The sign painter announces himself in theatrically nasal tones. “I am the scribe, Au Yeung Cheong, as seen on news and television!” For over 30 years, the king of signs held court inside a dilapidated palace: the crumbling State Theatre in North Point. On the day of our meeting, all doors have been sealed like the ramparts of a walled city under siege.
All doors but for one: Au Yeung’s shop, King Wah Signboard (ging1 waa4 ziu1 paai4 京華招牌), which reposes within the cavernous depths of the old cinema’s arcade, far under the parabolic roof trusses and extinguished neon. Clad in a frog-fronted mandarin jacket, the signmaker is a wild-haired vision haloed in the glow of acrylic light boxes touting “Words that Shine Like the Sun,” “Illuminated Colours” and “Love.” Zan Script (zan1 tai2 zi6 真體字) is his calligraphic style of choice and with his brush, Au Yeung has exalted tenements, retirement homes, jewellers and restaurants with handmade signage bespeaking businesses run by real people, free from the taint of corporate ubiquity.
The pillars surrounding the shop are covered in cascading lines of red brushwork. Above spasms of drifting dust, a pair of eyes whose retinas are the words “真功夫，真體字” (zan1 gung1 fu1, zan1 tai2 zi6, “Real Kung Fu, [Real] Zan Script”) bear down on Au Yeung’s many devotees patiently waiting in the airless heat. They take photos and admire the rows of drying souvenir signs. Pen poised in one hand and a smouldering cigarette in the other, Au Yeung knows that soon he will be ousted from the State Theatre as the rapacious forces of redevelopment close in.
That day has now come and gone. The State Theatre has been shuttered and Au Yeung turned out. Although the theatre itself will be preserved and restored, the adjacent commercial arcade and residential block where Au Yeung ran his shop will be demolished and redeveloped. But even if his original shop is gone, Master Au Yeung is not giving up. And his legacy can be seen all over Hong Kong. He is one of the last calligraphic sign makers in the city, and his expressive handiwork can be seen across Tin Hau, Fortress Hill and North Point where it brings unity and a sense of specific place-based identity that modern digitally printed signage cannot.
“There used to be tons of sign makers and sign calligraphers in every district of Hong Kong,” explains Streetsign HK co-founder Kevin Mak, a Zolima CityMag contributor who helped us save the neon sign of a Happy Valley dim sum parlour. “They [had] shops or even just a table booth [on] street corners.” Mak’s partner, Ken Fung, adds that “while most signboard calligraphers remained nameless, some were famous for their exceptional calligraphy or auspiciousness.” Their work could shape the entire visual landscape of Hong Kong’s neighbourhoods. Au Yeung alone says he is responsible for 1,500 signs around Hong Kong. “Isn’t that a lot?” he asks, cheekily.
Because each artisan served his community, the style of a local scribe could come to be identified with their neighbourhood; a history of Hong Kong’s various communities written in signage. “Most street scenes are highly related to the signmaking style and calligraphies of [each] district,” explains Mak. This hyper localisation has aided Streetsign HK in studying the commercial activities historically linked to different communities. Taking Au Yeung as a case study, the group has collated his work in a Google Map that plots his sphere of influence.
What makes Au Yeung’s work particularly recognisable is his use of Zan Script. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907), this was the script of officials and royalty, and it is associated in particular with the scholar Ouyang Xun, who lived from 557 to 641 and served as Imperial Calligrapher for the Tang. Variations in skill, habits, and aesthetics ensure a diversity in strokes, structure and layout even within one style. Mak describes Au Yeung’s brand of Zan Script as “close” to the original “with thick strokes and special details.” The style is apt for sign painting with its legibility, regularity and pleasingly proportioned strokes.
Au Yeung flares his nostrils proudly when asked about his signature script. “Difficult to master? Ha!” he exclaims. He says it is “even more difficult” than Kai Script (gaai1 syu1 楷書, “Regular Script”), which is the most common style of calligraphy. He theatrically conveys how rare Zan Script is. “In this century it is I, alone, who possesses the knowledge to render Zan Script!” he proclaims. “There is not one sign in all of Guangdong, nor Taiwan, nor Fujian written in Zan Script! In all of mainland China, there are few Zan Script signs. One is in Taishan, another on Hunan Province’s Nantianmen. There is one at the entrance of the Shanhaiguan Tower section of the Great Wall, [known as] ‘the First Pass Under Heaven.’ It is written on the Temple of Heaven. Those are…” Au Yeung pauses for dramatic effect. “Zan Script!”
Asked to explain how he managed to secure this apparent monopoly, Au Yeung’s reply is simple. “The emperor did not give them permission to use it so that is why it does not appear,” he says. No emperor has decreed that Master Au Yeung should be allowed to use the elevated script, but the sifu gave himself permission.
Nearly all calligraphers learn by imitating exemplary models of various scripts. The autodidactic Au Yeung began in this way. He grew up in Shunde, a little over 100 kilometres from Hong Kong, in a house with no electricity. “We lit kerosene lamps to study,” he says. “On the table were pieces of silver.” He drops a silver coin onto the table, revealing rows of Zan Script minted on its surface. Au Yeung cobbled together and studied disparate examples like this, from Buddhist scriptures to Kwun Yum scriptures, by way of the Three Character Classic (三字經 saam1 zi6 ging1 三字經 ) and the Tao Te Ching (dou6 dak1 ging1 道德經 ). “You must study tens of thousands of characters to learn the true form,” he says. “You cannot study only one example. There is no guarantee that one example is completely authentic.”
Au Yeung demonstrates his technique. He blocks his composition on acrylic with masking tape, then lays down the belly of his brush and pulls long crimson lines. “Brushwork is like a nurse injecting a needle into an arm,” he says. “If you push down smoothly then it doesn’t hurt. Slowly poke it in and it hurts like hell. The words shouldn’t have broken heads and broken tails.” He laughs impishly and taps his brush to the rhythm of his edict.
Doing a second layer, joining strokes and smoothing out jagged edges, Au Yeung’s idiosyncratic chirography differs from fine art calligraphy because of the various media involved: acrylic, mirrors and plastic-based paints. “Sign calligraphy is written in a very specific way that helps [with] installation,” explains Kevin Mak. Au Yeung has also manipulated electrical wiring and glass tubing, rendering his beloved Zan Script in LEDs and neon. “When Au Yeung ran the shop with employees, they produced various types of signboards, including neon,” says Mak.
Signboard production itself is a distinct skill. Mak says that signboard calligraphers would write the characters on a paper stencil before passing them onto signboard makers for production and installation. Automotive paint was favoured for its durability and ease of maintenance. But Au Yeung combines all of these roles: writing, production and installation. He is not shy about his skills. “By comparison to famous calligraphy scholars, my writing is even more beautiful!” he exclaims. “Because it is Zan Script. It has a quality of righteousness.” In 2018, Au Yeung was invited to write the logotype for Tai Kwun’s exhibition, 100 Faces of Tai Kwun. “Six thousand visitors daily!” titters Au Yeung. “Is that not popular?”
Au Yeung’s reign at the State Theatre is now over, but he isn’t calling it quits just yet. King Wah Sign Boards has decamped to 40 Kam Ping Street, a short walk away from the theatre. Drawn by the eminently Instagrammable shop and Au Yeung’s bombastic but ultimately winning character, King Wah has garnered a diehard following of young admirers whose interactions with the master range from simple adulation to artistic collaboration. Photographers abound; KOLs—influencers—drape themselves across Au Yeung’s jigsaw like magicians’ assistants, basking in the flattering light.
Cinematographer Lap-Yin Brooks has worked on a film about King Wah and returns often to visit the new space. “I love it,” he says. “It’s quite an isolated area and only people that know him and the place would come here. It’s a nice little hidden gem.” As he speaks, a tall behatted figure emerges from the shadows: Justin Ng of Jimmy and Justin Tattoo. The tattooist takes his place in line. “I was hoping Master Au Yeung would paint my shop sign. His writing really embodies the spirit of Hong Kong,” he says. Asked if he would ever collaborate with the sign writer, Ng laughs. “I really couldn’t say, not sure if he would agree. It looks like the master is a bit of a character just like my sifu, Jimmy.”
This groundswell of support has raised the profile of handmade signage, even resulting in the development of merchandise and a well tended social media profile but more importantly, it has renewed the possibility that younger generations might learn Au Yeung’s Zan Script. “If I cannot teach, this writing will vanish,” he intones. “It disappeared for a hundred or so years.” He says many valuable examples were lost when the Summer Palace in Beijing was burned to the ground by British troops in 1860. He motions towards a table of huddled youngsters with poised brushes. “Whether they can learn, I cannot say,” he says. “Some pay a little, some I teach for free. I always show them a few strokes.” With luck, a precious few will dedicate themselves to the craft.
If they don’t, one of the most distinctive elements of Hong Kong’s visual landscape will disappear. Handcrafted signs were once the norm, but they have become increasingly rare; the intuitive use of traditional tools and crafts has been subsumed by infernal machines that produce at a fraction of the cost and time but also a fraction of the charm. For now, the power of hand-painted signage is still obvious. Just as a handwritten missive contains more of its writer’s personality than an email, handcrafted signs imbue Hong Kong’s urban landscape with a degree of humanity – a once-common commodity that has become awfully scarce.
As a visitor leaves his shop, Au Yeung calls after him. “Young man! Come back and I will teach you all of my secrets for $100!” Offered the chance to safeguard a cherished tradition, this sounds like a bargain.