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Lights Out in Hong Kong

Scientists first discovered the presence of neon gas in our atmosphere at the end of the 19th century. Tasteless, odourless and colourless, they found that neon and the other noble gases were largely unreactive, but that when subjected to an electrical charge they would emit light in a range of dazzling colours. By the 1920s, entrepreneurs had realised the advertising potential in the their vibrant hues and within the space of a few decades neon signs had begun to change the face of the world's cities.

By the 60s, Hong Kong had become one of the world's great neon cities. The signs were everywhere, jostling for space in the narrow streets as businesses tried to outdo each other in both style and size. They appeared on postcards and on movie sets, and soon became an integral part of Hong Kong’s visual identity, bathing the city each night in their distinctive glow.

But over the last decade, due to a government crackdown on structures they say contravene building and safety codes, the rise of cheap, mass-produced LEDs, and a change in perceptions towards neon, the signs have been disappearing at an alarming rate. Activists have been trying to stop the trend, and to document the remaining signs before it's too late.

"The streets are becoming monochrome. They're losing their character" says Professor Brian Kwok, a campaigner for the protection of the city's last remaining signs. Kwok has no time for LEDs, which he sees as too bright, too synthetic-looking and lacking in the individualised craftsmanship of neon.

The decline of neon has also decimated a once thriving industry of glass benders, skilled artisans who created the lights out of hollow glass tubes melted and worked into shape over blowtorches. The city once supported thousands of these craftsmen, but today, fewer than a dozen remain.

One of them is 78 year old Master Wong, who operates out of a first floor workshop in the Mongkok neighbourhood of the city, and has been making neon signs for six decades. During the peak of the neon boom Wong had to hire a whole team of assistants to keep up with demand. He even had a contract to make signs for the fried chicken giant KFC. Now he struggles to make ends meet.
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