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.