Q Many of my friends have Cultural Revolution-era posters, and everyone tells me they're good collectables because they're visually striking and not too expensive. But I think it's unnerving to have Mao staring down at me while I eat breakfast. Where can I find posters that are more modern and Hong Kong?
WHAT THE EXPERT SAYS
Judy S.Y. Chan, curator (art) of the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, which has the city's largest public collection of posters, says poster collecting is relatively new to Hong Kong.
'The government has only recently realised that design is an art - a combination of creativity, business and technology,' she says. 'We started collecting [posters] about nine years ago. Now, we have a comprehensive design collection, with much research on old designs, including graphic and poster design.'
'The history of Chinese posters started in Shanghai and Beijing at the turn of the 20th century, with what we call calendar posters,' says Chan. These are the highly decorative images of pin-up girls used on advertisements for everything from cigarettes to life insurance.
However, Chan says that they're not what they seem. 'Most of the 'girls' were actually men done up in makeup. At that time, no cultured lady would do something so uncouth as posing for an advertisement.'
Chan also says that the posters aren't as unique as they might look. 'Many were stock posters that could be used again and again for different purposes. Designers would superimpose a pack of cigarettes or a bar of soap on top of the set picture.'
In Hong Kong, poster design took off at the same time, especially with the opening of major local department stores between the two world wars.
The father of Hong Kong poster design was Kwan Wai-leung, who ran a successful printing and lithographing company in the 20s and 30s. 'He was called 'the calendar king', and created such iconic Hong Kong images as the 'Double Sisters',' says Chan. 'Today, original Kwan posters are very rare, and can cost up to $10,000 a piece. The museum was lucky because his son donated many sketches and posters after Kwan's death.'
For about half a century, as Hong Kong became an increasingly important trading port and manufacturing centre, local graphic design flourished, although it wasn't seen as a high form of art.
'The first group of Hong Kong designers to find recognition overseas were graphic designers. This happened when they started submitting posters to international competitions in the late 80s and early 90s.'
Two influential figures of this era are Kan Tai-keung and Alan Chan, who are still active today.
'A poster, by its nature, is mass printed and posted everywhere - on streets, in schools, on outside walls. It's not considered valuable and is torn down or postered over very quickly.' says Chan. 'Also, the paper used is not made for long-time keeping. So, collecting can be difficult.'
She advises caution when buying vintage pieces. 'Most of what's on the market are newer reprints. The originals are hard to find on the retail market. The museum usually buys them from private collectors.'
Even Picture This, probably the city's best-known vintage poster store, carries few vintage originals from Hong Kong. Most are Hong Kong travel or movie posters made for the US market.
Chan advises new collectors to keep an eye out for new designs. 'You basically have to collect [new posters] when they're in circulation. If you keep these for 10 to 20 years, they might be worth something.'
Visual Dynamic: Hong Kong International Poster Triennial, Mon, Wed-Sat, 10am-6pm; Sun and public holidays, 10am-5pm, Hong Kong Heritage Museum, 1 Man Lam Rd, Sha Tin. Inquiries: 2180 8188. Ends June 27.
Picture This, Tue-Sat 11am-6pm, 6/F Office Tower, 9 Queen's Rd Central. Inquiries: 2525 2820 or www.picturethiscollection.com