible technology, neon became a more universal metaphor. For example, Langman’s and Lans ‘cages” may not be lit by neon at all — or by argon, xenon, or any other noble gases that Georges Claude used to experiment with. These sociologists instead seem to be referring to spaces that are lit by fluorescent tubes, rather than neon (although the term doesn’t sound half so elegant). Even ‘good old neon” is not always so innocent. 17 Neon lovers need to have a little bit of willful naivety to go from pulsating saunas to pulsating saunas, from CLUB CELEBRITY or CLUB HOT LIPS, and not consider these signs as anything more than signs. Their beauty allows us to ignore the bodies at work or the bodies for purchase. It’s a rather naive (but inspiring) postmodern flirtation, to follow Learning from Las Vegas. To praise a recognized gambling paradise in the Nevada desert for being the most interesting place modern architecture has ever imagined, like that 1972 architectural manifesto. 18 Perhaps we are too eager to overlook urban realities. Our eyes are always drawn to some gimmicky, capitalist spectacle that looks great in the rain. Some cultural critics have different perspectives. It is healthy to think so. Bruce Begout, a French philosopher who was once lost in Las Vegas, saw a neon cowgirl called Vegas Vickie and only the ‘boundless cruelty of a celestial and machine whore’.
Overall, however, neon’s story is more complex than that. The grotesque cowgirls may have been shaped by the glow tubes. They were also used in all kinds of settings by groups and individuals who created niches for themselves using neon to gain access to urban spaces. The neon workshops were a place where artisans preserved their craft for as long as possible. Neon, a fragile lighting technology that has a limited range, linked neighborhoods. Some authors were aware. Nelson Algren, a Chicago novelist in the late 1940s, coined the term “neon wilderness”. He describes the struggles of people living in poverty and marginalized areas to resist modernity’s centrifugal forces. 20 Peggy Lee, a jazz singer who is Algren’s contemporary sang and co-wrote the song ‘Neon Signs’ (I’m Going to Shine Like Neon Too), a cheerful number that celebrates the city’s joy. 21 The texts note that neon can distract from urban realities. They also emphasize that neon distracts from urban reality.
This is where neon’s latest transformation took place. In the 1960s, America’s first generation of light artists emerged. They lived and worked in neighborhoods caught in rapid de-industrialization. These spaces were no longer home to blue-collar workers. The idea of craftsmanship, hardware stores, and industrial objects seems dated. The glass tubes were used by these artists as detritus, along with other seemingly innocuous materials. Joshua Shannon, an art historian, describes this late-century movement in terms of a ‘willful resistance’ against the service industries that are now taking over artists’ spaces. 22
Neon was a primitive and unremarkable technology. It became a source of inspiration for minimalist experiments, conceptual art, and confessional installations. Bruce Nauman’s installations were hypnotized by audiences using the most basic linguistic forms and corporeal forms. Dan Flavin, despite working with neon-free fluorescent tubes, developed a new language for representing material in space. Joseph Kosuth carried out philosophical investigations in neon. Artists like Lili Lakich or Chryssa used neon signs to create life stories in close connection to urban environments. British artist Tracey Emin discovered neon at the beginning of the 21st century when she was looking for delicate and sensual material to show intimate notes in public places. In Margate, an English seaside resort in decline, she had her first encounter with neon. Contemporary artists were drawn to neon’s symbolic association with cities in crisis. They did more than just give new life to yesterday’s advertising technology. Light art, also known as neon art, has been displayed in public spaces, streets, and right in front of people, helping to revitalize cities.
The story in Hong Kong may be similar. Here, the neon sign for sale has lost its significance. LED is brighter and more affordable than neon. They were first introduced to Asia by Georges Claude’s international franchising program. However, the tubes have started to disappear because global corporations today want to advertise in the same way for every branch. 23 Hong Kong’s independent restaurants are a great place to make family and social connections. These gleaming signs connect a vibrant metropolis to the small fishing village that it was once. Neon is still alive and well: it’s part of the city, but also a stranger.