Hong Kong's streetsigns & urban typography

Posted on April 20, 2017 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

Sunbeam Theatre

Neon lights and advertising billboards outside of the iconic Sunbeam Theatre in North Point


This post is a follow-up of the previous one on Hong Kong's urban typography... Over the years, I have documented the city's streetscape and the relationships between visual communications, architecture, and its perpetually changing identity.

Hong Kong has always known for its neon signage, yet since the 1990s, the industry has declined rapidly, as building regulations have tightened due to safety and structural reasons, and the traditional neon signs are now replaced by the cheaper LED ones.


sammy's kitchen ltd signage

Sammy's Kitchen Ltd signage


One of the city's iconic signage was a giant neon cow suspended above a steakhouse in the Western District since 1978. The restaurant’s founder, Sammy Yip, designed the 10-foot-tall and 16-foot-wide neon sign and it was then handcrafted by sifus (masters) who burned and welded the shapes in their studios. Sadly, the city’s Buildings Department decided the sign was unsafe and ordered it removed in 2015. By chance, I took the photograph above (without acknowledging the unfortunate future fate of this signage) before its removal, which subsequently encourages me to continue to document Hong Kong's ephemeral cityscape.


luk yu tea house

neon sign

mido cafe  Neon sign of a pawn shop in Wan Chai

hourly-rate love hotel nathan road

Top row: The facade and neon signage of Luk Yu Tea House in Central; 2nd row: a trendy restaurant in Wai Chai; 3rd left: Mido Cafe in Yau Ma Tei; 3rd right: Neon sign of a pawn shop in Wan Chai; Bottom: An hourly-rate love hotel on Nathan road has three types of signage!


The best resources on Hong Kong's neon signage can be found on the interactive online exhibition website: Mobile M+: NEONSIGNS.HK launched by M+, the new museum for visual culture in the West Kowloon cultural district. It features over 4,000 photos and personal stories of neon signs from members of the public, and it is a fantastic platform that pays tribute to this unique dying art form and traditional craftsmanship. I particularly love the short documentary by cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, on Hong Kong's neon world. In the film, we can trace Doyle's inspirations and how the neon signage has influenced his visual style in films such as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels directed by Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai.


“Gleam Series” by Alexandre Farto aka Vhils

“Gleam Series” by Alexandre Farto aka Vhils


Christopher Doyle: Filming in the Neon World


Aside from neon signs, Hong Kong's cluttered signage is ubiquitous and unique to this city. The overwhelming amount of visual information is in sync with its dense high-rise and chaotic streetscape. Every sign competes with another, and it is impossible to digest all the information at once... hence walking down Nathan Road in Kowloon can be an exhilarating and draining experience for foreign tourists.


temple street

central signage

Top: Temple Street; Bottom: Soho from the escalator


In the old days, small shop owners used to appoint scholars or renowned calligraphers to inscribe shop names by hand. Unfortunately, the handwritten calligraphy skills have been replaced by computerised print technology since the 1990s. Handwritten calligraphy gradually faded from the main roads of the commercial distrists, resulting in the demise of this unique trade and the loss of calligraphic artisans.


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Handwritten calligraphy for shops


Traditionally, gilded signboards symbolise the reputation of the shops. The gold-plated or painted gold calligraphic characters are seen as a status symbol for these shops. The characters are carved out of wood as either engraved or embossed by artisans. And the embossing effect is more challenging than engraving because of the Chinese cursive script style. Aside from wood, other materials such as metal and acrylic are also used for shop signage.



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central shop

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Embossed or engraved calligraphic signage for shops


Yet, the best places to spot traditional gold-leaf gilding techniques are at temples, monasteries and shrines. Often you will find two verses of a poem on the sides of the entrance, and if you look at them closely, you will see that every calligrapher has his/her unique writing style. The style can be bold, elegant, robust, refined and subtle... and this style would – hopefully – be synonymous with the identity of the shops or temples.







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Temples and shrines often showcase gold-leaf gilded name and a poem on the sides of the entrance


This is only a glimpse of what is around us all the time... you don't need to be a graphic designer or typographer to appreciate the diverse signage that communicates to us daily when we walk down the streets of the city we live in. As much as I love spending time in nature, I also love seeing quirky and wonderful man-made sights that found in vibrant cities. And urban typography-spotting is an activity that all of can enjoy whilst everyone else around you is looking down at their mobile phones. Look up and you can be pleasantly surprised from time to time.



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This post was posted in Hong Kong, Photography, Calligraphy, Graphics & illustrations, Traditional arts & crafts, Hong Kong design, Design, Street life, Typography and was tagged with Hong Kong, graphic design, Hong Kong design, street life, typography, calligraphy, street signs