The thing that I remember most about Hong Kong is the fish market at night. Empty, when we were there, except for the people selling razor clams, sea bream, and crabs who climbed over their tank-mates like hands slapped one on top of the other and released with a ‚ÄúGo Team!‚Äù. People waited outside restaurants ready to cook what you bought. The light outside was a blue-white because of the florescent bulbs and puddles of water reflected it everywhere.
Wired published a short article on how ‚ÄúHong Kong‚Äôs Last Neon Lights Still Look Totally Blade Runner‚Äù, which is about neon signs disappearing from the city. They‚Äôre not being stolen by a Blade Runner (I have no idea if a BR would do that as I fell asleep immediately when I tried to watch it), but replaced by ‚Äì as Wikipedia says, lights with ‚Äú…many advantages over incandescent light sources including lower energy consumption, longer lifetime, improved physical robustness, smaller size, and faster switching‚Äù ‚Äì Light Emitting Diodes, or LEDs.
I don‚Äôt remember the neon in Hong Kong, though according to this wonderful map on the website neonsigns.hk, which the Wired article mentions, it‚Äôs still there. The website, a gallery and history of neon lights in the city, features sketches for neon signs and the coolest of videos RE: the making of neon signs, with neon prawns, birds, jars, books, beer and a grumpy but lovable sign maker (the video is good because it is mainly about the sign makers) saying: ‚ÄúThis is a very lonely profession, with nothing exciting to offer you. It‚Äôs dull. Who can bear it?‚Äù It does no harm to neon‚Äôs case to think that it‚Äôs just made by a bunch of dads.
Not that neon needs the help. It is obvious to everyone that a sign made of neon is more beautiful than one made of LEDs, the glorified tiny eye of a TV remote. Neon got its start in Paris, of course, with the help of someone called ‚ÄúGeorges Claude‚Äù and someone called ‚ÄúJacques‚Äù. LEDs came into being via an Englishman called ‚ÄúH.J. Round‚Äù and a Russian called ‚ÄúOleg‚Äù. The ‚ÄúNeon Lighting‚Äù Wikipedia page has headings including ‚ÄúHistory and Science‚Äù and ‚ÄúNeon Lighting and Artists in Light‚Äù. LEDs? ‚ÄúInitial Commercial Development‚Äù and ‚ÄúEfficiency Droop‚Äù.
All neon signs are hand made. As the 99% Invisible podcast on neon, ‚ÄúTube Benders‚Äù, points out, there isn‚Äôt an industrial process for them and even when they‚Äôre made on a huge scale, someone has to bend them by hand. They can last for up to 70 years but, according to 99% Invisible, they‚Äôre growing rarer in Hong Kong because there are laws banning them. Neon is also being phased out in the U.S., the EU and Australia in favour of options that are more energy efficient and last longer (ten points for LEDs, which are less expensive, contain no scary gasses and use five to ten times less energy).
Future of the planet aside, all you really need to know about the spiritual — sociological even — difference between the two is these videos about how each is made: the first, not a second over five minutes, during which you will see someone make a friendly treble clef. The second, by a company called ‚ÄúLuxeon‚Äù.
As the treble clef video explains, neon lights are made by bending glass tubes using a very hot flame emitted by a ‚Äúribbon burner‚Äù. To stop the tube looking folded (to maintain the tube‚Äôs diameter throughout), a person blows into it and it shapes up. If the neon light is blue, a little bit of mercury is added to it to make it glow more brightly. If the light is a treble clef, you‚Äôd better believe it will be accompanied by an electric guitar.
The light in the neon lamps comes from atoms which have become excited (and who wouldn‚Äôt be?) and glow when energy, in the form of electricity, is fed to them. Lightning, thunder, stardust, northern lights, sunrise, palm trees, flamingos, blue cura√ßau.
On the night I‚Äôm writing this, Johannesburg is very, very cold. A thick mist is condensing, the droplets of water making a soft tapping noise every now and then as they fall onto leaves. All anyone here wants is to be lit softly by the tropical light of neon shaped like a toucan.
It is probably not the main reason people go to the restaurant Hallelujah in Cape Town, which is lit by a two-metre-long neon pink ‚ÄúHallelujah‚Äù, but basked in pink light, everyone there looks as healthy and wholesome as a watermelon, in the way that they might some evenings at dusk, when the sunset is bright and your skin glows.
The simplest things are the best for neon, but probably everything looks a little better turned into a (bright cartoon) X (magic trick). If you made neon signs for South Africa‚Äôs top political parties, the EFF would win: a little red beret with some edgy black neon piping. The DA‚Äôs would be maybe a rainbow and a small cloud and a drop of rain (or is it a tear?), the ANC‚Äôs would glow mean green and comforting yellow. Donald Trump‚Äôs hair, switching between sleeping on his head and lifting off to reveal the tweets skipping from his brain: ‚ÄúCreeeezeh. Berneh. Sanders‚Äù in hot electric blue.¬† All of my pets past and future? Commemorated in beautiful neon please.
Johannesburg used to have the privilege of being towered over by the giant neon Coca-Cola sign on Ponte, which was a double whammy of ‚Äúclassic‚Äù. But we didn‚Äôt have that many neon lights. Zero flashing *No* Vacancy signs. Not one bright lights, big city Las Vegas Strip. You could find them, and still do, somewhere on the wall of a bar, and be sure it was a special gift from the owner to himself. In films, neon is buzzing. Here, in a misty city, the thought of them is soft and bright.
Helen Sullivan is the co-founder and editor of Prufrock, a multilingual print quarterly of African fiction, nonfiction and poetry. To submit, subscribe, find stockists or get in touch, visit prufrock.co.za. Follow her monthly column on Casimir¬†about new technologies and how they interact with, or replace the things they aim to improve upon.¬†
Illustrations by Mona (Simone le Roux)