Hong Kong’s Ghost Signs: A Long-Gone Barbershop

The three-storey tong lau at 505 Lockhart Road has seen Causeway Bay through many seasons. Built in 1954, it might once have been considered handsome with its modernist facade, elegant light well and breezy verandahs. These days the verandahs have been enclosed with glass, and loose wires festoon a frontage replete with corrugated metal additions. Its entrance is blighted by graffiti and its roof is topped with a jagged crown of TV aerials. 

Through six decades of faithful service, the tenement has seen neighbours come and go. For years the unmistakable black and white shingle of an acupuncturist, reading “李偉忠針灸院” (lei5 wai5 zung1 zam1 gau3 jyun2, Li Wai Chung Acupuncture Clinic), could be seen on the second floor, but the doctor has been out since 2017. Thankfully, the venerable Yee Shun Dairy Company still serves its signature double skin milk puddings (soeng1 pei4 naai5 雙皮奶) right across the road.

Twice, between 2009 and 2017, the ground floor commercial space assumed the guise of a shoe shop, first under the beige and brown signage of a store named Jipi Japa, then in the lime green stylings of a Japanese brand stylised as ORiental TRaffic. Both establishments have met their demise, but each time a shop front comes down, the building reveals an older story. Painted directly onto bare concrete, hidden for years at a time, are the characters “好來塢理髮公司” (hou2 loi4 wu2 lei5 faat3 gung1 si1, Hollywood Barber Company). A ghost sign.

“Concrete and terrazzo signs or painted signs are often painted over or covered by the next one using the space and can therefore last longer than signs that are added on,” says streetsignHK co-founder and Zolima CityMag contributor, Kevin Mak. “Definitely those signs usually document the history from an even more distant generation, just like a time capsule.”

One aspect of this unearthed history can often be evidence of obscure calligraphy scripts. “There are long gone styles that we can find in these older signs,” Mak explains as he studies Hollywood Barber’s distinctive black characters. “This energetic style of beiwei script was more popular in the past. Now we can only find very few examples of beiwei calligraphy and usually they look more static and balanced than this.”

Within the Chinese speaking world, beiwei (bak1 ngai6 tai2 北魏體) was once most commonly found in Hong Kong. “The beiwei script has thick strokes, strong presence and high recognisability, making it very suitable for use in dense environments,” explains Hong Kong signage expert and historian, Lee Kin-ming, in his book Looking at Hong Kong Signage (你看港街招牌). “No current computer fonts are similar to beiwei and this means that any signboards featuring beiwei will have been handwritten. They will be relatively old – 20 or 30 years at the very least.”

Ken Fung of streetsignHK says thick strokes and a unique style make beiwei easily recognisable “and create a bold, strong image for companies.” For these reasons, it became the font of choice for Hong Kong businesses as diverse as banks, restaurants, schools, market stalls and, as evidenced here, barber shops. “Beiwei script signs often appear in the Central and Sheung Wan areas of ​​Hong Kong Island,” says Lee. “They were also commonly found in San Po Kong in the 1980s. Some of these signs are still in use today.” Despite this, beiwei nearly disappeared in the 1990s due to a decline in the number of Hong Kong’s street calligraphers – artisans responsible for the signage that gave each neighbourhood its distinct visual style.

One such calligrapher who still specialises in the obscure script is the prolific Yeung Kai. Most well known for his stencilled signage for trucks, Yeung has been at the forefront of a resurgence in beiwei. “It is beautiful and classic,” Yeung told the South China Morning Post in 2018. “Beiwei characters look vigorous. Hong Kong people love characters that are lively and powerful.” The octogenarian decided to concentrate on BeiWei only after 30 years as a calligrapher. “Not many people learn BeiWei because it is difficult to master. It puts off those who are looking for quick results.” In the course of his work, Yeung has been scanning his calligraphy into an ancient PC and this has created a valuable record for preserving a distinctly Hong Kong script.

Aside from details of the characters themselves, Hollywood Barber Company’s charming sign has more to reveal. “The type of script is very similar to the one that my dad had at his barbershop back in the 60s, so that might help to date it,” says Mark Lau, proprietor of Oi Kwan Barber in Wan Chai, a traditional Cantonese barbershop started by his father in 1962. “You could say that the choice of script would have been fairly common for barbershops of the 1950s and 1960s but that’s not necessarily because it was favoured by barbers. A business like a barbershop wasn’t going to go out of its way to create something completely new or different, it would have used what was most popular overall.”

Lau, who now runs his father’s barbershop on Spring Garden Lane, speculates that the Hollywood Barber Company would have been similar to one of Oi Kwan’s previous branches, which was located in an historic shophouse on Mallory Street, in Comix Homebase. “It’s quite a deep shop space – it would have been a fairly large and nice barbershop. Maybe not the highest end but, going by the location, it served fairly well-heeled people.” In support of this theory, Lau alludes to the nightclubs, restaurants, and other entertainment establishments historically clustered around the area, which catered to the city’s well off Shanghainese community. “It was likely a Shanghainese style barbershop that incorporated both Chinese and Western elements. It might have done perms and things like that as well as haircuts.”

For now, this is all that can be gleaned from the Hollywood Barber Company’s beautiful sign. Along with the architecture and historical details of the area, this ghost sign does much to add colour and detail, bringing the past into sharper focus. Though the sign is now hidden again, the humble legacy of 505 Lockhart Road continues. In a few years, when a lease ends, the sign may be revealed, but for now, Hollywood Barber rests as a successor, Simple Shear Hair Salon, runs its business just upstairs. In its own way, the ground floor space continues its own tradition. The shop that once invoked the glamour of the silver screen still serves a privileged clientele, only now these customers are a pack of pampered pooches – the shop’s current incarnation is a dog groomer.

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