The Steiner Series: Building Hongkong Land

In the mid-1860s, a hired sampan embarked nightly from the Praya and navigated the shoreline. Stopping intermittently, the helmsman sent a lead weight plummeting into the depths along with a length of rope. Taking down measurements, the pilot charted every contour of the seabed which lay below the murk of Victoria Harbour, so named to flatter the queen who had once dismissed the little colony on a far flung corner of her British Imperium, joking that her daughter “ought to be called Princess of Hong Kong.” 

Arising from the fracas of the first Opium War, the tiny mountainous island was a disappointment to the British who felt that the Royal Navy’s victories should have met with far greater spoils: unfettered trading rights in China, all of Guangzhou, or even the island of Taiwan. From the beginning, Hong Kong lacked land but it did not lack ambition. If the nascent city was to one day emerge as “the Pearl of the Orient,” it would have to be a cultured pearl, built layer upon layer by the efforts of those such as the man in his sampan: Khachik Pogose Astwachatoor, better known as Paul Chater

Chater had twice unsuccessfully lobbied to alter Hong Kong’s landscape through an ambitious programme of land reclamation. The Indo-Armenian businessman was keenly aware that for the little entrepôt to grow, it would require solid foundations. In the mid-19th century, merchants built and operated piers along Hong Kong’s coastline. Protected by little more than a seawall, these were precarious bases from which to conduct serious trade, yet it was these merchants who objected to the scheme.

Frequently hit by typhoons, Hong Kong was struck by a particularly violent storm in 1874 which laid waste to the harbourfront and dealt a heavy blow to the city’s reputation as an international trading hub. Chater once again put forward his land reclamation proposal. With his detailed depth soundings of Victoria Harbour he argued before Parliament that it made more sense than to rebuild the seawall. In May 1889, he got what he wanted: his Praya Reclamation Scheme was approved. 

Only six weeks earlier, Chater had established a company along with his associate, James Johnstone Keswick, taipan of Jardine Matheson. Paying for this land reclamation, the company secured a monopoly in developing the 65 acres of new harbourfront. The new Central business district would be served by a new road named after Chater. Though poised to move land and sea, these pragmatic men chose a prosaic name for their monumental enterprise: the Hongkong Land Investment and Agency Company Limited. And yet it was a name that invoked the greatest prize that a land-scarce city had to offer, one better reflected by the company’s current, abbreviated moniker: Hongkong Land.

Nearly a century after Chater hatched his land reclamation scheme, his company turned to another emigré to update its branding. “They didn’t have anything. They didn’t know what corporate identity was,” says Henry Steiner, leaning back in his seat and flipping through a Hongkong Land brochure. In its first 79 years, the company had grown into a corporate giant. Establishing the Central business district as we know it, the company expanded operations into retail and hospitality, but on its face, Hongkong Land remained an opaque corporate entity, unknowable and unrelatable to anyone on the outside. In 1968, the developer engaged Steiner to design its corporate identity. 

“Every time you create an identity, you have an intention,” says Steiner. “There is something — some reason — but the agenda can be pretty vague.” He puts down the brochure. “Do you know what happened in Hong Kong in 1967?”

Steiner is alluding to the 1967 riots. Precipitated by labour disputes within the colony, civil unrest in neighbouring Macau and the ongoing tumult of the Cultural Revolution in mainland China, picketing workers clashed with police and large-scale violence erupted. With blood on the streets, confidence in Hong Kong’s future declined and many residents migrated overseas. Attempting to heal wounds, authorities made conciliatory gestures to foster a sense of belonging and identity amongst its remaining populace and so, it seems, did corporations like Hongkong Land.

“In 1968, in an age where few saw the value of a recognisable logo, the Hongkong Land Investment and Agency Company Limited commissioned legendary graphic designer Henry Steiner to create a new corporate identity,” the company’s website proudly proclaims. This was a first for the developer but also the start of a coalescing visual iconography for Hong Kong.

The “H” mark that Steiner produced is a robust graphic supported by a clean sans-serif, Univers. Like Hongkong Land itself, the mark is omnipresent yet subtle. The design enshrines the company’s initial letter with a floor plan and a stylized character, sau6 (, “longevity”). A deft application of Steiner’s signature cross-cultural design style, the identity would debut on the company’s 1970 annual report and herald a formal name change to the Hongkong Land Company Limited in 1972.

“It would be too much to say that something inspired this,” says Steiner. “I don’t see that inspiration had anything to do with it. Just thinking things through.” Approaching his work pragmatically, the graphic designer puts little stock in romantic notions like inspiration. “Deadlines are my inspiration.” Steiner deadpans. “Well, it’s like a floor plan, yeah. An office building with two towers and then the lift in the middle. These things occur to you after…” He gives a wry smile. “This is a secret – after you’ve done the identity, then you see something in it. Rather than going about it like, ‘How can I express the floorplan of a building?’ You just do it and then you figure out ways to justify it. You make up the story after creating the design.”

“Now, this is not actually dishonest,” wrote Steiner in his 2019 essay, “Between an Architect and a Tailor,” which elaborated on his working process. “Many creative workers find out their true consciousness can be working away on a project even when you’re not aware of any progress.” Questioning whether graphic design really is a profession, Steiner finally concludes that it is “a modest calling: useful and not terribly prestigious. A profession somewhere between that of an architect and a tailor.” 

The description is an apt one for the graphic designer who was the first in Hong Kong to professionalise the role. Working alongside architects as a peer and not a subordinate, Steiner’s career was changed forever and in turn he has played a unique role in building Hong Kong, dressing it in the graphic iconography that we are familiar with today. 

Steiner often found himself collaborating with architecture firm Palmer and Turner. From 1970 to 1972, Steiner worked closely with them on signage and wayfinding for Hongkong Land’s Connaught Centre, today known as Jardine House. The relationship had begun several years before, when Steiner was hired to create an identity and signage for the Hong Kong Hilton. “[Previously I had worked with] just printed stuff,” he recalls. “Signage I hadn’t been trained to do, but you worked it out. What was the sightline? Where do you see it from? Is it legible? In other words, taking into account things that you don’t get paid for. Nobody says ‘go down there and look at the sign.’ It was professionalism [to do that].”

While Steiner insists that “it was all just common sense,” or that he “just did things that seemed appropriate,” the idea of branding a corporation, let alone an entire city, was beyond most people in the 1960s. For Steiner, Hong Kong of that era was a blank canvas and the bulk of his work lay in showing people the basic idea of corporate identity. His articulate nature made complex ideas easily comprehensible and his knack for creating familiar iconography made the process appear effortless even as it came to define the look of Hong Kong. 

This turned out to be a double edged sword, as it gave some the impression that Steiner was an expendable cost to be cut or worse, that they were in a position to teach him, as was the case with one Hongkong Land executive. “I think that’s the only time I walked out on a job,” says Steiner. “This guy was telling me how to do graphic design.” Differing from most other professions, graphic design deals in something understood by everyone and no one: aesthetics. So came the awkward conclusion to that project but not Steiner’s association with Hongkong Land.

In the intervening years, Henry Steiner broadened his scope from Hong Kong, setting his sights on the other Asian Tigers and diversifying his clients across South Korea, Singapore and mainland China – but he has always kept an eye on his old work, and his clients have never forgotten him. When Hongkong Land celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jardine House, Steiner was an honoured guest. As identity becomes increasingly important for the company and Hong Kong at large, it only makes sense to consult with the man who did so much to give that identity a visual expression. Present on the ground floor entrances and glass doors of every edifice from Prince’s Building to Alexandra House, Hongkong Land’s “H” mark is as strong as ever, much like the reclaimed land on which it sits. “It’s holding up pretty well,” Steiner admits.

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