Street Talk

HK Magazine - - UPFRONT -

HK Mag­a­zine: When did you start writ­ing signs?

Mak Kam-sang: I started learn­ing how to make plas­tic ad­ver­tis­ing boards in 1973. I fol­lowed my sifu for two years, and then in around 1978 I opened my first shop mak­ing minibus ac­ces­sories. When the govern­ment al­lowed minibuses to in­stall air-con­di­tion­ing, all 4,000 minibuses had to be re­placed with big­ger ve­hi­cles, and this cre­ated new de­mand for cus­tomized prod­ucts like plas­tic coin racks and signs. Driv­ers ini­tially wrote their own signs on card­board, but card­board wasn’t durable and not ev­ery driver could write neatly, so driv­ers started com­ing to shops like mine.

HK: Ex­actly how pop­u­lar did your busi­ness get?

MKS: When I was an ap­pren­tice most of our or­ders were from con­struc­tion or hous­ing com­pa­nies, and we’d pro­duce ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ings. We took all kinds of or­ders: We wrote on bar­ri­ers out­side con­struc­tion sites by day and mes­sages on bou­quets at fu­neral homes by night. But in the mid-to-late 80s, our side­line in minibus signs reached its peak. There were only three of us writ­ing the signs, and we served up to 20 minibuses a day. We were the first stop for all minibus driv­ers af­ter they got their new ve­hi­cles, so it was a busy time. Now ev­ery­one else has switched to mak­ing ad­ver­tis­ing boards.

HK: What do the dif­fer­ent col­ors on the signs mean?

MKS: The minibuses with white signs and red text are those that can be op­er­ated by any­one not af­fil­i­ated with bus com­pa­nies. Yel­low signs have fixed routes. The only minibuses with signs fea­tur­ing black text are those that drive around Kwun Tong, al­though I don’t know the ex­act rea­son be­hind it. The un­writ­ten rule is that text in red in­di­cates the des­ti­na­tion of the minibus, while text in blue in­di­cates places the ve­hi­cle will pass by. One ex­am­ple is the minibus to Yuen Long—“Tuen Mun” is writ­ten in blue and in a smaller size, mean­ing the minibus will pass through Tuen Mun on the way to Yuen Long.

HK: What’s your most mem­o­rable piece of work?

MKS: Sev­eral years ago, I made two sets of minibus route signs for the movie, “The Mid­night Af­ter.”

The movie re­minds its au­di­ence how red minibuses have be­come con­stant com­pan­ions to Hongkongers over the years. That’s why in re­cent years, many peo­ple have come to visit our shop.

HK: What’s the in­dus­try like to­day?

MKS: It’s dif­fi­cult to earn a liv­ing if you sell only minibus ac­ces­sories. Peo­ple nowa­days tend to collect these goods rather than use them. I had sev­eral ap­pren­tices when I first started my busi­ness and they’ve be­come busi­ness own­ers too—but none of them make minibus signs any­more, just bill­boards. I do bill­boards too, but I will keep mak­ing minibus signs for as long as I can to keep this tra­di­tion alive. I think I can con­tinue for at least an­other decade. Young peo­ple now seem in­ter­ested in the his­tory of minibuses, which in it­self lends mean­ing to this in­dus­try. Af­ter I re­tire, I’ll put my creations on­line as his­tor­i­cal ex­hibits.

Meet Mak Kam-sang, the last minibus sign-writer in Hong Kong. He hand­writes des­ti­na­tion signs for the city’s red minibuses, sin­gle-hand­edly keep­ing the in­dus­try alive. He talks to Janet Sun about this unique facet of Hong Kong her­itage and the fu­ture of minibus signs.

Take home a piece of his­tory by head­ing to Hawk Ad­ver­tis­ing Co. Ltd. on 39 Bat­tery St., Yau Ma Tei, 9017-9587.

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