Neon Hour


The Hong Kong neon photography of Brent Lewin

Over the course of a couple of weeks, Brent Lewin photographed Hong Kong’s world-famous neon signage, an important part of the cultural and historical legacy of Hong Kong or, as Lewin puts it, “part of the fabric of the city’s identity.” Neon was first used in Hong Kong in the 1930s and reached its peak popularity in the 1970s and '80s, when industry was thriving and stores and restaurants competed over who had the biggest, brightest sign.

As part of his project, Lewin visited and photographed the workshop of Lau Wan, a veteran neon sign craftsman who has been working in the Kwai Chung district of Hong Kong for more than fifty years. Neon signs are produced by heating a glass tube until it becomes malleable (at 800 degrees Celsius), then cooling the tube by blowing on it to limit distortion from the heat while it’s bent according to blueprints. Oxygen is vacuumed from the tube and replaced with either neon or argon, and the tube is sealed. When the finished tube is plugged in and electricity is introduced, neon glows red and argon glows blue; other colours can be created by adding different gases or painting the tubes. Once a tube is bent and cooled, there is no way to correct flaws in its shape. “The trick is to not make any mistakes,” Lau Wan says.

Use of neon has decreased since the 1990s due to the emergence of LED signs, which are easier to manufacture and are less expensive to produce than neon. Wan estimates that neon now makes up only ten percent of the orders filled by his shop and the rest are LED. He says, “No new apprentices are learning how to make neon, and I can’t blame them. It’s increasingly hard to make a living. Times change.”

Lewin used online maps and catalogues compiled by neon enthusiasts to find sites of signs in the commercial districts of Wan Chai and Mongkok. Of the particular challenges of photographing neon signs, Lewin says, “The most important thing was making sure I was where I needed to be when the neon signs switched on around magic hour.”

Text by Roni Simunovic.

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Roni Simunovic is a writer and illustrator. They live in Vancouver and at

Brent Lewin is an award-winning photographer whose work has been published in many periodicals, including National Geographic, the Toronto Star, Utne Reader, Maisonneuve, Wanderlust, pdn, Verge, Eye Weekly, Now Magazine and Geist. His work is represented by Engine Gallery in Toronto. For more writing and photography on Lewin’s work in Thailand and other countries, see




For most of her adult life, my mother, Danuta Rago, was a professional photographer in Poland. In the early seventies she travelled to the Asiatic republics of the ussr and to Siberia. Her assignment was to take portraits of happy members of the coll


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