Hong Kong’s Ghost Signs: The Lost Legacy of the Urban Council

The city feels far away as birdsong and greenery envelop the senses along Tai Tam Reservoir Road. Amongst the trees stands a section of wall, unremarkable but for fresh white paint that clashes with the verdant surroundings and contrasts with the neglected state of all other parts of the same structure.  

In Hong Kong’s relentless heat and humidity, constant maintenance is key. Only a few years ago, left to the elements, this unremarkable wall divulged a secret; coyly shedding flakes of paint, it exposed a ghost sign. The message was mundane but its symbolism was not. Bold black lettering spelled out “URBAN COUNCIL CAR PARK,” punctuated finally by a faded red symbol – the outline of a flower.

Flaking paint briefly revealed a ghost sign. Photo: Billy Potts

From its founding as the Sanitary Board in 1883 until its demise in 1999, the Urban Council’s flower bloomed across Hong Kong, gracing everything from museums and sports facilities to libraries, garbage trucks and parking lots. The council’s roving mandate to further the artistic, cultural and sporting development of Hong Kong, as well as its responsibility for sanitation, refuse collection, hawker licensing and pest control, made it both influential and ubiquitous.

The council’s flower mark was once a common sight, but its simple form belies its meandering evolution. Many hands cultivated the graphic as it grew into its sleek final iteration. Amongst the many to tend this mark was an elder statesman of Hong Kong’s creative industries, the artist and designer Kan Tai-keung. 

Combining traditional Chinese and Western cultural influences, Kan’s design career began in 1967. His work includes the Bank of China’s logo, the emblems for the Yau Tsim Mong, Sha Tin and Tsuen Wan district councils, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s phoenix emblem. Kan has the distinction of being the first Hongkonger appointed by the British Crown to design postage stamps; his first was a commemorative stamp for the Year of the Pig, 1971. The designer’s accolades are formidable but none more so than the affectionate nickname bestowed upon him by his peers, Uncle Kan.

Kan became involved in creating the Urban Council’s visual identity in 1973. Up until that point, the council had been using an armorial badge as its emblem. It would continue to use this badge in formal contexts and would later submit it to the College of Arms, a royal corporation with authority to act on behalf of The Crown in matters of heraldry, flags and national symbols. The College of Arms officially granted the council its arms in 1979, including a badge and a pair of supporters in the form of a lion and a Chinese dragon to symbolise British and Chinese connections. 

Kan thought the council needed something more modern for everyday use. “The badge that they had looked like something from antiquity,” he says. In 1973, the Urban Council tasked Kan with creating a streamlined modernist version. “It was a complex image featuring a shield emblazoned with a crowned lion holding a pearl. The pearl represented the small but precious nature of Hong Kong – the Pearl of the Orient,” says Kan. Below the lion, the badge also featured an additional symbol, the bauhinia, which had been selected in 1965 as the city’s official flower. 

“I was asked to make the shield rounder. To simplify it. The aim was to make it clear. The shape had to be easy to discern even when printed very small. With the badge they couldn’t do this,” he says. While shedding various details, Kan was obliged to make two important additions: the Urban Council’s name in English and Chinese (si5 zing3 guk6 市政局). 

He ended up distilling the Urban Council’s badge into a minimalist graphic mark suitable for modern applications. Kan’s mark, with its bold stylized forms, is thoughtful and familiar. “I did two versions,” says Kan. “Black and white, and colour. It was blue and gold.” This will sound strange to anyone acquainted with the Urban Council’s emblem, which was a distinctive purple. The mark had yet to fully unfold.

“So how did the later, more familiar, version appear?” Kan muses. “It’s quite complicated. This did not pass through my hands.” It turns out that at least two other parties claim the Urban Council graphic as their work.  “One was a graphic design agency called Format. They were responsible for the graphic design for the second Festival of Asian Arts.” For this festival, Format created a further simplified version of the mark, reducing Kan’s design to a single line. “This version was not, however, intended to represent the Urban Council as a whole – only the Festival of Asian Arts,” says Kan. Despite this, the Urban Council went on to use the simplified bauhinia for their overall identity. 

Format sued the Urban Council, saying that this use of their work was a breach of contract. Citing the original armorial badge, Kan’s work and other publications of a similar graphic, the Urban Council proved that the mark had existed in some form before Format’s engagement. The lawsuit was unsuccessful.

Kan notes that there is another party who claims authorship of the Urban Council mark: a woman named Rebecca Lee Lok-sze. Remarkable in her own right, Rebecca Lee is the first Hongkonger and first woman to have visited the North Pole, the South Pole, and Mount Everest. In addition to her feats as an explorer, Lee was also a graphic designer of wide renown. Her portfolio includes China Light and Power’s iconic graphic mark.

“Amongst Rebecca Lee’s works is a version of the simplified UrbCo mark. It was close to the final iteration but contained within a circle. Not yet as developed as Format’s version in terms of line thickness and proportions,” says Kan. “Both derive their basic concept from the mark that I did – a simplified form that implies the rest.” 

In its time, the Urban Council mark was so visible that it would have been easy to take it for the symbol of Hong Kong itself. “It essentially came to represent Hong Kong.” says Kan. “At sporting events it appeared on team uniforms and flags – a white bauhinia on a purple field. It shouldn’t have been used as a symbol for Hong Kong. UrbCo was a municipal council, not a territory.” Kan conjectures that this type of use sprang from the council’s wide influence but also from a dearth of other Hong Kong emblems. “Before 1997, aside from the colonial Blue Ensign, Hong Kong didn’t really have a symbol.”

Because of their common subject, It is impossible not to draw connections between the Urban Council’s bauhinia and that of the Hong Kong flag. In 1987, the Basic Law Drafting Committee initiated a flag and emblem design competition for when Hong Kong was to emerge as a Special Administrative Region. Naturally, Kan threw his hat in the ring.

“I didn’t get the job,” he says with a smile. “I suspect that nobody wanted to risk creating any connections between the mark of a municipal council established under British rule and the new regional flag. They may not have wanted the person who designed the UrbCo mark to design the HKSAR flag. This would be logical but may not have been the case.” Kan remembers that, initially, competition rules even specified that the bauhinia should not be used, but ultimately, with a lack of other suitable symbols, the city’s flower was pressed into service because nature was seen as neutral. In the end, a design by architect Tao Ho was selected.

On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong’s new flag was raised for the first time, marking a new era for the city under Chinese rule. The Urban Council’s fate was sealed earlier that same year when chief-executive designate Tung Chee-hwa announced that the council and its counterpart in the New Territories, the Regional Council, would be disbanded and replaced by two provisional councils. At the time of its dissolution, the Urban Council was — and would remain — Hong Kong’s only administrative body ever to have been composed entirely of members elected by universal suffrage. Tung stated that those appointed to the provisional councils were to “love China [and] love Hong Kong,” but refused to be drawn on whether politicians with democratic ideals would meet this standard. Public polls at the time showed that the decision was unpopular.

The Urban Council ghost sign vanished under a coat of paint  in 2022. Photo: Billy Potts

The provisional councils were disbanded in 1999. Despite previous assurances that some of the councils’ powers and duties would pass to the district councils, all were taken up by the Home Affairs Department and two newly created government departments: the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

On December 31, 1999, the Urban Council’s flower emblem was swiftly covered up across the city. Some signs simply fade; others are scrubbed because they leave legacies that are difficult to reconcile with the present. Despite this, some ghosts return to tell the story of the city’s past, even if only in the humble form of car park signage. 

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