Vivien Chan

Nottingham Trent University, UK


Colour and lights: the politics of traditional Chinese script in Hong Kong’s urban landscape


Hong Kong has been historically defined by its chaotic and colourful nightlife. Traditional script vied for attention from above and below. On street level dai pai dong – local street food stalls – are painted green and marked with scarlet script, with the day’s menu scrawled on whiteboards; market-holders shout colloquial Cantonese at potential customers; shop windows paste last-minute sale signs in thick, black marker. Inside cafes, Cantonese soaps have traditional script subtitles speeding through each frame. Traditional Chinese script was everywhere, all captured and remembered through classic Cantonese films throughout the twentieth century. However, since the 1997 Handover, such script has taken on a different meaning. As ATM machines and television subtitles start to use simplified Chinese characters instead of traditional script in Hong Kong, traditional Chinese characters have become synonymous with a specifically Hongkongese identity. Simplified characters have come to symbolise a ‘Mainlandisation’, not only through its increased visibility in Hong Kong’s urban landscape, but also through the enabling of tourists from Mainland China in cafes, restaurants and shops. Simultaneously, the iconic carriers of traditional script have rapidly declined, with the removal of neon signs and street food stalls from Hong Kong’s streets. Some see these changes as a gradual, and rather explicit assimilation by the Chinese government, with a plan to wipe out Cantonese and traditional script altogether. This paper investigates the relationship between Chinese script and Hongkongese identity through the objects and typography found on the street. In the hyperdensity of Hong Kong’s commercial districts, Chinese scripts have a new role to play as territorial signs, and ultimately, as markers of a distinctly local identity.


Vivien Chan is a design historian and lecturer based in London. She specialises in twentieth-century Hong Kong, with a broad focus on the everyday in design. With a background in Illustration and Animation, she went on to study History of Design on the V&A/RCA programme. Her final dissertation ‘Assembling the Dai Pai Dong: living and occupying the street in Hong Kong, 1950–1997’ explored the culture of street food in Hong Kong in relation to the change in the city’s urban landscape. Prior to embarking on academia, Vivien worked as a freelance illustrator and filmmaker specialising in fashion illustration and reportage. She has continued her practice through her work at the V&A/RCA, making films for the V&A Research Institute and leading the editorial team for RCA publications Sooner, or later, and Polyphonies, and the design history blog Unmaking Things. She now lectures at Nottingham Trent University and represents the Design History Society as an Ambassador.

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