Hong Kong isn’t a city that talks – it shouts. Everywhere you look, a riot of signage competes for your attention: shop signs, billboards, protest banners. Words are everywhere. But what happens if you don’t understand?
When Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze first came to Hong Kong, he was like most newcomers from Western countries: illiterate. That is to say, he couldn’t read traditional Chinese, the written language of choice for more than 90 percent of Hongkongers, most of whom grow up in an education system that drills thousands of characters into them before they even graduate from primary school. The more time the French photographer spent in Hong Kong, the more he realised what he was missing, even as he produced fascinating portraits of the city’s urban environment, from its rooftop life to twilight views to nature that finds a way to burst through even the thickest layers of concrete.
“I saw so many nice characters everywhere, but I didn’t read Chinese,” he says. That sparked an idea. In late 2017, he began roaming the city, taking photos of old shop signs, building names and faded advertisements – all the everyday signage he couldn’t understand. He preferred characters that had been weathered by age. “When time passes and the character is worn down, it loses its commercial character, but gains something else – something more than what it originally meant,” he says.
Many of the characters he documented belonged to businesses that had long ago ceased to exist, their names left behind as inadvertent memorials. Until recently, it was traditional for businesses to commission a handmade sign—cut from wood or metal, or fashioned from neon tubes—that was expected to last their entire life. Now that Hong Kong’s property market is so expensive and volatile, many businesses don’t expect to stay put for more than a few years, an attitude reflected by the cheap vinyl or LED signs they hang out front: quick to produce, easy to remove.
“What I really enjoyed was going to neighbourhoods I had never been to before,” he says. Sheung Shui, with its old market town and historic villages, was a particular revelation. He spent most of his time in older areas filled with tong lau, the walkup residential and commercial buildings that once defined working-class life in Hong Kong. He didn’t set foot in places like Tseung Kwan O, a high-rise suburb built in the 1990s. “I knew I wouldn’t find anything there.”
After gathering photos, Jacquet-Lagrèze returned home and showed them to his Hong Kong-born wife, Ashby Ng, who explained to him what they said. Then they began playing around with the images, treating them like a giant city-sized puzzle, shuffling around the characters into four-character aphorisms of the kind that abound in Chinese.
The project prompted Jacquet-Lagrèze to invest more time in becoming literate. After a year of study, he says he can now read “less than a thousand but more than five hundred” characters. It’s enough to muddle his way through a newspaper – and even to begin composing some simple aphorisms of his own. “It’s a language that is very, very easy to make poetry in,” he says. “You don’t need many words to evoke an image. It’s a very imaginative language. I have a very limited vocabulary and I’m already able to create something.”
He particularly enjoys one aphorism that translates into English as A Hundred Pains Forges Talent. That’s a mouthful in English but in Chinese it is just four characters: baak3 fu2 sing4 coi4 (百苦成材). “With so few words you can already create something with a lot of different meanings. That’s what I like about the language,” he says.
The biggest challenge turned out to be finding a diverse enough range of characters to work with. “There are always the same words that come up again and again in business names, like ‘dragon,’” he says. By now, Jacquet-Lagrèze has photographed about a thousand different characters, but that took plenty of time and many thousands of steps. “It was very laborious,” he says.
Translation was tricky, too. After creating a visual poem in Chinese, Ng and Jacquet-Lagrèze came up with an English title, but the two languages operate on different wavelengths. “For example, with ‘Boundless Happiness,’ the literal meaning is Happiness as Big as the Eastern Sea (fuk1 wo4 dung1 hoi2 福和東海). It’s less poetic in English,” says Jacquet-Lagrèze. “We took the significance but not the literal meaning.”
Another example—less an aphorism than a common expression—is sam1 sam1 (心心). It literally means Heart Heart, but Emotion Shift according to Jacquet-Lagrèze and Ng’s translation. “It’s a metaphor – one heart is disconnected, the other still plugged in.”
These new works will be on show next month in an exhibition called City Poetry 城市詩意. Jacquet-Lagrèze hopes it is just the start of a longer project. “I’ve enjoyed this series and hope it’s something I can continue,” he says. If you know how to listen, the city has a lot to say.
City Poetry 城市詩意 will show at the Blue Lotus Gallery, alongside works from Jacquet-Lagrèze’s previous exhibitions, from 7 June to 7 July 2019. Click here for more information.