Our signs in Hong Kong are considered world-famous. They dominate every corner of the city, creating a distinctive and unique urban landscape. Before, shops were often independent family businesses that have been passed down for several generations. Shop signs traditionally stand for the reputation and goodwill of a business and have always been considered an important element of a business’s image. Names of businesses on traditional shop signs were often inscribed by calligraphers. If the business is owned by someone powerful or with a broad social network, they would invite a well-known calligrapher, literati or community leader to inscribe their signs, with the signature of the calligrapher proudly displayed on the sign. A more economical option would be to get a sign-writer to make the sign, also most likely to be rendered in calligraphy. The materials used for shop signs were mostly durable and long-lasting, such as brass, iron, wood, set in plaster, or more recently stainless steel, resin and acrylic sheets. Durable materials connote stability, reliability or good reputation. The expression ‘gold-painted sign’ is used figuratively to refer to a reliable and honest business to this day. With the skyrocketing rent and large-scale urban renewal projects in recent years, traditional calligraphic shop signs are dwindling in numbers, and in their place are cheap inkjet banners used for shops that change as fast as the volatile economy.
Amongst different calligraphic scripts, Kaishu is the most commonly used for shop signs in Hong Kong. But a particular style of Kaishu called Beiwei (or Northern Wei) can be considered indigenous to Hong Kong. Originated during the Three Kingdoms Period, the Beiwei style is somewhere between Kaishu and Lishu, and were popularly used for inscriptions such as epitaphs. The Qing Dynasty saw a revival of the study of epigraphy, and calligraphers were divided into two schools: the ‘ink-on-paper’ school in the north, and the epigraphy school in the south. One of the proponents of the epigraphy school was Zhao Zhi-qian (1829–1884), who studied Beiwei inscriptions and improved on it, and developed a distinctive and novel style. Influenced by the marks made by a chisel, Beiwei Kaishu has a rustic sensibility, with sharp strokes, dynamic forms and slightly asymmetrical constructions. Although it is sometimes considered as less elegant and balanced than the exemplars by Tang Dynasty masters, Beiwei Kaishu is bold and exuberant in a primordial way, yet still follows the standards of Kaishu. Hong Kong calligrapher Au Kin Kung (1887–1971) was probably responsible for the popularisation of Beiwei Kaishu in signage. Au was a calligrapher, teacher and sign-writer who was deeply influenced by Zhao Zhi-qian. Many examples of shop signs and public lettering done by Au still survive around the city, and all of them are rendered in his distinctive Beiwei style of Kaishu. I believe that Au’s insistence on using Beiwei for signs and architectural lettering was not based purely on artistic preference, but the reason was more of a pragmatic one. Beiwei Kaishu in fact performs very well at large scales and viewed from fair distances. The beginnings, endings and turns of strokes are very sharp and exaggerated, making the shapes of the characters very distinctive and easy to recognise. This is a matter of visual perception, but it has become a unique vernacular visual language of Hong Kong, and I do feel that it is very much in tune with the can-do spirit of the peoples of Southern China.
Apart from Au Kin Kung, many other calligraphers and sign-writers also practiced Beiwei Kaishu, and it became a trend. The script is both serious and lively, practical yet has just enough personality. Unlike calligraphy as a pure form of artistic expression, the Beiwei style used in Hong Kong’s shop signs works as a ‘collectivist style’ rather than the personal expressions of individual calligraphers. Some have said that Beiwei is too aggressive, suggests violence, and are only used for bone-setters and martial arts establishments. This is in fact not the case. Many different kinds of business use Beiwei, including restaurants, hardware stores, butchers, pharmacists, clinics, as well as the naming of buildings and institutions. It is also said that the use of Beiwei may be related to the triads, but this is unlikely and of course difficult to verify.
Signs rendered in Beiwei Kaishu can still be easily found around Hong Kong, but few new businesses choose to use calligraphy for their signs, let alone Beiwei. Before the popularisation of optical and digital enlargements, the calligraphy was rendered with a large brush at actual size, and then cut out of the required material. This method ensured that the characters work well at its actual scale, when seen from a distance. On the other hand, most digital fonts are not suitable for signage and may not have been designed with the appropriate viewing distance and scale in mind. This is particularly true for calligraphic fonts.