Hong Kong is Haunted by Ghost Signs

Driving down Shek Pai Road towards Aberdeen, a looming apparition materialises in the periphery. In that brief instant, the phantom proffers a packet of cigarettes, then disappears, leaving motorists half wondering if they’d seen anything at all. This spectre haunts the monolithic Hing Wai Ice and Cold Storage warehouse in Tin Wan, which bears on its façade the faded remains of an enormous painted advertisement for Good Companion Cigarettes. Blasted by decades of sun, rain and typhoons, once vibrant yellows, blues and reds are barely discernible, reduced to a pale impression visible only by the grace of its lead based paint – a ghost sign.

Hand-painted signs and advertisements were once commonplace in Hong Kong, imbuing the urban landscape with their idiosyncratic humanity. With the rise of digital printing and vinyl banners, such signs have become rare. Many proud statements, daubed by skilled hands, have been lost to demolition and redevelopment. Those that linger have been left to slowly fade from view and from memory, evoking echoes of the past for those who can spot them.  

Few can agree what constitutes a ghost sign. By the purest of measures, the label only applies to commercial signage painted on brick exterior walls 50 years or older, to the exclusion of any other media such as neon, terrazzo and mosaics. Some emphasise that ghost signs must be redundant in the present day, advertising obsolete products and services that represent shadows of a former time and conveying a sense of cessation or abandonment. The most liberal and inclusive consider almost any abandoned signage to be ghost signs regardless of material, communicative intent, age and state of dilapidation, revelling only in the intrigue of seeing something not intended for our contemporary eyes. 

For those who look, Hong Kong’s streets crawl with fading signs from the past, sometimes made clearer by the morning light or the onset of summer rain. Faint remnants of obsolete signage cling to ghost pillars of old shophouses. Some peek through layers of hanging laundry and cracking paint while others hide beneath pipes, ducts and air conditioning units. Many of these signs are so faint that they leave viewers in doubt. Was it a ghost sign or a water stain? 

The palimpsest layering of new upon old reveals Hong Kong in its myriad past incarnations. Crumbling paint at a car park entrance on Tai Tam Reservoir Road exposes the distinct bauhinia emblem of the long disbanded Urban Council. In Cheung Sha Wan, a phantom jeweller’s sign adorns a noodle shop that occupies the space like a hermit crab in an abandoned shell; down the road a sign for a defunct snake restaurant leaves viewers wondering how many escaped serpents still live in the bowels of that old building.

“I have no idea what that shop used to be! I’ve only been here six months!” exclaims the proprietress of a Sham Shui Po produce shop when asked about the illegible sign over the shuttered premises next door. Her response reflects the rapidly changing nature of the neighbourhood. Littered with shop spaces bereft of old businesses, abandoned signs festooned with “to let” flyers stand like gravestones of a long gone community. 

“I’m really not sure what that is. It was here when we arrived,” says a young barista referring to a faded sequence of numbers painted on the wall where he hangs today’s bill of fare. “I think this place used to be a Chinese medicine shop,” he adds before turning back to his coffee machine. 

In some cases, older painted signs can be revealed when a newer sign or facade is removed. These are known as “uncoverings.” Such excavations shed light on mysteries of Hong Kong’s unique signage tradition. StreetsignHK founder and Zolima CityMag contributor Kevin Mak often uncovers painted signs in the course of his preservation work. “These archeological moments are quite common – rediscovering older hidden signs behind new ones,” he says. “[These include] painted, concrete and terrazzo signs that are just painted on or are part of the wall. The [older signs underneath] can sometimes be in better condition than the signs that were added on top.” 

Ghost signs and uncoverings can divulge valuable information on Chinese calligraphic scripts. “There are long gone styles that we can find in these older signs,” says Mak Inspecting a photograph of an uncovered sign that once graced a Causeway Bay hair salon. “This energetic style of beiwei script (bak1 ngai6 tai2 北魏體) was more popular in the past. Now we can only find very few examples of it and usually [those examples] look more static and balanced.” It is possible to find such examples in photographs but there is a thrill in unearthing a treasure that may not have been documented before. “The main value of rediscovering these hidden covered signs is that we are able to see some old history that might not be recorded in old photos or other official records,” says Mak. “They might have been short lived but they can tell us a bit about the nature of a business, street and district. It’s just like a time capsule.”

In the West, the craftsmen who scale buildings to paint wall signage are known as walldogs. Originally intended as a slight, the name referred to how these men worked like dogs in freezing cold and blazing heat, and how they were “leashed” to buildings by ropes. Though skilled in their own right, these highwire craftsmen were low in the sign painter hierarchy, often poorly paid for work that was dangerous because of heights and the toxic lead-based paints that they used. But their legacy has earned them respect. Today, being called a walldog is a badge of honour among mural painters.

Hong Kong does not have a specific term to describe such sign painters. “There were specific workers and companies doing it yet it was not [considered] a distinct craft,” says Mak. “A street calligrapher usually drafted the calligraphy on paper and a construction company then scaled it larger although there were cases where these street calligraphers would also climb high to do the calligraphy directly.” 

Through his sign preservation work at Yue Man Square in Kwun Tong, Mak became familiar with one such master, Cho Wah-on. Particularly active around Kwun Tong a little more than a decade ago, Cho was a prolific sign painter who painted directly onto doorways, boards and walls. “These [signs] were cheaper and more common in the past before newer materials became popular,” says Mak. 

He shares a photograph of the master’s signature on a panel of signage from an auto glass shop in Tai Hang, a neighbourhood where ghost signs of defunct garages are commonly found above fancy new restaurants. ”We got this from the hands of demolition workers. The sign was going and we asked the workers for a part of it. They refused to take down the rest properly but they gave us the signature. We were super lucky already.”

Signmaker and historian Lee Kin-ming recognises Cho’s signature well having seen it in San Po Kong, To Kwa Wan and Kowloon City. The thick, even strokes of the master’s kai script (gaai1 syu1 楷書) are unmistakable. “Mr. Cho’s handwriting feels earnest and honest. Although they are a little less imposing than others, these are good signs,” writes Lee in his book, 你看港街招牌 (nei5 hon3 gong2 gaai1 ziu1 paai4, Looking at Hong Kong Signage). Cho made many types of signage, but his painted signs had a certain flair and serviced a budget niche. His familiar red characters on white backgrounds were sometimes shadowed to give a three dimensional effect. 

“I was curious and asked local shopkeepers about these signs. All they could tell me was that they were at least 10 years old and that Mr. Cho had vanished,” says Lee. But Cho always signed his work with his name and phone number – so he decided to call. “A woman’s voice came on the line and she called herself Mrs. Cho – Mr. Cho’s daughter-in-law,” says Lee. “She informed me that Mr. Cho had died about ten years ago at the age of ninety-two. He remained healthy into his 80s and didn’t retire until he was 86. [Because] he wrote signs directly on to buildings, he had to climb ladders to the tops of doors, cocklofts or even higher. According to Mrs. Cho, he was very agile and had a good eye. His sense of scale and visual hierarchy were sharp.” 

Until recently, cheap handwritten signs like Mr. Cho’s have often been dismissed as unworthy of preservation, but they are becoming rare and Hong Kong’s visual landscape has become poorer for their loss. Fading in the humid air and heat, it would be easy to view Hong Kong’s ghost signs as curious artefacts, indicating decline and ignominious defeat. Many of the city’s battered old signs are so insubstantial that they cannot even be considered ghost signs, just trace impressions of dust and sun bleached negatives. Each neglected wall sign a dashed dream, each crude coverup a snub to what has come before, each empty space a chalk outline at the scene of a murder. 

Ghost signs or not, failure cannot be the legacy of Hong Kong’s decaying signage landscape. “Whenever a sign is destroyed, there is an opportunity to learn,” says Lee. “Old signs should not be underestimated.”

Where one sign fades, it leaves lessons for a new generation of signmakers and preservationists. Though ghost signs evoke loss they also bespeak a resourceful place that has reinvented itself again and again. Clinging on tenaciously and reaching towards the light, ghost signs are the embodiment of a city unbowed and unbroken. A city whose spirit cannot be so easily wiped away.

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