The Chinese Signboard Calligrapher

Au Yeung Cheong isn’t one for modesty. He heralds himself as No. 1, the crème de la crème, the acolyte of famous Chinese calligraphers. 

His kingdom is a cluttered corner shop in the residential Hong Kong neighborhood of North Point: Fluorescent lights line the ceiling, and scraps of plastic, sawdust, and empty paint cans fill almost every square inch on the linoleum floor. Newspaper clippings adorn the door jamb. It’s not exactly a place you’d stroll past and wander inside to check out, but nonetheless a cluster of people huddles outside late on a Saturday afternoon as the sun begins its descent, peering inside.

Au Yeung’s traditional handicraft can be found plastered across more than 1,000 buildings in Hong Kong if you just look up. He designs, builds and installs signboards across Hong Kong, everywhere from restaurants and jewelry shops to Chinese medicine clinics. The 65-year-old once even stood on the bamboo scaffolding outside a watch store to paint the company’s name onto a signboard.

Handmade neon signs may be the iconic symbol of the city’s visual landscape, but in the 1980s, government regulations and a preference for more energy-efficient signs began transforming Hong Kong’s streets. These days, Au Yeung’s work is primarily acrylic, plastic or backlit with LED lights. Producing handmade signboards is a skill in and of itself, but his use of the distinctive Zan script — a regal style of Chinese calligraphy — is what truly sets his work apart from machine-made typefaces. 

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The Chestnut Roaster

“Chan’s Roast Chestnut Cart” (2020), watercolor sketch by Alvin C.K. Lam. Scroll to the end of the post for details on this Alvin C.K. Lam x No Joe Schmo collaboration.

They crackle and sizzle like explosive popcorn on the giant wok burner, which is almost the size of Chan Yuk-Lan herself. The woman’s small frame hunches over her cart as she expertly swivels a metal spatula the length of her torso, propelling dozens of chestnuts through a cascade of sugar and sand that caramelizes their shells into a sheen. 

Then Mrs. Chan, 68, hauls over a tank of fresh gas that she’s stored just around the corner. She shovels charcoal into a small cabinet at the bottom of the cart where she’s roasting the largest sweet potatoes I’ve ever seen. Then she returns to the chestnuts, adding water to the wok and continuously working them for 30 minutes, the time required until a batch is ready to serve. Smoke and steam billow around her.

Meanwhile, throngs queue outside her cart on the coldest day Hong Kong has seen all year (48°F, or 9°C). They eye it all hungrily, doling out $20 HKD (about US$3) for a hand-sized brown paper bag filled with freshly roasted chestnuts — plus maybe one of those sweet potatoes, and maybe some of those macadamia nuts or quail eggs that Mrs. Chan also sells. Her retired husband sits on a stool just to the right of the cart, watching silently.

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The Chop Master

Early on a Sunday morning in Hong Kong, nestled away in a pedestrian alleyway in the residential neighborhood of Sheung Wan, one stall among dozens is open. It belongs to Ng Kam Chun, a reserved 57-year-old man whose work most Hong Kongers have likely seen without knowing it.

Ng’s business, like that of all the stalls lining Man Wa Lane, is customized chops — traditional, necessary tools for doing business in Hong Kong, China, and beyond. A chop is essentially a square-shaped seal made of jade, marble, or wood with the owner’s name engraved onto the bottom, which is used to stamp a “signature” on important documents, cheques, and contracts. Chops symbolize a company’s identity, and in many offices are kept in safes.

Every nook and cranny in Ng Kam Chun’s tiny stall, which can fit two people shoulder-to-shoulder if you’re really squeezing, is filled with shelves that hold boxes and boxes of blank chops — slabs of stone waiting to be carved. Ng estimates there must be around 10,000 in there. 

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Hong Kong’s Last Female Mahjong Tile Carver

Ho Sau-Mei, a slight, spry 62-year-old, is the only female mahjong tile carver left in Hong Kong — that she knows of.

Her shop, Kam Fat Mahjong, is a tiny alcove squeezed beneath a staircase, about 6 feet wide and twice as deep. It’s partially enclosed by a glass-topped counter that displays tiles engraved with various suits: bamboo sticks, wheels, and Chinese characters. A dust-caked glass case lining one wall contains stacks and stacks of others, leaving just enough space for a yellowing photo of Ho at age 13, when she first learned how to carve from a sifu, or mahjong master. The shop was her family’s home when they first settled in Hung Hom, on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, in the early 1960s.

Fluorescent lights and natural sunlight keep the place lit, but Ho’s eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. She relies on a small wooden box with an affixed bulb that emits a glow directly over her workspace, which also serves to warm up tiles and make them more pliable to carve.

“That way, I don’t need to use as much strength,” says Ho.

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The Merriam-Webster Lexicographer

kory stamper
“The job of a lexicographer is to explain language to people, and the internet gives you all sorts of new ways to do that. We can talk about the differences between commonly confused words using emoji on Twitter.”

When people learn about Kory Stamper’s job, some respond with confusion. “They ask, Hasn’t the dictionary already been written? I have it right here, I got it when I graduated from high school,” Stamper says. What they don’t understand is that language is always growing and evolving — and so must the dictionary.

Stamper, who has worked at Merriam-Webster for 19 years, still marvels at how the internet has changed her job. She shrugs at complaints about the recent additions of terms like “OMG” or “selfie.”

“We’re always dealing with some kind of blowback because language is so personal. It’s how we communicate,” Stamper says. But the Merriam-Webster staff treats it like any other job, where one would naturally set aside emotion in a business transaction: They dismiss linguistic prejudice and evaluate new words based on a set of three criteria.

One editor specifically handles a word’s first date of written use; one editor handles words’ etymologies; four science editors are divided by specialty; two cross-reference editors make sure definitions only include words already in the dictionary; the pronunciation editor looks at every word, sometimes pulling pronunciations from YouTube. Then, of course, there are proofreaders and copy editors.

But every editor at Merriam-Webster, regardless of title, is involved in the making of dictionaries, Stamper says. Even when that means rejecting countless requests to add “covfefe.”

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