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Dying light: Indonesian neon sign makers refuse to call it quits for now

Jakarta Post - May 8, 2023

Anindito Ariwandono, Bandung – Hong Kong's luminous heritage has been facing an imminent crisis for the past couple of years. Its neon-drenched streets have been facing a consistent decay in terms of intensity, where its neon signs (most of which came from the 1960-1970s) are increasingly being taken down due to hazard concerns and adherence to building codes.

While the Chinese government is actively issuing orders to dismantle the neon signs, and most that were produced during the British Hong Kong times are illegal, neon signs, in themselves, have also been decreasing in popularity worldwide.

People have been exchanging the exceptional warmth of the inert gas' vivid glow in favor of the cold, dreary gleams of the LEDs due to the latter being significantly more cost-efficient (among other arrays of reasons). Or, simply: cheap. Its relevance, in turn, is being questioned.

In today's world, making neon signs has become a dying art.

Lights out

While neon signs might not hold the same cultural significance here in Indonesia, especially when compared to Hong Kong, their use has still been practiced for decades and they have seen their fair share of glory. It was and still is the source of livelihood for some artisans enduring the test of time.

"I think the first neon sign in Indonesia was the one they made for Hotel Indonesia in 1962," said Endang Saepudin, speaking to The Jakarta Post on May 1. Endang is one of the last remaining neon-sign artisans in Bandung, West Java, and might be of the previous generation if they do not see any rekindled interest in the dying art form that ultimately leads to more demands.

Real neon signs are significantly more expensive in terms of production and operating costs as they require more electricity. According to some local makers and advertising companies, some of the transformers used in conventional neon signs are not even imported into Indonesia anymore, further diminishing their relevance in today's world. Its charm, however, is an entirely different subject.

As a child, one could remember staring at the curious red glow of the spectacles-shaped neon sign displayed at the optician where my parents often went. The glow's depth was remarkably compelling. It was unlike anything I had seen before in my brief seven years of existence.

"These days, the opticians are using LED neon flex," said Endang, responding to my recollection. "Give it a year or two, and the light will give out. It's different," he bawled.

The said form of LED lighting, according to Endang, was the last nail in the coffin for the neon sign industry in Indonesia. He spoke of the LED with a tinge of bitterness as he massaged his forehead with his right hand.

The flexible nature of the aptly named "neon flex" made it possible for even laymen to mimic the output of neon signs; Endang brashly rejected the term "neon" to be even associated with the LED.

"I don't do LED jobs," he claimed proudly. New customers, however, are more familiar with the current definition of "neon", which is not what Endang dabbles in.

"I mean, everyone can do it. I'm not interested in it." In those cases, Endang would often pass the job along to his colleagues, taking a small percentage as a success fee to get by.

Other players in the city, such as Rajawali Neon and Aneka Reklame, he said, to name a few, could be better too in a 2008 job with Golden Money Changer in Jl. Ir. H. Djuanda, Bandung, some of the players that submitted their work proposals were ones that usually maakloon (an absorbed Dutch word used to refer to outsourced work) their works to him. In a way, they are a closely-knit community.

The way of the noble (gases)

"It's a genuine art form," Endang said, regarding making neon signs.

"And it can be considered an 'antique', maybe?" he continued. It is, at this point. Some initiatives, for instance, like London's God's Own Junkyard or Hong Kong's Tetra Neon Exchange, treat neon signs within the realms of artworks and antiques/vintages, although both differ in their underlying missions.

Making a conventional neon sign would require an exact procedure that involves particular technical know-how; a keen eye for details; and a good, if not excellent, sense of craftsmanship.

Glass tubes of various lengths and thicknesses are heated in an open-gas furnace, rendering the tubes glowing red and thus malleable and, only then, carefully shaped into the desired forms or letters. These shaped tubes are injected with the inert/noble gas corresponding to the desired colors.

Endang learned the art of making neon signs from his brother in the 1980s for two years. His brother learned the trade autodidact but had some help, according to Endang, from the remnants of an initiative at Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), where they researched neon signs back in the 60s until the 70s. "A lecturer," he said. "There's a whole history to it." His eyes lit up a bit, but he then decided to stop.

"Like this," said Endang as he showed me a Tik-Tok video of him working the glass tubes over a furnace before switching to a video of a finished sign being installed on a wall over a blaring "Mangku Purel" track by Denny Caknan. The one shown in the video was made for a local milk tea joint a few months ago.

"But nobody responded," said Endang as he stared weakly into his phone, peering over his glasses that hung almost at the end of his nose. "No new orders."

Neon daze

Currently, Endang received, at most, "one maintenance work per month, or two if I'm luck", he said. Receiving orders to make new neon signs is a rare case for him right now.

"If not for my past clients who are still using neon signs, I would have probably dismantled everything right now," he said as he looked up and gestured toward the second story of his house. Endang already took apart his workshop in Jakarta, usually manned by his brother. "I would have had to pay for the overheads without any orders. It's just natural."

His workshop in Bandung is practically his last leg as a neon master craftsman. It is located just off Jl. Raya Cijerah and into the narrow alleyways of Gg. Pelita 1.

His one-person workshop is narrow, with most of the space taken by his workbench. Stacks of glass tubes were sitting idly on top, covered in dust. The blue-painted walls were lined with tubes that were already shaped.

Each side of the walls was equipped with a clock, implying Endang's constant pressing need to tell the time with minimum effort. The furnace stood almost in the middle, next to an apparatus he used to inject the tubes with the inert gases and the gas tanks imported from Italy by a company in Jakarta.

"We stayed in touch almost every day as if we were waiting for the end," said Endang, referring to his contact at the inert gas distributor in Jakarta.

Endang recalled the golden age for him as a neon sign maker had been during the Soeharto regime. "Nineteen-nineties, until the reformasi," he said. "Those were the days. Everyone headhunted us despite not having finished formal school."

His works lasted for ages, as neon signs are supposed to. "The one that I did for Ayam Goreng Cianjur in Cipanas, West Java, in 1991, even outlasted the back-plating multiple times," said Endang. "They changed the white back-plating three times now since then."

When asked about his views about the future, Endang noted: "I don't want to be overly optimistic. I will keep doing it as long as the gas suppliers are still around." He laughed.

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/culture/2023/05/08/dying-light-indonesian-neon-sign-makers-refuse-to-call-it-quits-for-now.htm