LCW 19: ‘Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters’

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters


In my opinion, typography is the most underappreciated design field often neglected by the public. The term typography can be defined as the style, arrangement, and appearance of letters, numbers, and symbols; it is a means of visual communication. We are surrounded by all kinds of fonts in our daily lives, yet few people (aside from designers) take much notice of them. Before computers were imvented, engraving was one of the most important techniques used in printmaking, mapmaking, and book illustrations.

Besides printing, the craft of engraving and carving letters on metal, stone or glass also has a long and rich heritage. Hand engravings and cravings can often be seen on functional, decorative and commemorative objects – from signage, clocks and jewellery to trophies and coins.


Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters  Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters


The exhibition at The Goldsmiths’ Centre “Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letterspresents an interesting selection of artists’ work, alongside loans from the Goldsmiths’ Company and other collections, to provide a unique insight into the processes used by contemporary craftspeople to design, craft and carve text. The display reveals the precision needed for this craftsmanship – not only do you need patience, the right pressure but also good eye sight.

During the Lonodn Craft week, workshops, demonstrations and walk were organised to accompany the exhibition. I attended the ‘Text in the City’ walk which focused on urban typography that we often miss while rushing around the city (see my next entry).


Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters  Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters  Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters  Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters

Inscribed: The Craft of Cutting Letters





“HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards” Exhibition at PMQ

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition


It would be fair to say Hong Kong’s design industry has come a long way in the last two decades. Once upon a time, Hong Kong design was regarded as ‘copycat’ with little originality and creativity. Before the handover, Hong Kong design was highly influenced by Japanese design; lacking its own identity, it was either too Japanese or too kitsch. Yet things started to change after the handover. Perhaps the struggle to find its own identity has made the designers in Hong Kong reflect and explore deeper – instead of looking outwards, they began to look inwards, and the results are revealed in their design works.


HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition


Established in 1972, the Hong Kong Designers Association (HKDA) is the first of its kind in Hong Kong for practising designers and design administrators, HKDA Global Design Awards (GDA) is a biennial design competition organised by HKDA since 1975. The competition included 4 main design categories including Digital, Graphics, Product and Spatial.

The exhibition at PMQ’s Qube showcased the high quality competition entries across the four categories. By embracing its unqiue ‘East meets West’ heritage, Hong Kong design has found a new and confident voice – one that is different from other East Asian countries. Yet this voice is also a global one, which transcends language and culture. The designs no longer scream out ‘Made or designed in Hong Kong’, because we live in a globalised world today, and good designs should be global, not local.

I look forward to seeing more interesting work in the future.


HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

Product design


HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition




HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition









HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

img_4121-min  HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

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HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition  HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition

HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition  HKDA Global Design Awards 2018 Awards Exhibition


Kawai Kanjiro Memorial Museum in Kyoto

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I have wanted to visit Japanese potter, Kawai Kanjiro‘s former house – now his Memorial Museum for a long time. Yet for some reason, I never made it until this trip… it was a timely visit as the museum was like a quiet sanctuary compared to hassle and bustle in the centre of the city.

Born 1890, Kawai Kanjiro was a prominent figure in Mingei (Japanese folk art) movement founded by Japanese philosopher, Yanagi Soetsu, in the 1920s and 30s, as well as the studio pottery movements led by Bernard Leach. According to Yanagi, everyday and utilitarian objects made by the anonymous craftsmen are ‘beyond beauty and ugliness’. They are inexpensive and functional ware made for ordinary people, rather than ornaments to be placed on shelves as decorations.

Kawai acquainted and collaborated with British potter, Bernard Leach (who founded Leach Pottery with another well-known Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada) throughout his life, hence he often combined English with Japanese elements together to create pottery pieces that are asymmetrical.



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Luckily, Kawai‘s beautiful wooden farm house seems to be under the tourists’ radar, so I was able to wander and absorb the subdued and tranquil setting. Designed by Kawai and built by his brother in 1937, the house had been left untouched since his death in 1966. It is not hard to see the influence of Zen Buddhism and the philosophy of wabi sabi (the aesthetics often associated with ‘imperfection’) at this house, in particular when he talks of ’emptiness’ in the his essay titles “We Do Not Work Alone”:

“When you become so absorbed in your work that beauty flows naturally then your work truly becomes a work of art… Everything that is, is not. Everything is, yet at the same time, nothing is. I myself am the emptiest of all.”





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One of the most impressive sights at the house is his huge kiln at the back, which has been well preserved. Beside pottery, Kawai also did wood carving, furniture design, metal casting and calligraphy, and these works can be seen around the house/museum. I found the museum and his work utterly inspiring, and I think it is possible to imagine the kind of person he was from his craft, designs and writings. The aesthetics of this house is so sublime and understated that it would take some time to grasp it, and you may need to return again to appreciate it fully.



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Hong Kong’s streetsigns & urban typography

Sunbeam Theatre

Neon lights and advertising billboards outside of the iconic Sunbeam Theatre in North Point


This post is a follow-up of the previous one on Hong Kong’s urban typography… Over the years, I have documented the city’s streetscape and the relationships between visual communications, architecture, and its perpetually changing identity.

Hong Kong has always known for its neon signage, yet since the 1990s, the industry has declined rapidly, as building regulations have tightened due to safety and structural reasons, and the traditional neon signs are now replaced by the cheaper LED ones.


sammy's kitchen ltd signage

Sammy’s Kitchen Ltd signage


One of the city’s iconic signage was a giant neon cow suspended above a steakhouse in the Western District since 1978. The restaurant’s founder, Sammy Yip, designed the 10-foot-tall and 16-foot-wide neon sign and it was then handcrafted by sifus (masters) who burned and welded the shapes in their studios. Sadly, the city’s Buildings Department decided the sign was unsafe and ordered it removed in 2015. By chance, I took the photograph above (without acknowledging the unfortunate future fate of this signage) before its removal, which subsequently encourages me to continue to document Hong Kong’s ephemeral cityscape.


luk yu tea house

neon sign

mido cafe  Neon sign of a pawn shop in Wan Chai

hourly-rate love hotel nathan road

Top row: The facade and neon signage of Luk Yu Tea House in Central; 2nd row: a trendy restaurant in Wai Chai; 3rd left: Mido Cafe in Yau Ma Tei; 3rd right: Neon sign of a pawn shop in Wan Chai; Bottom: An hourly-rate love hotel on Nathan road has three types of signage!


The best resources on Hong Kong’s neon signage can be found on the interactive online exhibition website: Mobile M+: NEONSIGNS.HK launched by M+, the new museum for visual culture in the West Kowloon cultural district. It features over 4,000 photos and personal stories of neon signs from members of the public, and it is a fantastic platform that pays tribute to this unique dying art form and traditional craftsmanship. I particularly love the short documentary by cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, on Hong Kong’s neon world. In the film, we can trace Doyle‘s inspirations and how the neon signage has influenced his visual style in films such as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels directed by Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai.


“Gleam Series” by Alexandre Farto aka Vhils

“Gleam Series” by Alexandre Farto aka Vhils


Christopher Doyle: Filming in the Neon World


Aside from neon signs, Hong Kong’s cluttered signage is ubiquitous and unique to this city. The overwhelming amount of visual information is in sync with its dense high-rise and chaotic streetscape. Every sign competes with another, and it is impossible to digest all the information at once… hence walking down Nathan Road in Kowloon can be an exhilarating and draining experience for foreign tourists.


temple street

central signage

Top: Temple Street; Bottom: Soho from the escalator


In the old days, small shop owners used to appoint scholars or renowned calligraphers to inscribe shop names by hand. Unfortunately, the handwritten calligraphy skills have been replaced by computerised print technology since the 1990s. Handwritten calligraphy gradually faded from the main roads of the commercial distrists, resulting in the demise of this unique trade and the loss of calligraphic artisans.


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Handwritten calligraphy for shops


Traditionally, gilded signboards symbolise the reputation of the shops. The gold-plated or painted gold calligraphic characters are seen as a status symbol for these shops. The characters are carved out of wood as either engraved or embossed by artisans. And the embossing effect is more challenging than engraving because of the Chinese cursive script style. Aside from wood, other materials such as metal and acrylic are also used for shop signage.



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central shop  central shop

central shop

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Embossed or engraved calligraphic signage for shops


Yet, the best places to spot traditional gold-leaf gilding techniques are at temples, monasteries and shrines. Often you will find two verses of a poem on the sides of the entrance, and if you look at them closely, you will see that every calligrapher has his/her unique writing style. The style can be bold, elegant, robust, refined and subtle… and this style would – hopefully – be synonymous with the identity of the shops or temples.







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hong kong

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Temples and shrines often showcase gold-leaf gilded name and a poem on the sides of the entrance


This is only a glimpse of what is around us all the time… you don’t need to be a graphic designer or typographer to appreciate the diverse signage that communicates to us daily when we walk down the streets of the city we live in. As much as I love spending time in nature, I also love seeing quirky and wonderful man-made sights that found in vibrant cities. And urban typography-spotting is an activity that all of can enjoy whilst everyone else around you is looking down at their mobile phones. Look up and you can be pleasantly surprised from time to time.



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“Typography and the sea of words” exhibition at CACHe HK



The building and courtyard of CACHe on Western Street, Sai Yun Pun


In recent years, an influx of international art galleries and art fairs has somehow transformed Hong Kong – the infamous cultural desert – into Asia’s glossy art hub. To be honest, I am not sure if this has had much impact on the general public, but at least art is longer seen as totally inaccessible.

Yet these art galleries focus mostly on the commercial aspect and target at wealthy collectors locally or from Mainland China; it is seldom to come across a gallery that dedicates to Hong Kong’s unique heritage, arts and culture.

Luckily, the non-profit conservation group CACHe based in Sai Yun Pun is a here to fill the gap. It is a hidden gem that is rarely mentioned in guidebooks, and not even many locals are aware of its existence.




“Typography and the sea of words” exhibition at CACHe’s gallery


Located in a Grade II historic building, which is formerly the Western Plague Hospital and Western Public Dispensary, the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage (CACHe) was established in 2005 to promote the conservation of history, cultures and heritages in Hong Kong. It regularly organises community heritage workshops, thematic talks, excursion to historic architectures, heritage cultural tours, exhibitions and oral history workshops for the public, schools, organisations and corporations.

In the last few years, I have paid several visits to CACHe when I was in the city, and I have always enjoyed their exhibitions that resolve around the local heritage and culture. Their last exhibition “Typography and the Sea of Words – The Study of Hong Kong Urban Landscape” was one of my favourites as it focused on the often neglected aesthetics of the city: urban Chinese typography.




Hong Kong’s unique calligraphic signage


The exhibition showcased various calligraphic styles that used to dominate the city’s landscape (before the international chained shops and glossy shopping malls took over), and the importance of preserving the techniques and the dying art of handwritten signage.

It also included interviews with several handwriting artisans in the city – from inscribing shop signs, letterpress printing, neon sign making, stencil making, acrylic and wood sign making to computer font design.





Interesting typography is all around us if we pay more attention to it


There was a free catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, but unfortunately, there was none left by the time I visited. I begged the staff to give me display copy and she was quite reluctant, but later, she went into her office and found me a last copy for me to take home. I think the informative catalogue is priceless as it documents the vanishing art form and heritage of Hong Kong. The loss of an important craftsmanship and city identity saddens me a great deal, but it also makes me become more aware and appreciative of the preserved sights and aesthetics that are still around that make this city special.








Another wonderful past exhibition: “Unfinished Old textbook” displaying old textbooks and teaching materials that evoked old classroom memories, and the cultures and values of life advocated by the community.