Vanity plates can convey names, lucky numbers, cryptic love messages or huge egos. Tiffany Ap finds out how to get one
MR LUCK, B1MSEUR, BANNY V and K1DULT - they could very well pass for Twitter handles or the first half of an old Hotmail account but actually they are all registered car vanity plates in Hong Kong.
The popularity of vanity plates hardly needs to be explained. Licence plates with customised monikers can be seen zipping along city streets ranging from the cute to the outrageous or the straight-out bizarre. They're also a favourite of the rich and famous.
David Tang's vehicles supposedly begin with his initials DT, while 5 and 6 are supposedly Joseph Lau Leun-hung and Run Run Shaw respectively.
Vanity plates, or personalised vehicle registration marks as they're officially known, are an initiative that was first offered by the government in 2006.
Licence plates are sold at auction multiple times a year with proceeds going to charity. The items raise top dollars. At this year's Lunar New Year auction, the highest price was HK$3.16 million for the licence plate 85. Canto-pop star Aaron Kwok Fu-shing reportedly paid HK$250,000 for one of his many cars to carry a plate spelling AAR0N.
There are, of course, a few restrictions to what can be printed on a licence plate. The plate cannot be more than eight letters or include the letters I, O or Q (car owners typically use the numerals 1 and 0 to stand in). It also must not spell anything offensive. Other than that, the sky's the limit including unflattering marks like LOCUST or even OGRE, which are actual Hong Kong plates.
But for many, the addition of their own name or their company is simply a personal touch. Roger Chan, founder of Vero chocolates, drives around in a black Audi Q7 marked VERO.
Besides bearing the company name, Chan says it carries extra personal meaning. "My wife's name is Veronica, I call her Vero for short," says Chan. "She's a little bit more diplomatic. She says Ve is for Veronica and Ro is for Roger."
The whole process took around three to four months, Chan says, starting with an online application through the transport department's website. Once the proposed name is approved, applicants will receive a notice by mail asking to pay a deposit of HK$5,000. The deposit acts as a minimum bid but will be refunded in full if the applicant cannot match the highest bidder.
"I get in the car and a lot of the times my friends will call me and say, 'Look across the street or look in my rear-view mirror, and it'll be them. People beep," says Chan. "I'm also a bit hopeless so it helps me find my car."
Miki Sivan bought a customised registration plate for his wife, Atara, as a surprise 50th birthday gift.
"I registered it and paid HK$5,000 which is the guarantee for purchase. Then I waited for many months until the auction. Luckily, not too many people were interested in the name plate of Atara. It's not a very popular Chinese name."
They waited one hour at the auction for the name plate to come up. "It was extremely boring and I saw quite a few guys who are scalpers. They buy the popular names and resell them privately later but there's no prohibition against that in Hong Kong."
After Sivan got the certificate he had the plate made at a garage. The physical number plates are not provided by the government but are made by garages to the order of the car owner.
"My advice would be to have a lot of patience. It takes too many months and the auction is slow," says Sivan. "There are too many names but, of course, my wife was extremely surprised and happy. When she went to work in her little Nissan she was the talk of the day and feeling in the clouds."