“Cultural heritage does not necessarily have to be preserved in a museum. In Hong Kong, those that can truly represent the city are actually found on the streets.” said Ken and Kevin, founders of the local creative group, streetsignhk. It’s no wonder why so many creative minds find inspiration and new ideas from the streets, rather than from venues like museums or runway shows, because the streets are indeed full of hidden treasures — treasures that tell the stories of the locals, document the city’s history, and chronicle the passage of time. The signboard, which is considered part of an architectural structure, is one of the hidden treasures found on the streets. They are a key feature of Hong Kong’s iconic cityscape and play a vital role in facilitating dialogues in the city.
Streetsignhk started off when Kevin and Ken, who are both architects by profession, came across a demolished neon signboard on the street years ago. Since then they started noticing the disappearance of neon sign boards whilst the LED replacement began to show up. The duo were keen to find out the reason behind. “We found out that a building regulation was made effective in 2010. The regulation controls the demolition of signboards and retroactively turned most of the then-existing signboards into illegal structures. Because of that, shops began to take down their signs. I’d say Hong Kong lags behind on its heritage conservation policy, but luckily, the topic has been largely discussed over the last decade and the public awareness is growing.” Ken said. Some might see signboards as the additions to buildings that are less durable than the building itself. However, Ken and Kevin both believe that regular maintenance of the signboards can save them from being demolished. “Isn’t a signboard a representation of our culture and history? Don’t you think the projecting signs in the old days are so iconic that somehow they have become the visual marker or landmark to passersby and even tourists?” The duo founded streetsignhk with a hope to explore and share with the community the signboard stories and building regulations of Hong Kong, whilst pushing for signboard preservation. They also hope that with increased public awareness, the signboard-streetscape can be regarded as an urban heritage someday.
“Our name, streetsignhk, literally means ‘signboard’ and ‘streetscape’ in Chinese. There is an inseparable correlation in between them. Compared with other cities, Hong Kong is way more densely populated with shops cram along narrow streets. The construction projects are subject to more stringent regulations and the buildings do not usually give a strong visual impression. But there is one thing that makes Hong Kong cityscape unique and impressive and that is the dense signboards on the streets. The most vibrant signboard-streetscape of Hong Kong appeared during the 1980s and 1990s when the economy was booming and shops vied with each other to build super-large signs.” According to Ken, the signboards on the busy roads like Nathan Road and Portland Street were all taken down under the demolition order; yet, some signboards off the main roads managed to survive. “The Jade Market in Yau Ma Tei was recently relocated due to road construction. Before the relocation, there were shops in the market that offered tax return and letter translation services, and for some reasons, their neighbouring shops all had beautiful calligraphy signboards at their storefront. Unfortunately, these signboards were deemed too big for the storefront in the new market. Most of the signs have to be removed and preserved at some other places.”
“I recall that once we hired a moving service to transport some signboards for us. The driver saw the signboards and immediately asked if we were doing conservation work. I suppose it has something to do with the increased awareness of signboard preservation in the society.” As a local conservation activist, Ken feels obliged that there is a growing awareness and appreciation for heritage and cultural preservation. “When people get to understand how we repurpose and preserve old signboards, they start to get curious about our views on Hong Kong culture and how we see it will develop. Their curiosity inspires us to strive for better and more. We hope that our work can bring a meaningful contribution to heritage and cultural preservation.”
In fact, Ken and Kevin go far beyond signboard preservation — they collaborate with restorationists, type designers, and sign makers to revitalize and repurpose old signboards and then present them to the public in a brand new way. Streetsignhk has recently collaborated with Kapok on a window display project in which the rescued signboards were turned into installation art and put on display behind the shop window. The old signboards being placed in a contemporary storefront is undoubtedly a visually stunning juxtaposition of old and new. According to Kevin, “The window display showcased a variety of rescued signboards made with neon, metal, and acrylic. We’ve invited a young and aspiring calligrapher, Sam Chan, to calligraph for us. Normally, we’d exhibit the signboards as they are without modifications. But this time with Kapok, we experimented with collaging. We hope that people can look beyond the materials to explore the stories behind the signboards and understand their cultural and historic values.”
From streetsignhk’s work, we see the various potentials of signboards: they can be the signage you see on the street, or they can be the exhibits behind the display window. Kevin said that the creation process was a fun learning experience. “Most of the craftsmen and artists whom we’ve worked with are more experienced than us. We learned a lot from them. But at the end of the day, it’s the young people that inspire us the most. Their enthusiasm and determination left a deep impression on us. For example, some of our young painter friends volunteered to teach painting in our exhibition to raise money for our conservation work. There are students who took the initiative to help us rescue the signboards that were on the way to the landfill. There are people who saw our social media posts and immediately came over to join us at the demolition site to help rescue the signs. All these experiences have inspired us to push further and harder with our conservation work.”
Installation in Kapok’s store
As time goes by, lots of the stores that we grew up with are no longer around. Sadly, the pandemic is making things worse. With more and more shops closing the door, I wonder: are we really only losing the shops? Kevin explained, “We collect signboards from shops that are closing for good. We also temporarily keep the signs for stores that might open their door again in the future. Recently, we have been trying to line up new stores with local sign makers to create new signboards. We sincerely hope that more shop owners can consider making physical signboards for their storefront. We also hope that shop owners can give us more challenging projects to work on!”