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. 

Au Yeung was born in Guangdong, a coastal province in southern China, and moved to Hong Kong in the 1970s. He says he began learning Chinese calligraphy as a young boy by studying books and religious scriptures. His interest in Zan script was piqued one day when his mother explained its place in history: After British and French troops invaded Beijing and ransacked the Old Summer Palace in 1860, Zan was preserved on high-value silver coins used at the time, signifying its value and exclusivity. Au Yeung claims to be the only one still using this style of calligraphy on signs.

For most of his 40 years in the business, Au Yeung operated out of the 68-year-old historic State Theater Building. A fire there in 1995 burned all of his work, and he was one of the only shops to reopen afterward, lending it an abandoned, eerie feel. But the building is now undergoing a multibillion-dollar redevelopment, forcing Au Yeung into this new location on a side street. He doesn’t really mind the change: Both places are Instagrammable, he says. And he certainly considers selfies with customers to be a part of the job.

Much of Au Yeung’s work involves brushing each letter onto signboards and panels using black lacquer, and in some cases he carves large lettering out of acrylic and plastic slabs. He’s just returned from a job delivering a 3-foot-tall creation to a nearby Japanese liquor store, for which he charged about US$200. Larger storefront signs cost closer to US$1,000.

Lately, though, there’s been an uptick in requests for smaller-scale 3D carvings as souvenirs. Like on this day, for instance: A young man who’s been waiting outside for nearly an hour would like a carving of his name alongside his girlfriend’s name, a Valentine’s Day gift.

Au Yeung blocks out each letter of their names in Zan script on a slip of scrap paper, which he then glues to a sheet of acrylic. He cuts the sheet to conform more closely around the lettering and steps back to consider his work. He lights a cigarette, taking a few deep drags with his left hand while spraying adhesive onto the acrylic with his right.

Then it’s time for the jigsaw, a machine that uses a saw blade to cut irregular curves. He outlines the stenciled calligraphy with the blade so the excess acrylic falls away, leaving one connected strand of letters. A separate handheld drill gun is used to pierce holes inside any letters that contain whitespace. It’s little wonder that piles of sawdust accumulate everywhere.

“You’ll have this for 20 years,” Au Yeung winks at his customer an hour later when the work is done. 

It’s nearly 10 p.m., but the calligrapher won’t let us go without snapping a selfie for Instagram. That online presence, which burgeoned with a swell of media coverage after getting kicked out of his shop’s decades-long home in the State Theater, may be contributing to a renewed wave of interest in handmade signage. Viva la tradition.

This interview was translated in real time at Au Yeung Cheong’s shop by Alvin C.K. Lam, an artist whose work is featured at the top of this post in collaboration with No Joe Schmo. His ongoing collection of watercolor sketches titled “Sunset Warriors” pays tribute to the remarkable men and women who are keeping Hong Kong’s fading traditional industries alive.

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