Traditional signboard font washed away by time of turbulence, signboard company successor hopes to raise fund and pass on Li Hon’s Calligraphy

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Lee Kin Ming recalls Li Hon asking him and his father to prepare standardized writing paper and divide each paper into six boxes so that it was easier for Li Hon to write on it. Here is a manuscript Li Hon left earlier, it is the semi-cursive script on the left-hand side and the clerical script on the right-hand side. Lee Kin Ming puts it in the frame because it is the oldest manuscript.

“Cold and hot drinks”, “Marinated Vegetarian Meat”, “Signature Dish”, most signboards with street names and words about basic necessities of life are written by Mr. Li Hon. All the strokes of these handwritings are connected. This unique font is everywhere, however, the global pandemic shatters Hong Kong’s economy, no one can be spared. The streets are full of lorries with construction waste and building debris of closed-off shops. Among the “waste”, there like these traditional signboards.

Among each word and stroke, there lies authentic work of the street calligrapher from the last generation.

Signboard company “China Bright Production” owners Mr. Lee Wai and his son Lee Kin Ming got their fellow townsman Li Hon’s scripts and they want to digitize the scripts in order to pass on this traditional signboard font.

It seems that there is no end to the pandemic, therefore, Lee Kin Ming (Lee) shifts the focus of his business and puts much effort into the cultural inheritance of the traditional font. He writes a book and organizes guided tours (1). He says frankly that he cannot escape from this economic turmoil, “I have not paid any wages for the whole year…I mean my own wages, of course not my employees.” Lee introduced “Uncle Li Street Calligraphy Restoration Scheme” in 2016 in order to digitize his father’s friend, Calligrapher Li Hon’s scripts.

When Lee is asked why he has such dedication, you can see the determination through his eyes. He answers, “Li Hon passed his calligraphy on to my father, Lee Wai and then my father passed it on to me. This is such a rare and precious connection. Therefore, when I raise a certain sum of money, I would continue passing on (the calligraphy of Mr. Li).”

Written by: Mandy Lau
Translated by: Lianna Wong 

In the 1980s, Li Hon ran calligraphy stall in Mongkok’s alleys. Lee Kin Ming restores the view back then using models.

Calligrapher’s sentiment

Lee Wai said he was not close to Li Hon at the beginning. It was just a normal business to the business relationship between signboard company owner and calligrapher. “People with the same surnames are somehow connected”, Lee Wai comes from San Wui and Li Hon comes from Chikan, Kaiping. Although they come from different places, Li Hon’s easy-going personality made Lee Wai his regular customer. Trust was built between them. Lee Wai and Li Hon soon became good friends, they would hike together at the weekends and visit empty temples in the New Territories. Lee Wai says jokingly, “He (Li Hon) would ask, ‘brother, where are we going today?’ every Sunday”. This is how they became brothers.

In addition to using frames to keep the Li Hon script, Lee Ki Min also uses folders to keep other manuscripts. You can find the page number of the Xinhua Dictionary (where Li Hon copied the Chinese characters from) on each page of the manuscripts. The white areas are the marks of correction pens, Lee Kin Ming says it is because calligrapher back then was allowed to correct their words on the paper directly and so those marks are most likely left by Li Hon or by his father when he restored Li Hon’s font.

When Lee Kin Ming is showing us Li Hon’s manuscript, he is very careful. Although the papers start to turn yellow, they are kept very tidily in folders and plastic covers.

Worried about the brother, Li Hon left his original scripts to Lee Wai

Towards the end of the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s,  Lee said, the then 60 to 70-year-old Li Hon planned to retired and return to his hometown. Li Hon was worried that Lee’s father “has no font to use (for making signboards) so Uncle Li asked us to prepare a certain amount of A3 standardized writing paper, draw six boxes on it and write down words we wanted to write (on the signboards)”. Lee says, “Uncle Li wrote the Chinese characters with reference to ‘Xinhua Dictionary’. ”

Lee says he was still young that time so his only has a dim memory of the exact timeline Li Hon wrote the 7000 Chinese characters (for them to use in signboards) but Lee said that Li Hon provided the scripts in a different time interval and he didn’t hand in a script with 7000 characters all at once. Lee says, for the last time Li Hon delivered the scripts, “Li Hon brought two bags with 2000 Chinese characters in Clerical script.”

Lee Wai feels very regretful, he says, “I still remember, when Li Hon delivered the scripts, he bent over, maybe it is because of the weight of the scripts. I was busy at that time, so I just said ‘okay’ to him without even thanking him.” When Lee Wai heard again from Li Hon, it was his news of death.  30 years passed, Lee Wai is still brooding over it.

86-year-old Lee Wai is still determined to go to work. He is still brooding over the fact that he did not thank his good friend Li Hon for the scripts he gave them.

With the hope that the fundraising would meet the target, Lee wishes to carry forward Li Hon Kong Kai

The fundraising scheme Lee initiates wishes to reach HKD700k in order to facilitate the publishing of the digital version of Lee Hon Kong Kai. If one donates more than HKD950, they can get a set of Li Hon Kong Kai permanent general copyrights. When Lee speaks of the fact that the fundraising progress is not up to expectation, he is dull and he says, “Hong Kong people only have little knowledge about copyrights of fonts, they thought that fonts are free.”

Although the pandemic creates a hard time for Lee Kin Ming’s business, he would not give up the Li Hon font restoration scheme.

“Lee Hon Kong Kai Crowdfunding Scheme” details:

(1) Lee Kin Ming interviewed Fung Siu Wah, Mak Kam Sung (minibus signwriter), Li Wai (his father). He composited oral history and composed the book “Hong Kong’s signboards”. It is published by Fei Fan Publish.

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