This Hong Kong Font Could Soon Be Extinct—Meet The Man Saving It

People

October 12, 2017 | BY Oliver Giles

On the eve of the Ambassadors' Ball 2017, we talked to Adonian Chan, a beneficiary of the charity, and Marisa Yiu, who is leading the organisation’s biggest initiative yet

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? “Most people open WhatsApp,” graphic designer Adonian Chan claims confidently. “So even if you’re not aware of it, we encounter fonts and typography from the moment we wake up.”

And after you’ve noticed one font, others jump out at you. The font on Instagram is different from the one on Facebook. Text on road signs in New York is skinnier than that in Hong Kong. Publisher Vintage Books chose different typefaces for War and Peace and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Fonts may be easy to overlook, but studies show that they alter our reading experience, affect our behaviour and, says Adonian, even define cultures.

“Japanese graphic design has a very distinctive style, but I didn’t think Hong Kong did,” Adonian explains. “Then I began to research calligraphy and discovered there is a really distinctive style called Beiwei Kaishu that is used on traditional Hong Kong street and shop signs. It did not pass on to Mainland China or Taiwan, so it only exists in Hong Kong and Macau.” 

A unique Hong Kong font

Adonian was ecstatic at the discovery. Here was something unique to Hong Kong, a little slice of design history that locals can be proud of. But there’s a downside. 

“Beiwei is in danger of becoming extinct,” he says. “In the past, shopkeepers hired a calligrapher to draw characters for their shop signs. But now they tend to use fonts from computers. Most fonts on computers are designed to be used at under 12 point size, not for shop signs.”

The clock is ticking, so Adonian has embarked on a mission to save Beiwei. Instead of fighting against people’s ever-growing reliance on technology, Adonian is instead developing Beiwei into a modern typeface that can be installed on phones and computers. If his dream becomes reality, you might one day be able to send your early-morning WhatsApps in Beiwei. 

Adonian Chan (Photo: Nic and Bex Gaunt)

Adonian has also incorporated Beiwei into a variety of projects he has worked on with Trilingua, a graphic design studio he co-founded in 2010. For Detour 2015, an exhibition organised by the Ambassadors of Design charity, Trilingua designed an interactive installation made up of eight neon Beiwei characters that buzzed louder and glowed brighter the closer a viewer got to the installation. When Trilingua designed a traditional bamboo theatre for the West Kowloon Cultural District in 2014, Adonian made sure it had Beiwei signs. 

The West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre (Photo: westkowloon.hk)

The history of Beiwei

The graphic designer has also launched on a research project to trace Beiwei’s history from its birth on the mainland during the tumultuous Northern and Southern Dynasties (more than 1,500 years ago) to the moment it was brought to Hong Kong by two Guangzhou calligraphers in the 1880s. Here, Beiwei changed dramatically into the font it is today, becoming “more robust, even bolder” and completely unique to Hong Kong.  

Adonian’s efforts to preserve Beiwei have involved a lot of work, and he is the first to admit he couldn’t manage it without help. His biggest supporter is the Design Trust, an organisation that awards grants to designers and scholars working in Hong Kong and around the Pearl River Delta. Since it was set up by the Ambassadors of Design in 2014, the trust has awarded more than HK$5.5 million in grants, including a sum for Adonian to further his Beiwei research. 

 

Adonian Chan with Marisa Yiu (Photo: Nic and Bex Gaunt)

“The Design Trust is really interested in producing programmes or awarding grants that not only relate to the heritage of our city, but that are also about innovating with heritage,” says Marisa Yiu, who is the co-founder and executive director of the Design Trust. 

“Adonian’s project is a good example of studying lost history, in this case a typography, and bringing it to a different scale. If you look at Calibri or Arial or Helvetica, they all come from a certain history. Maybe Adonian can produce a very interesting font that can then live on in other ways.”

The Ambassadors of Design Ball

The Ambassadors of Design board was so impressed by Adonian’s work that they’ve asked him to be co-creative director, alongside renowned Hong Kong architect André Fu, of their annual fundraising ball, which takes place this year at the Kerry Hotel on October 14. The pair are designing everything from the invitations to enormous, thought-provoking installations in the ballroom.

“For the Ambassadors' Ball, we’ve previously had very established, powerful names be the creative directors—Vivienne Tam, Alan Chan, Stanley Wong,” explains Marisa. 

“But now we’re running the Design Trust, which is about fostering younger designers, the ball presents a great opportunity for emerging voices to work with more established designers, like André. André is so famous now, and has done so much for lifestyle and interiors and luxury. I think this is when it gets exciting—when we can bridge different personalities and different approaches and allow another layer of dialogue and experimentation.”

“Adonian’s project is a good example of studying lost history, in this case a typography, and bringing it to a different scale. If you look at Calibri or Arial or Helvetica, they all come from a certain history. Maybe Adonian can produce a very interesting font that can then live on in other ways.”

At the ball, Marisa and Ambassadors of Design board members will reveal their plans for the future and reflect on their successes, and there’ll be plenty to celebrate from the past year. Among many other projects, the Design Trust has supported an exhibition by artist Simon Denny at the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shenzhen, and has funded a team from the MIT Media Lab to conduct research around the Pearl River Delta. The latter group is working to revolutionise manufacturing by uniting ground-breaking design studios with stuck-in-their-ways factories.

“One major thing we’re very excited about is our newest fellowship, in partnership with the Royal College of Art,” says Marisa. “We’ll be announcing the fellow at the ball.” The fellow will study design curation at the academy in London for a year before “coming back to Hong Kong to benefit the cultural ecosystem.”  

Building a “cultural ecosystem” is, in a nutshell, exactly what the Ambassadors of Design charity has been doing for the past 10 years. “We connect the patron community with the maker community, with the non-profits, with the government, with the public,” says Marisa. “There’s now a spirit of different stakeholders coming together to build new communities around design.” 

Long may it last.   

See also: 5 Pieces To Bid On At The Ambassadors' Ball 2017