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Humans of Hong Kong: Riding on a legacy with Mak Kam-sang

By Charlotte Ip 8 June 2022

Hong Kong minibuses are iconic for taking their passengers on a bumpy ride or two, but that thrill is exactly what we love them for. We alighted in Yau Ma Tei in search of a nostalgic trip down memory lane with Mak Kam-sang, the last minibus sign writer in town. Join us as he illustrates his journey with this daredevil mode of transportation, shares his secrets to perfecting calligraphy, and pinpoints the most difficult character to learn.

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“In primary school, my teachers always praised me for my calligraphy. I believe I might have a bit of talent for it. My father wrote beautifully as well. It must be a family thing.

“Back in 1972, I had no camera, so I would keep a blank notebook and a pencil around. Whenever I caught sight of impressive calligraphy, I would outline the character [in my notebook]. When I got home, I would mimic it and then compare mine with the original. Observe, remember, and outline—this was good practice for me. You may not attain 90 percent similarity, but 70 percent is achievable. Eventually, the skill will become yours. Ask me to paint a character now and I can immediately visualise the term in my head.”

“Surprisingly, the hardest character to write is ‘一’ (jat1); the ‘一’ with just a horizontal line, not the complex numeral ‘壹’ (jat1). Because it’s just one line, there’s nowhere to hide. You probably think intricate characters, like ‘贏’ (jeng4; ‘win’) in ‘輸贏’ (syu1 jeng4; ‘lose or win’), are more challenging, but any faulty strokes can be covered up in your next brush.

“If you write badly, people notice it immediately when you display your sign. Really, the key to writing is locating the centre point—that’s why ‘一’ is difficult. It lacks a focus.”

“I’ve been making minibus signs for 40 years. I am 65 this year. In 1972, I apprenticed at a shop under a staircase in Mong Kok. I was learning the ropes of how to create signboards.

“It took six years for me to launch my own company. In 1978, I rented a tiny space under the stairs at the far end of [Battery Street] and started making shop signs for businesses. I wasn’t painting minibus plates back then. In 1982, the lease expired, so I moved here.

“Minibuses had been stationed around Battery Street for two decades by then, but initially, I didn’t know that where I settled had a minibus station. I carried on with my business and continued my craft and then some bus drivers approached me and asked: ‘You know calligraphy? Can you write minibus signs for me?’ And with that, I changed course.”

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“I think I lived in a fortunate era. In the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong’s economy took off and opportunities flourished. Honestly, there was no way I could have seized them all. If you had the courage to start a business back then, you could succeed.

“Minibuses in Hong Kong experienced a golden age from 1984 to 1990. Within these years, all 4,350 authorised minibuses installed air-conditioning. It brought so much business for the six or seven calligraphers like me that we struggled to keep up. I earned quite a bit.”

“1996 saw a downturn, and I hit a low in 2003 during SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). I had hired some staff back then and getting by was hard, but I tried expanding my business and footprint anyway. I couldn’t afford an additional brick-and-mortar shop, so I took a suitcase and went all the way to some small shops on Hong Kong Island that were located near minibus stations, such as concession stands and electronics stores. 

“I asked the owners if I can consign my minibus plates and be reimbursed when they are sold. I was just trying my luck with this, but most shopkeepers refused.”

“I remember visiting an appliances shop which only occupied half a rental space. I showed him the signs, but he wasn’t particularly interested. He probably thought I was a scammer. It was at Jardine’s Crescent, which was a minibus hub even back then.

“‘Can I leave my products here? We can tally the cost after they sell,’ I said to him. He wasn’t convinced, but he didn’t know what to do, and so he tossed my signs [onto the glass table], but the table was too tiny, so my work fell to the floor. I felt humiliated, but that was an accident. He only intended to throw them onto the desk, not on the ground. At that time, I thought, ‘Let me take the signs back and return home. I am quitting.’

“For a few seconds, I was torn, but I eventually decided to pick them up. Whether I would change profession or not, it was all in those few seconds. When I picked up my signs, I told myself that I’ll keep fighting. Since then, giving up has never been an option.”

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“2016 was when the tables turned. Ming Gor (明哥) in Sham Shui Po [who offers free lunch boxes to the underprivileged] didn’t have enough money to move. I didn’t know him then. But it so happened that during Lunar New Year, some university students set up a booth in Victoria Park to sell fai chun (揮春; red rice paper with auspicious phrases) made of flannel. One of them, who had been my customer, requested a signboard with ‘香港製造’ (hoeng1 gong2 zai3 zou6; ‘Made in Hong Kong’) to display at the stall. Little did I know, the sign got sold, but the fai chun was not popular. After that, they suggested selling my signs for me instead of their fai chun, and that’s what they did in the following days.”

“I thought the campaign was a success. I remembered Ming Gor’s predicament and proposed to the young entrepreneurs: ‘How about we do a charity sale, where I donate my share to him?’ And they agreed. And then I thought, would my presence boost sales, if I did calligraphy on-site? I experimented for two days, expecting to make only a few thousand dollars, but once I showed up, the response was through the roof and people were even queuing up! In two days, I ended up making around $50,000, which I gave to Ming Gor. I realised youngsters like these accessories, so they took over as the core of my business.”

“I have never been active in seeking breakthroughs. After all, I am a craftsman who knows how to hone my artistry, not how to advance my promotional agenda. My advantage is I have never relocated over the past four decades, so tracking me down is naturally easier.

“On the other hand, I consider myself lucky. Whenever sales slumped, help has always arrived to keep me in the run, just as how I was able to switch to minibus souvenirs. It’s still relevant to the industry, allowing me to increase revenue and stay afloat for a few more years. I also discovered new channels to tell the minibus story with the help of the press.”

“I’ve been making minibus signs for decades. If I didn’t promote this industry, it wouldn’t make sense. It would feel like a betrayal to the industry. Last year, I had an opportunity—the previous tenant moved out. I immediately took this chance, started curating, and finished this—the Public Minibus Museum. I hope more people can appreciate this space.

“Minibuses have given me everything. I will retire soon, I think, so I wanted to give back. What I do is far from significant, but I believe minibuses deserve to be remembered.”

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Charlotte Ip

Writer

Actively seeking profound stories or unique perspectives, Charlotte spends her days analysing and overanalysing authentic written works with a particular knack for dystopian fiction. Other times, you may find her engaging in a philosophical discussion about “quiet leadership” or a light-hearted chat about Taylor Swift. To make sure she’s all ears, buy her ice cream.

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