Prison Gothic: The criminal record written on Hong Kong’s road signs

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Chris Gaul

When I first came to Hong Kong fifteen years ago, I noticed the Chinese characters on road signs looked a little odd. Chinese characters are the epitome of balance and proportion, but the Chinese writing on these street signs was often lop-sided or slightly awkward. They may not be graceful, but these characters certainly have character. Their flaws and quirks have an energy and charm that calls attention to the work of the sign-writer. I wondered, who lettered these signs? Not a professional typographer. Certainly not a master calligrapher. Little did I know, these typographic misdemeanours were cryptically pointing to the answer.

For many years the origins of this script was a mystery to me. Each time I passed a sign, I would notice the unique and memorable shape of another hand-drawn Chinese character. The English characters, by comparison, were almost always lettered with dull precision. Like their British counterparts, Hong Kong roadsigns use the typeface Transport for their English language text. But the English alphabet, with it’s fifty-or-so glyphs (26 uppercase 26 lowercase and sundry), is hardly the fifty-thousand-odd glyphs in the full repertoire of written Chinese. I guessed that, in the absence of a comprehensive typeface, someone was making one up—sign by sign.

A hand lettered street sign on Hong Kong Island. The English text is based on Transport. Note that 利 is larger and thicker than the other Chinese characters. This is probably because the sign-maker re-used a stencil of this common character used previously for another sign (Image: Wikimedia / K.C. Tang)

I recently discovered that some Hong Kongers share an interest in this lively character set. Perhaps none more so than Gary Yau 邱益彰. Gary pays close attention to Hong Kong’s traffic signs. He was one of a handful of Hong Kongers who noticed with dismay when the Government switched from using Transport to a sloppy mix of Helvetica and Arial—both less legible in traffic than the original. (Thankfully for Gary and for Hong Kong, the Government has returned to using Transport)

Gary has dubbed these hand drawn Chinese letters Gaam Juk Tai 監獄體, or ‘Prison Gothic.’ (‘gothic’ being another name typographers use for ‘sans-serif’ typefaces). That’s because, since the 1970s, Hong Kong’s road signs have all been hand made by prisoners.

The workroom in Pak Sha Wan Correctional Institution, where inmates produce almost all of Hong Kong’s road signs. These days, the signs are made using digital printing and standardised templates.

Production of road signs happens at Pak Sha Wan Correctional Institution in Stanley. Under Hong Kong law, adult inmates must be meaningfully occupied for six days each week. Apart from roadsigns, these prisoners also make rubbish bins, metal road fencing and concrete traffic barriers. Some of the inmates in the prison also bind hardcover books for the Hong Kong Public Library. Depending on the job, their weekly pay is between HK$45–192 (US$5–25). On average, around eighty inmates work in the prison’s two signage workrooms. They work between six and ten hours a day, with one day off a week. Each year, the prison’s residents manufacture around 7,000 roadsigns and 1,500 square metres of wayfinding signage. Almost all of Hong Kong’s roadsigns are produced here.

(路)牌做了出來之後,在街上會被其他人見到會覺得有些自豪感。
— —
阿業 (化名),白沙灣懲教所在囚人士

I feel a sense of pride knowing that when the (road) sign is completed, it will be seen by people on the street.
Ah Yip (pseudonym), an inmate of Pak Sha Wan Correctional Institution

(Image: Road Research Society / Lok Ho Lam)
(Image: Road Research Society / Ka Ming)

According to Gary, the Pak Sha Wan workshop switched to using digital typefaces for roadsigns in 1997 (coincidentally, the same year as the handover). Although roadsigns are still made by hand in Pak Sha Wan, the new digital typeface is exact and standardised. These days, one-off signs that feature place names or street names are digitally printed. Mass-produced traffic signs, such as ‘No Stopping’ or ‘Pedestrians Prohibited’ are hand printed using precise silkscreen templates. In either case, the new roadsigns have none of the imperfections that characterised their forebears.

The old hand-cut lettering was made from stencils. With many inmates working on many different signs, the widths and shapes of the stencilled characters varied widely. And, because the stencils were placed by hand, the characters often ended up slightly lop-sided or tilted. Unlike the new digital typeface, many of the hand-cut characters had flared stroke ends. This might have been because the prisoners were cutting by hand with a knife; it may have been a stylistic decision; or maybe it was both.

The hand lettered road sign character (left) is more lively than a more standard typeface (right). One reason for this is that the hand-cut stencils often have flared ends on the strokes. (Image of road sign lettering: Road Research Society)

Many characters are written in traditional variant forms, that are seen less these days as typefaces are standardised.

Examples of hand-lettered road signs (on blue) compared with a standard typeface (grey). The road sign lettering is rougher and less well proportioned. In some cases the road signs use variant forms of Chinese characters, for example: the base of 青 is 円 rather than 月 … also 朗, 龍 and 鐘 use horizontal strokes in place of dots. (Images of road sign lettering: Road Research Society)

Gary is one of the founders and president of the Road Research Society 道路硏究社, a small group of young volunteers dedicated to documenting Prison Gothic before it disappears from the streets and roads of Hong Kong.

這些字有囚犯所寫,是他們心血。收集路牌不只是純粹做字體或留住張相,而是收集一種本土文化 ⋯⋯ 透過這些路牌字體的歷史,令我重新認識從前的香港。
— — 邱益彰

These letters are produced through their hard work and care of the prisoners. Collecting these letters isn’t simply about making a typeface or taking a photo, but rather about collecting local culture. […] Through the history of these road sign letterforms, I’ve become reacquainted with old Hong Kong.
— Gary Yau

Gary says he hopes to digitise Prison Gothic to preserve the prisoners’ work. As part of their ‘Prison Gothic Revival Program’ (監獄體重現計劃) they have digitised hundreds of examples, sometimes going to great lengths to photograph particular signs. One summer, Gary spent two humid weeks cycling the New Territories in search of road signs. One particular sign, on the highway between Tseun Wan and Tuen Mun, could only be photographed from the bus lane. The bus ride takes an hour, and to have a second chance at photographing the sign, they had to take the return bus back and try again. Three bus rides and several hours later, they had finally captured the sign.

The Road Research Society have identified several ‘generations’ of hand-lettered road signs, each with their own unique style. (Image: Road Research Society)
The Prison Gothic Revival Program is documenting and digitising as many examples of Prison Gothic as possible. (Image: Road Research Society)
Examples of digitised Prison Gothic characters. (Image: Road Research Society)

As old signs are gradually replaced, the hand-lettered signs are becoming harder to find. Nevertheless, Prison Gothic can still be found guiding Hong Kongers across the city. Looking at these signs, I wonder about the lives of the workers who made them. Each sign has its own stories to tell. And, thanks to the volunteers of the Road Research Society, these letterforms will have a place in the city’s future.

Gary Yau’s book 《香港道路探索:路牌標誌×交通設計》(‘Hong Kong Road Study: Signage & Highway Design’) is published by Fei Fan 非凡出版 and will be released at the Hong Kong Book Fair next week. You can follow the Road Research Society on Facebook and Instagram.

Bibliography

余思朗 2017《【做好呢份工】路牌字體原來由在囚人士寫 「監獄體」買少見少》香港01
余思朗 2017《【有片】朝8晏4 年產7,000路牌帶你直擊赤柱囚犯製作工場!》香港01
李家偉 2018《白沙灣釋囚疑在囚遭剝削 稱兩個月工作無休假 批懲教署官官相衛》香港01
朱一心 2019《路牌發燒友邱益彰 保育「監獄字體」 留住人情味》明報
鍾藹寧 2017《【文化籽】監獄體所剩無幾 手寫路牌有質感》蘋果日報
Long, C 2019《【字裡城間】承載道路文化的「監獄體」》MetroPop
Chow, Chloe (Translator) 2016 Why road sign fonts matter in Hong Kong Ejin Insight

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