By Xinqi Su
Handcrafted in prison, the Chinese characters of old Hong Kong road signs have a distinct style that a group of enthusiasts painstakingly documented and transformed into a new digital font – “Prison Gothic”.
Their leader, Gary Yau, says he became interested in them when he was little, even learning to write certain characters by copying them from street signs.
As panels with computer-generated text began to replace the old ones, Yau started a personal quest in 2016 to record the handmade characters, imperfections and all.
“I want to preserve this local visual culture,” Yau, now 24, told AFP.
“The search and collection was like a race against the authorities because we don’t know when they will remove an old sign.”
Before the introduction of digital design and production, characters and symbols on Hong Kong’s street signs were hand-drawn, cut and assembled by inmates in the city’s prisons.
Without the precision of computers and mechanical cutting, these signs were not uniform, with varying characters and line thickness.
Walk the streets
Over the past six years, Yau and his team of six – the Road Research Society – have scoured the streets of Hong Kong to find 500 of these older panels, produced by prisoners between the 1970s and 1990s.
The 600 Chinese characters they collected from these signs became the basis from which they developed a digital typeface of approximately 8,000 commonly used characters.
This month, the Road Research Society – which Yau founded during his freshman year at university – launched a crowdfunding initiative to raise HK$700,000 (US$89,192) for the final stage of the project. .
The medium version of the font will be released in November this year.
The irony that the road signs for travelers are made by people in prison does not escape Yau, who said he was impressed by their skill.
The days of hand-drawing are over, but traffic signs are still being made in prisons – inmates have produced around 4,000 in 2021.
Last year, inmates generated HK$493 million in trade value through services and products such as traffic signs.
For this work, prisoners can be paid as little as HK$1 (US$0.13) per hour, far less than the legal minimum wage of HK$37.5 per hour.
David Tsang, a broadcast engineer in the United States, was one of the first to leave a supportive comment on Yau’s crowdfunding page.
“It’s like carrying an old soul…which reminds me of old Hong Kong,” Tsang told AFP.
“I want to preserve some of Hong Kong’s culture and personality as Hong Kongers abroad.”
The link between a font and an identity is not unique to “Prison Gothic”.
At least half a dozen Hong Kong-inspired fonts have been invented or redesigned since 2016, a time when two major pro-democracy movements sparked interest in localism – promoting the concept of the city’s unique identity.
Hong Kong, like Taiwan, uses traditional Chinese characters, as opposed to the simplified characters used in mainland China.
Some of the Hong Kong designs borrow calligraphy styles that were once widely seen on shop signs and on wooden or stone tablets on traditional village gates.
And at least two — the “Kick Ass Type” and the “Rebirth Font” — were inspired by the umbrella movement of 2014 and the massive, sometimes violent pro-democracy protests of 2019, respectively.
“Prison Gothic” itself has taken on a different resonance in recent years, as Beijing has imposed a political crackdown on Hong Kong that has seen thousands arrested for taking part in protests three years ago.
“Responding to social movements and changes is a big incentive for font development,” said Brian Kwok, associate professor at the School of Design, Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
“In the past, symbols of local Hong Kong culture could be egg tarts, milk tea and Lion Rock,” Kwok told AFP.
“Now the fonts have become a way for young people to explore their Hong Kong identity.”
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