“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
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.
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.
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.”
“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.