Glimpses of the Future: Unveiling the History of Tomorrow’s Neon
March 8, 2023
It’s raining in Hong Kong. The young man leaves the apartment ready to go. The bus takes him down Lockhart Street. He is surrounded by neon signs. He passes CLUB CELEBRITY. The night is filled with red, greens, yellows, pinks, and baby blue. Signs in Chinese are also available. English signs can also be found. There are vertical lines, horizontal lines, wavy lines, wavy lines, small circles, and big circles. The colors, letter, lines, and symbols are displayed in the puddles, which reflect the bus’s windows. The young man’s eyes are visible in the rearview mirror. He appears sleepy, dreamy, and even innocent. He’s on his path to killing people.
We’re watching Fallen Angels 1995, Wong Kar Wai’s classic film. Leon Lai plays the role of a professional killer. Lai’s character will get off the bus in less than a second and walk into a local restaurant to start his job. He will leave behind half-a-dozen people and return to the same bus stop to walk up Lockhart Street through the neon. This scene is one of my favorite scenes from a movie. It’s set at night and is illuminated by a variety of city lights. These include jukeboxes. cigarette tips. elevated trains. fluorescent lights. plastic fast-food signs. TV screens in small apartments. Like a multitude of personalities, the city splits into all kinds of glowing things. Some people move about. Some others stay the same. It is impossible to ignore them all. The beauty of neon is especially compelling. It makes us forget our melancholic criminals. The pulsating tubes lift us out of the city’s currencies.
These lights are part of their everyday life. It is no surprise that neon lighting plays a significant role in Wong Kar Wai’s thrilling film. This film was intended, in part, as a way to capture Hong Kong’s spirit. 1 Since the 1950s, colorful, gas-filled glass tubes were the city’s visual communication system. The Hong Kong Report for 1965 states that a million neon signs are illuminating the streets, displaying messages in every hue. 2 With the help of Western visual culture influence in the 1930s & 1940s and low production costs designers were free to create new and interesting projects. 3 Hong Kong’s densely packed streets were filled with restaurants, small shops, and department stores that all competed for customers’ attention. Neon was an important tool. Signs were bigger than those used by competitors for business purposes. Or they created signs that are so memorable they become urban landmarks. Two of the most iconic examples are the Emperor Watch & Jewellery sign jutting above Nathan Road and Sammy’s Kitchen’s aerated neon cow. 4 The tubes allowed for flashiness and established traditions. Simon Go, a historian, noted that entrepreneurs would invest their capital in a sign that would stand the test of time to be passed down to future generations. 5
Neon has had a mixed role in history, ever since its astonishing red hue was revealed in a London laboratory back in the late nineteenth century. We find the flashing tubes to be urban. Their bright colors have lit up squares and streets around the world. The custom neon sign colors have been used in many films, stories, artworks, and stories to portray these streets, and squares, as vibrant, sometimes violent, worlds. The arc stretches between the small-town America of 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Vladimir Nabokov’s provocative novel Lolita (1955), as well as Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror Blade Runner (1982), and works by contemporary artists Tracey Emin and Bruce Nauman. However, glowing tubes are not capable of shaping cities in the same way that concrete, steel, or large LED screens do. Because neon tubes are small and fragile, they can’t withstand such force. The glass tubes were made with natural gas and are crafted by skilled craftsmen. This gives them an elegant fragility that is not compatible with modern monumentalism. Therefore, neon has always lit up urban spaces from both the inside as well as the outside. Lockhart Street is an example of this. All signs that had worked in Fallen Angels’ favor have vanished.
The History of a Natural Product
The basic chemistry reflects the tension described here. Neon makes up 0.046% of the atmosphere. It doesn’t have any synthetic elements. It’s everywhere we look, even in our lungs. British chemist William Ramsay was the one to discover the gas. He was also a Nobel laureate. To find the mysterious substance, Ramsay placed it in an empty glass container and used electricity to charge it. Soon, he witnessed a blazing crimson which held him and his colleagues ‘for some moment spellbound. They were stunned at the ‘dramatic’ that the gas appeared in the apparatus, as well as its magnificent range’. 6 London, like other European cities, rapidly became the capital of electric light and illuminated advertisements during this period. Ramsay had other purposes, however. The father of neon likened the marvelous glow to a natural phenomenon: The Northern Lights. It is an amazing spectacle that occurs when electric currents light the skies. 7 Neon is often used for its metaphor of artificiality.
Neon, often used metaphorically to describe artificiality and light, began as an organic product.
Paris was the epicenter of change. Georges Claude the French engineer and entrepreneur transformed electric tubes into signs. He made the first neon letters advertising a particular business in 1912. To intensify neon’s glow, Claude shortened glass containers. By experimenting with other noble gas, he was able to provide a range to customers including argon that gleamed violet (xenon light blue), helium pink (helium pink), and krypton white (krypton silvery). This broadened his palette and offered more options with tinted sunglasses and colored steel. Neon was still a common choice. The new tubes are easier for the eye to use than the incandescent round light bulbs. Some writers compared neon’s softness to the glow of glowing candles. Claude used his slender tubes to illuminate the Paris Opera as good as banks, luxury stores, churches, and luxury boutiques. They were seen in a way that indicated sophistication.
People saw Paris in the 1920s Paris as the City of Light and had to have a little bit of it. Los Angeles car dealer and entrepreneur, John PACKARD, placed orange letters luminously spelling out his name high above the streets of his hometown. Neon had arrived in the United States and its conspicuousness stopped traffic. Georges Claude developed a franchising system that was crucial to the company’s success. He owned important patents that allowed him to sell regional licenses to customers all over the world. Claude Neon Associated Companies were established by the company in 1930. They had offices in the United States, Canada, Mexico City, and Havana. There were branches located in Australia, Paris, and Neon signs. New Zealand. Tokyo. Osaka. Shanghai. 8 A Claude shop was also established in Hong Kong in 1932. A company magazine, the Claude Neon News, updated its readers about the latest developments regarding neon’s global story. The publication also highlighted the legal problems that await anyone who attempts to violate Claude’s copyrights. A Claude Neon News piece praised the New Lights in Tokyo’, published in 1930. It included four signs. One was for an automobile company, the other a newspaper, and the third for a textbook publisher. The fourth, placed in the Asakusa entertainment district showed the way to the Headquarters for Beef Pot. 9
Even though neon quickly spread all over the globe — the first neon signs in China were placed on Shanghai’s Nanjing East Road in 1926. They advertised Royal typewriters. The United States was the epicenter during the 1930s. In this country, neon became an integral part of the vibrant culture that battled the Great Depression. The new, glamorous American movie theaters relied on neon. Hollywood’s entertainment palace explained its philosophy in glowing words: ‘Through These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Girls in the World.’ This was in 1930s Times Square in New York, where neon quickly became the focal point of the most innovative visual effects ever to emerge in urban culture. Advertisements showed neon fish so big they could swallow whales. These neon roses, at 30m high, sprang upwards and fell again and yet again. New Yorkers turned their heads when a coffee advertisement featured neon and the authentic smell of coffee. One can spot 300 different neon signs in Times Square from any corner. Broadway, formerly called “The Great White Way”, was rechristened “Rainbow Ravine” during this new era with colored lights.
The central part of New York was still under floodlights in 1950. Louis Faurer (Bus No. 7, New York City. Photograph. 20 x 30 cm. Gift of Gordon Lee Pollock. 1989.544.5.
Times Square gave neon greater-than-life proportions. Claude’s patents wore off, and the signs had a distinctly human touch. These tubes were created in small workshops. Craftsmen made letters and symbols in response to the demands of their customers. Once they had settled upon a design, craftsmen used their breath and hands to create the glass containers. Rudi Stern of New York, the neon guru who created the famous workshop Let There Be Neon’s famed workshops, stated that “good glass-bending looks very easy”. Stern stressed the importance and value of breath and touch. It takes great expertise to “sense the heat building in the glass”, he stated. The right moment must be chosen to shape fragile tubes to the right form. 10 Working with neon tubes requires a mastery that has been lost to the industrial age. Richard Sennett, the Sociologist, recently wrote The Craftsman. This is a praise for ‘craftsmanship’, which he describes as a way in life. A commitment to a ‘life of skill’. 11 These neon-signmakers kept their way of life intact in their workshops.
Yet, the demand for these skills would soon start to decline. In the 1950s the US redesigned its cities to make them more accessible for pedestrians than cars. For the increasingly suburbanized nation, bigger signs were necessary. These signs were made of plastic and are more durable than neon ones. Plastic signs were machine-shaped using the latest advertising strategies of motel and restaurant chains. As neon faded from America’s visual culture, it was replaced by a figuratively discarded sign that hung over the doors of motels and bars. It continued to flicker in areas unaffected by the growing prosperity of the postwar years. There is a clear connection between neon’s decline and inner-city decay. In the last few decades of this century, America’s glamorous downtowns became deserted. Thus, the symbol of the decayed and red-light district is a sign of a technology used in advertising that once decorated churches and luxury shops. Previous neon advertisements had promoted the ETERNAL sun and WONDERFUL TREASURES of Egypt high up above Parisian streets. However, in Times Square, a fixture asking passersby “HAVE YOU WRITTEN FROM MOTHER LATELY?” Now, old and decaying, neon promises accommodation in a dubious HOTEL, or the company GI LS GRL S. Las Vegas, Nevada was first to emerge as a neon-lit city in the 1960s and 1950s. After only a few decades though, hotels and casinos in the city moved to other forms of spectacular advertising. Even though Asian cities had not been affected by the United States urban decline in America, they still faced neon’s darker associations. These included pawn shops as well as massage parlors. Hostess bars and other places of ill-repute. Neon had hit a low.
As time went by, neon was no longer part of the visual culture in middle-class America. It is now a symbol that hangs above the doors to cheap bars or motels.
Neon’s Friends and Foes
Writers as well as intellectuals revived Claude’s tube. They did this inadvertently, partly because neon represented a worldview and they didn’t like it. The glowing devices were used by a generation of postwar thinkers as metaphors for modernity’s superficial flashiness. Theodor Adorno created a theory of music in the 1940s. It attacked the all-powerful, neon light style’ of the culture sector. Adorno thought that true art was a complex and dark counterforce to the beauty, entertainment, and commerce of modern life. Guy Debord’s 1967 concept, the society of the spectacle’, is similar to Adorno’s. Visual effects hypnotize people and reduce their worlds to a jumble of images. 12 Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 masterpiece Lolita uses neon as a powerful metaphor in fiction. The novel depicts the mad, obsessive mind and violence of the author, who rapes her object of desire ‘in a neon light [. . .] getting through the blind’s slits’. 13 Theodore Roszak (cultural critic) wrote an essay called “The Neon Telephone” that attacked consumerism in the early 1990s. Lauren Langman, an American sociologist who wrote influentially about Neon Cages describes modern consumer spaces as areas of technofascism. This paper treats shopping malls like dreamlike environments in which everything is controlled. Pei Chia Lan, the sociologist, uses Langman’s terminology in her study of the work life of Taiwan’s cosmetic saleswomen. Lan examines the new neon cages in that women are exposed to constant bright light. They must perform at all times and are under constant surveillance. 16
While it suffered as a technology, neon’s use as a metaphor was ever more expansive. Langman’s & Lan’s cages’, for example, may not have been illuminated by neon at ALL — nor by argon & xenon – or any other noble gas that Georges Claude tinkered with. These sociologists are referring to spaces not lit by neon, but by fluorescent tubes (although that term doesn’t sound half as elegant). The truth is that even “good old neon”, doesn’t seem all that innocent. 17 Neon enthusiasts require a certain level of willful insanity to make the transition from the pulsating sauna into the pulsating spa, from CLUB CELEBRITY and CLUB HOT LUPS, and to view these signs solely as signs. Their beauty helps us to overlook the bodies in work and the ones for sale. It is a slightly sexist (but still inspiring) form of postmodern flirtation that follows Learning from Las Vegas and praises the ionised gambling heaven in the Nevada desert, which has been called the most interesting modern architecture. 18 It is clear that we are too eager for urban reality to be ignored. We see a gimmicky capitalism spectacle that is just fantastic, even in the rain. It is healthy for some cultural critics to take a different view. Bruce Begout is a French philosopher who saw the neon cowgirl Vegas Vickie as a symbol of cruelty and was left stranded in Las Vegas. 19
But, overall, neon’s tale is a little more nuanced. It is possible that glowing tubes made cowgirls. They were also used by groups and individuals in all sorts of situations to create their niches. In neon workshops, artisans maintained an independent craft for as much time as they could. Neon is a fragile and limited-range lighting technology that ties together neighborhoods. Some authors saw this. Nelson Algren was a Chicago novelist who coined “neon forest” in the 1940s. He writes about the struggle of marginalized and poor city dwellers to resist modernity’s forces in the neon-lit bars where they call home. 20 Peggy Lee was a jazz singer and Algren’s contemporary. The song ‘Neon Signs, (I’m Gonna Shine As Neon Too)’ was co-written and performed by her. It is an upbeat number that celebrates the city’s joy. 21 These texts point out that neon can distract urban reality. They insist that glowing letters and symbols represent communal institutions that can transform cities.
This is where the most recent evolution of neon began. American cities witnessed the rise of the first generation of lighting artists in the 1960s. They lived and worked in neighborhoods caught in rapid de-industrialization. These spaces saw the disappearance of blue-collar employment. Hardware stores, industrial objects, and the very idea that craftsmanship was outdated all seemed to have disappeared. These artists used glass tubes, as well as a wide range of seemingly non-useful materials, to create detritus. Joshua Shannon, an Art historian, describes this late 20th-century movement to be a “willful resistance” to the service industries taking over artists’ environments. 22
Neon seemed like an outdated and pointless technology. But it soon became a valuable material for minimalist experiments, confessional art, and conceptual art. Bruce Nauman’s installations used the most basic corporeal and linguistic forms to hypnotize audiences. Dan Flavin worked with fluorescent tubes that were not neon, but he developed a new language to describe the material in space. Joseph Kosuth was a philosopher who conducted philosophical investigations into neon. Artists like Lili Lekich and Chryssa used these signs to make life narratives in tight relation to modern urban spaces. British artist Tracey Emin discovered neon while searching for fragile and sensual material to display intimate messages in public spaces. It was at Margate in England that she had first seen neon. Contemporary artists have done more than just revive old advertising technology because of the symbolic meaning neon holds for cities in trouble. Light art — neon art — has helped revitalize cities.
Hong Kong is a case in point. Neon has lost some of its significance in Hong Kong. LED produces brighter, better-quality light. They had originally reached Asia via Georges Claude’s fantastic international franchising system. But ironically, they are now disappearing because global corporations today want their advertising to look the same for every franchise location. 23 Hong Kong’s independent food courts, brightly lit on the outside and serving healthy food on the inside, are an alternative. They provide a safe place for families to build relationships and strengthen their bonds. These brightly lit signs link the modern metropolis back to the small fishing town it once was. Neon still pulsates, it is part of the city and an outsider to it.