Henry Steiner lightly traces a finger along the fine contours of a dark blue plaque. Convex and oval like a Roman legionary’s shield, the extruded plastic is emblazoned with a bit, a horseshoe and a whip: the graphic mark known to all Hongkongers as that of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
“I think that in many ways, they’re my favourite [client],” says Steiner. “It’s been [a] successful [corporate identity]. It’s handsome. It’s not necessarily the best one I’ve done but I’m very fond of it.”
Founded in 1884, the Hong Kong Jockey Club is among Hong Kong’s oldest institutions. The organisation was renamed the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club in 1960 with the grant of a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth II. Both Hong Kong’s largest taxpayer and largest philanthropic body, the club is a non-profit organisation that holds a government-granted monopoly in betting entertainment that encompasses horse racing, football, the Mark Six lottery and much else. In a sense, it is the city’s answer to bread and circuses for the average citizen who can at least dream of winning their fortune once every few days.
The club draws its exclusive membership from the highest echelons of business and government filling their ranks with the great and the good. As a result, the club wields subtle but massive influence over the city and in this role, its image must reflect the values of the status quo at all times. With this in mind, the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club called on Henry Steiner to update its corporate identity in 1996.
“Not a hell of a lot of difference there, is there?” Steiner says, comparing his work to the original graphic mark. Superficially this seems true, but in the face of changing times and shifting power, nuance is key.
Rendered in sketchy black lines and shading, the club’s original identity resembled a precocious napkin doodle in need of refinement. “So yeah,” says Steiner, “I brought it up to the 21st century.” With a brief as important as this, an egotist would jump at the chance to radically change what came before, or to “rebrand” – a bit of marketing jargon much ridiculed in the offices of Steiner&Co. Eschewing this course of action, Steiner instead considered the nature of continuity. “I [was] looking for the heritage of the identity. And I didn’t want to do something silly. [I wanted to] respect the background.”
Steiner’s most obvious addition to the Jockey Club identity is an oval which contains and unites the other graphic elements. “I wanted more storytelling,” he explains. “The oval, of course, refers to the Happy Valley racetrack.” With the deft application of blue and yellow, colour is another marked addition. Steiner offers little explanation for his choices other than “aesthetics” and “a bit of common sense,” but expands on why he dispensed with the white of the original identity. “There are colours that you don’t want [such as white]. It doesn’t have good connotations in either English or Chinese: surrender, death.” Steiner’s associate suggests that yellow could stand in for gold. “Maybe,” he concedes.
Alongside bold flat colours, Steiner also streamlined the graphic’s form. “We made it straightforward and simple.” He repeats this like a mantra. Steiner points to the horseshoe in the old identity. Its asymmetry becomes immediately apparent with three nail holes on one side and four on the other. “Nobody ever picked that up but with studying it, that just jumped up. They had to be equal from one side to the other.”
In addition to a simplification of form, the imagery also demanded reconsideration. Suggesting a ‘J’ and ‘C,’ the shaft of a long whip bisects the horseshoe and tapers to a vicious point. Resembling a dagger or a sabre, it was not a flattering totem for a powerful institution backed by Hong Kong’s patrician class, nor did it reflect modern standards in animal welfare. “One of the [club] committee members said “you could cut a horse in half with that.” Remembers Steiner who softened the aggressive implement, transforming it into a modern riding crop terminating in a soft tongue known as a keeper. “I suppose these days our society is a kindlier one.”
Leaning back in his chair, Steiner peruses his copy of the Jockey Club’s spiral-bound brand guidelines. “I think this is the last printed manual that we did,” he says. “Now we just issue them digitally.”
In 1996, the world stood in the midst of a major technological shift, but Hong Kong was also approaching an entirely different crossroads: the imminent handover of its sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China on July 1, 1997. This change was to be reflected in the club, which would no longer be the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club; it would once again be known as the Hong Kong Jockey Club, or Hoeng1 Gong2 Coi3 Maa5 Wui2 in Cantonese (香港賽馬會). “And in addition to removing the ‘Royal,’” says Steiner, “the Chinese went above the English.”
Consciously understating his work for the Jockey Club, Steiner insists that he “just cleaned it up – just simplified that whole thing.” But to take this statement literally is to misunderstand the message which has been masterfully articulated through graphic communication: that despite major change, there is continuity. “They just felt they needed something better to continue. And of course, they went right through the handover. It was something that wouldn’t change at all.”
In the lead-up to 1997, looming change was a constant anxiety for Hongkongers unsure of what would become of their city; their home. Accurately gauging this mood, Deng Xiaoping sought to calm the people, invoking what he judged to be closest to their hearts. “Horses will still run, stocks will still sizzle and dancers will still dance.” Perhaps life could continue as normal under Deng’s One Country, Two Systems model of governance. In referencing the Jockey Club and Hong Kong’s financial prowess over its rule of law, judiciary and system of government, the communist leader had astutely sized up the plutocratic city in the south.
Obvious outward facing symbols and figureheads of power can change — flags, titles, personnel and even sovereignty — but by and large the status quo will sustain itself wherever possible. Continuity is maintained by the discreet exercise of power; a sleight of hand that leaves those outside the oval wondering who holds the reins, and who wields the whip?