Written by Billy Potts
A version of this article was first published in Zolima City Mag
A short walk from Jordan station, down roads where neon signs still hang low and old men play Chinese chess, we come to a procession of the city’s iconic red minibuses forming a line by the side of Battery Street. Each is emblazoned with white, red and blue acrylic signs announcing their fares and destinations. Alongside this ramshackle motorcade is a series of workshops making plastic signage.
At number 39, Hawk Advertising Company Limited is doing a brisk trade with at least a dozen student sign painters bent over acrylic sheets, paintbrushes poised. A large tabby cat snoozes behind the shop’s glass door. Mak Kam-sang has worked out of this shop for the past 35 years, churning out hand-painted acrylic signs for red minibuses across the whole of Hong Kong.
Mak was 15 when he stopped going to school and decided to follow his father into the sign making trade. “I’d seen him working at it and when I stopped going to school and started looking for work I fell into the business too,” he recalls. Starting his sign making apprenticeship in 1972, Mak worked for 10 years practising his craft and perfecting his calligraphy but even he wouldn’t have guessed the unexpected detour his career would take.
It all started when he opened his own shop in 1982. “It just so happened that the minibus terminus was right here in front of our shop,” says Mak. “The bus drivers saw me writing signs and asked me to write their destination signs for them. Slowly they started asking me to do more and more minibus stuff.” Mak is now the only hand-painted acrylic mini bus sign maker in Hong Kong.
Red minibuses operate on a flexible basis and have no fixed routing, frequency, operating hours or fare levels. Except for zones where they are specifically prohibited, red minibuses are allowed to operate on all roads, making destination and fare signs a necessity.
By contrast, green minibuses operate on fixed routes and fixed fares, so they do not patronise Mak’s shop. “Green buses have offices and they just print their signs on paper and laminate them,” he says. “They don’t buy our signs because printing them themselves is cheap. The green buses have hundreds of minibuses each, they’re huge organisations and it would be a massive expense to get hand-painted signs for all of them. Normal red bus drivers don’t have offices and so they need us to make their signs,” he explains.
But surely red minibus drivers have access to computers and printers of their own, could they not print and laminate signs for themselves? Luckily for Mak, this is not an option for most. “Some of them are really old – they don’t know how to use computers to print out their own signs.”
Aside from the amateur daubs of Mak’s eager students, these iconic signs are no longer made in Hong Kong. Mak has moved manufacturing from his little Yau Ma Tei sign shop to the mainland. “We moved about 10 years ago to a factory that we own,” he says. “We have 10 to 20 workers. Originally the signs were all made right here in our shop but we grew too big for this place. We can’t make that many in here.” Part of his business involves souvenir keychains that Mak makes in “huge quantities.” Ironically, one of these keychains proudly proclaims itself “Made in Hong Kong.” Perhaps, conceptually, it was born of this city – but not so in a practical sense.
Even if the place of manufacture has changed, the method remains the same. ‘The process is actually very simple,” explains Mak. “I write the characters by hand with brush and ink and scan them, then we output a file to a plotter that carves out the sign in translucent white acrylic.” Mak rummages through a drawer and pulls out a photo of an ancient beige computer connected to a huge CNC machine, the first machine Mak bought 35 years ago.
This process leaves a blank white sign with characters carved into it. The final step is to add colour – and here Mak makes reference to another of Hong Kong’s sunset industries. “It’s just like making mahjong tiles,” he says. “When we carve out the words we’re left with a blank and we fill in the colour with paint. This is all done by hand, every single one. Our workers are very familiar with the task and can fill the signs in very quickly. They’re very good at their jobs.’
Though Mak’s signs all appear similar there are subtle differences that reflect an evolution in their design. “They’re all acrylic but they’re different colours,” explains Mak as he points to an opaque white sign. It is superficially identical to the others but there is a subtle difference in design and function. “This is an old one. The old ones are less translucent. Why do we prefer using more translucent acrylic now? Because when it’s in the bus, light shines through the windshield and the driver can read the sign through the acrylic even when it’s facing away from him, it’ll remind him where he’s going, what his stops might be and the fare.”
Mak holds up a greying care worn sign emblazoned with the scarlet characters for To Kwa Wan (土瓜灣), the neighbourhood in southeastern Kowloon. Executed by an unpractised hand, there is no etching and the plastic is thinner; the characters are painted on directly and the calligraphy is visibly cruder than many of the other signs on display. “This is a really old one, more than 30 years old,” he says. “I bought it back from a driver as a souvenir for myself and I use it as a display.”
Mak often collects and uses his own old signs as display items, buying them back from bus drivers who are either replacing outdated placards or retiring themselves. “You don’t see them much and a lot of the time people don’t recognise the value in them. They just get thrown away so I preserve as many as I can get my hands on,” he says.
Today, the clientele milling around Mak’s shop is very young and trendy – they do not look like they drive red minibuses for a living. This is Mak’s new customer base. Miniature bus sign keyrings festoon an entire wall of the office. Some are true to their origin, bearing place names and fares, while others are more unorthodox with slogans and catchphrases ranging from “Good Luck” to “I Love You.” Mak estimates that he sold between 20,000 and 30,000 of these keychains at the last Hong Kong Book Fair. He seems unphased by the fact that people care more for novelty than authenticity. “Young people and students, they really like those novelty phrases, not so much the place names,” he says. “Some of the slogans are cute, they especially like those. We’re releasing new ones all the time.”
In the event that Hawk Advertising hasn’t already anticipated a sign that takes your fancy, Mak also accepts special customised orders and requests for his key rings. “Aside from swear words we’ll make a sign that says just about anything,” he says.
The market for authentic hand-painted minibus signs, at least for their original purpose, is dwindling. As always in Hong Kong, change is inevitable, pervasive and unsentimental about the old ways of doing things. “[The market for acrylic signs] will gradually decrease because government policy is to convert red mini buses to green ones,” says Mak. “There are only around 1,000 red buses left and there are around 3,000 green ones. There will soon be many more.”
That may be bad news for hand-painted signs, but not for Mak. His company also makes and installs LED destination signs, which happen to come standard in the new 19-seat minibuses that were introduced last year. And so, in a classic tale of the Hongkonger’s keen business acumen, Hawk Advertising signs will live on for many years, albeit in a less delightful form. Perhaps, one day, time will also paint this LED signage with the sepia tones of nostalgia, but one can’t help but wonder how satisfying it would be to have something both modern and charming that marries utility and function with aesthetics and care.