The Fading Glow: The Endangered Art of Neon Sign Making

Hong Kong’s vibrant neon heritage is on the verge of a crisis. The iconic neon signs that have illuminated its streets for decades are gradually disappearing, casualties of safety concerns and building code regulations. While the Chinese government has been issuing orders for their dismantling, the declining popularity of neon signs globally has also contributed to their demise. LED lights have become the preferred choice due to their cost-effectiveness, relegating neon signs to the realm of nostalgia and cultural relics.

In Indonesia, neon signs have had a lesser but significant presence over the years. The craft has provided a livelihood for artisans like Endang Saepudin, one of the few remaining neon-sign makers in Bandung, West Java. According to Endang, the first neon sign in Indonesia was created for Hotel Indonesia in 1962, marking the beginning of a tradition that has endured through the decades. However, the rising costs of producing and operating neon signs, coupled with the scarcity of necessary transformers, have made their future uncertain.

The allure of neon signs lies in their unique charm. Many of us can recall being captivated by the vibrant glow emanating from these signs during our childhood. The depth and warmth of their light were unlike anything else. Unfortunately, the advent of LED technology, particularly the flexible LED neon flex, has dealt a severe blow to the traditional neon sign industry. Endang, speaking from his experience, expresses a deep disdain for the LED, refusing to associate it with the artistry of neon signs. The ease with which anyone can replicate the output of a neon sign using LEDs has led to a decline in demand for the true craftsmanship of neon sign making.

Neon sign makers in Indonesia have formed a close-knit community, with Endang working alongside other players in the industry, such as Rajawali Neon and Aneka Reklame. They share a common passion for the art form, recognizing its status as a genuine art form and, perhaps, even an “antique” in its own right. Initiatives like London’s God’s Own Junkyard and Hong Kong’s Tetra Neon Exchange have treated neon signs as both artworks and antiques, albeit with different underlying missions. These initiatives highlight the historical and cultural significance of neon signs, preserving them as valuable relics of the past.

Crafting a traditional neon sign requires a precise and intricate process, involving technical expertise, meticulous attention to detail, and superb craftsmanship. Glass tubes of various shapes and sizes are heated in an open-gas furnace, making them malleable enough to be shaped into desired forms or letters. Once shaped, the tubes are injected with inert gas to produce the desired colors. Endang learned this art from his brother in the 1980s, who himself benefited from an earlier research initiative on neon signs at the Bandung Institute of Technology. However, the declining demand for neon signs has left Endang with dwindling orders and limited opportunities to pass on his skills to future generations.

Endang’s workshop in Bandung, his last bastion as a neon sign craftsman, is a testament to his dedication. Stacks of glass tubes gather dust, and the walls are adorned with shaped tubes waiting for their moment to shine. The space is modest but filled with history and memories of a bygone era. Endang’s interactions with the gas distributor in Jakarta, a lifeline for his craft, serve as a reminder of the precarious future he faces.

When contemplating the future of neon sign making in Indonesia, Endang remains cautiously optimistic. He acknowledges that as long as the gas suppliers continue to support his craft, he will persevere. However, the uncertainty surrounding the industry casts a shadow over his hopes.