Hong Kong is a place brimming with talented and intriguing people. In our weekly 27 Questions column, we get up close and personal with the city’s notable personalities, learning about their whims and aversions, pivotal life moments, and hopes and dreams — all in roughly the same amount of time it takes to sit through a casual speed date. This week, we speak to Chankalun, Hong Kong’s only female neon practitioner and co-founder of HKCRAFTS.
Chankalun is busy trying to keep things alive.
The plants in her apartment, for one, that she does mostly successfully. The entirety of the neon-bending craft in Hong Kong, for another — that takes a little more leg work.
Neon — like the Bauhinia; the Star Ferry; the view standing from Victoria Harbour; the 1am rush for the last MTR train — is an inescapable part of the Hong Kong vernacular. It’s how we see ourselves; our city. How street photographers sees our city. How Wong Kar-wai sees our city. How an enthusiastic cinephile from 5,000 miles away, who’s never set foot in Hong Kong, sees our city.
But the neon that bathed through Chungking Express — a gaffer, in a way, for Christopher Doyle’s vision — grows dim with each passing day; its buzz silenced by the lure of mass-produced LED.
Neon, for Chankalun, the only female neon practitioner in Hong Kong, is a metaphor for so much of life.
“Life is fragile and strong at the same time,” muses the artist. “Just like neon glass, it is easily broken, and yet if you weld it, you can fix it. When it’s malleable and soft, you can also shape it in the way you want — it’s your choice.”
Choice, though, isn’t a luxury when it comes to learning the ins-and-outs of something that barely exists. And if attempting to revive a critically-endangered craft as a woman in a male-dominated industry is not hard enough work, the guardians of the technique; the master sifus of neon, are reclusive. Prickly, even. Luckily, Chankalun is not without perseverance. In a Mr. Miyagi turn of events, Chankalun’s own sifu, Master Wong, first refused to teach — then, acquiesced, with some well-intentioned nudging from his daughter.
“I had an opportunity to work on an outdoor neon art installation for the Wonderfruit Festival in Thailand and I asked Master Wong to teach me [after having met him at a group exhibition I curated called “My Light, My Hood”]. When he refused, I went to a glass sculpture artist in Shek Kip Mei for lessons,” said Chankalun. “That artist didn’t actually know how to bend neon either [laughs]. He watched YouTube tutorials and taught me; it took me an hour to learn and, finally, a week for me to finish the piece. When I brought the piece I made to Master Wong, he was very impressed.”
From then on, the master has an apprentice. But sometimes, the master doesn’t have all the answers.
“I also started to see experimental neon artworks online and, back then, I consulted Master Wong about that style of work,” remembers Chan. “He was telling me he doesn’t know how to do it and I was super frustrated because he’s the most experienced in Hong Kong! Luckily, I met Remy de Feyter, a Dutch neon artist, on a trip to the Netherlands.”
This spirit of collaboration, of finding answers beyond traditional know-how and an insular “This Is How It Is Done” attitude serves as key to Chankalun’s artwork; one she calls “experimental” in style. Beyond that, this spirit of collaboration has also informed the genesis of HKCRAFTS, an NGO the artist co-founded as a platform for connecting generations of craftsmen, so that no craft, no specified technique, no precious marker of how we once lived would vanish with its maker without so much as a whimper.
Now, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s female, it’s neon, it’s buzzing and it’s raging against the dying of this miraculous combination of glass, gas and electricity.
Chankalun, Hopefully Not The Last Neon Bender:
Neighbourhood: Fo Tan
Occupation: Exhibition and event designer, co-founder of HKCRAFTS, NFT artist and neon practitioner
1. What is the best meal you’ve ever eaten in Hong Kong?
The wok meal at a dai pai dong right under the Wellington Street escalator is the best. I had to get a second serving of the scrambled egg with prawns the first time I tried it!
2. Who is your role model?
Michelle Obama. She is a smart woman who uses her own influence to do meaningful and impactful work for the community. She has inspired me to start my NGO HKCRAFTS in Hong Kong. I also love the relationship she has with Obama — they are such fun couple!
3. What was your first job?
My first full-time job was as the visual merchandising coordinator at Cartier.
4. What is your drink of choice?
Warm hot chocolate with whipped cream, marshmallow and a shot of liquor.
5. Which phone app do you think more people should know about?
CityMapper. I started using it around 10 years ago and I love it because it doesn’t mess with the GPS when you get off from an underground train. It also offers a lot of different transportation choices and cute motivational phrases to get users to walk more. For example, if you decide to walk rather than take public transport, they will encourage you with something like “You will be burning the calories equivalent to 1/4 of a pizza! 🍕” according to the distance you’re walking.
6. When was the last time you drove a car?
Four years ago in Denmark? I’m definitely not a good driver and I tend to keep my passenger very awake [laughs]!
7. What is the best thing in or about your apartment?
The plants. They make me so happy! They are so magical that even when they “die”, you can always give them some treatment so they regrow again! That is so magical.
8. Are you a morning person or a night owl?
Morning person — I wake up at 6:30am everyday, regardless of where I am in the world. I enjoy finishing up my work by 3pm everyday so I have the entire afternoon and evening to chill.
9. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Rice, definitely rice. I’m a rice bucket!
10. What is the top destination on your bucket list?
11. What is your greatest fear?
Losing my loved ones. They are the purpose for my motivation.
12. What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
To snuggle in bed and binge-watch The X-Files. My boyfriend and I are rewatching every season since our last quarantine. I think we are on Season 6 now, haha.
13. If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
Summer in Europe and winter in Asia. That’s also what my boyfriend and I aim to do.
14. What makes someone a real Hongkonger?
The never-give-up spirit.
15. Which moment in your life would you most like to relive?
The moment when I stepped onto the TEDxTinHauWomen stage at Xiqu Centre and delivered my first ever TEDx Talk. I was never a good public speaker and taking that step to speak on a stage with over a thousand people in the audience triggered my performer itch. Now I LOVE THE STAGE and I’m so glad that I’ve overcome that big fear.
16. Where do you go when you want to be alone?
Park strolling. Unfortunately the public parks in Hong Kong are not as big as I’d like for an optimal park-strolling experience.
17. What is your favourite scent in the whole world?
18. Are you a good cook? What is your best dish?
I’m a good cook to my own taste, and my best dish is pan-fried pork belly with kimchi and tofu.
19. Do you have any favourite tattoos or special birthmarks? What is it?
I have a favourite tattoo that I’m about to get — it’s going to be a bold line that runs through my shoulder to my pinky finger.
20. How many pairs of shoes do you currently own? Which do you wear the most often?
I own more than fifty pairs of shoes. They are now scattered at my parents’ place, my studio and my in-laws’ place in France. However, I wear my dirty Converse the most, even during my civilised partnership party. They are most comfy!
21. What was the best gift you ever received?
My boyfriend created a Wikipedia page of me [laughs]! It cracked me up so much!
22. Who is the best teacher you’ve ever had, what is one important lesson that they taught you?
Neon is my best teacher so far. It has taught me so much about the philosophy of life. Life is fragile and challenging — you can break a neon glass and weld it for it to light up again. The warm light gives you hope and the tangled bends are just like the twists in life.
23. When did you feel that you ‘made it’?
Satisfaction. I always think nothing is impossible!
24. What’s the best or worst career advice you’ve ever received?
My best friend Celina always gives me the best career advice. One recent word of advice she gave me was “Whenever we have issues with clients we immediately jump on a call. Texts and emails can make things worse. People are nicer and more respectful if you speak to them over phone or Zoom.”
25. What energises you about your work?
I love challenges and it gives my a lot of satisfaction when I could realise my “crazy” ideas whilst being trusted and respected by my clients or audience.
26. What’s a relationship deal breaker for you?
27. If you could snap your fingers and fix one thing about the world, what would it be?