How Hong Kong’s last writer of minibus signs is forging ahead despite the dying trade
Calligrapher Mak Kam-sang has embraced technology, using Facebook to promote writing courses, and selling souvenirs to preserve a tradition
At his shop in Yau Ma Tei, Mak Kam-sang’s walls are covered in calligraphy signs he has written. Passers-by stop and peer into the store, curious about what it sells as it is so different from everything else in the area.
Mak is the last calligrapher in Hong Kong behind the red and blue signs informing would-be passengers where a red minibus is going.
Now 60, he has been in this business since 1978, when he first opened his shop to serve all kinds of businesses from restaurants to individuals looking for unique gifts.
In 1982 he moved his store to Battery Street, where he has since stayed.
“When we moved here, there was a minibus station in front of my shop. The bus drivers told me to do some signs for them, so I started the minibus signboard business,” he recalled.
“In 1984, the government approved air conditioning for minibuses. At that time, Hong Kong had a total of 4,350 minibuses. They needed to replace all the buses within two years, so it was big business for us. [I earned] about HK$3 to HK$4 million in those few years.”
In the age of computers today, Mak admitted that the calligraphy business is not what it used to be. “They’re too convenient, computers. It’s really easy to pick a font, so no one cares for handwriting, but I love it.”
Instead of fighting technology, he has embraced it. Mak uses Facebook to tell people about the calligraphy workshops he runs. He said 50 per cent of his business now come from the social network.
“I teach eight times a month. I have a workshop where students can learn how to write,” he said.
“Also, universities invite me to teach. Some of the young guys have potential, but they’ve got no time to do this. Now the signboard business is a sunset business.”
This is why Mak has also expanded into souvenirs, which now makes up 80 per cent of his sales.
He sells key chains with mini handwritten signs to wholesalers, and is often asked to attend exhibitions like toy fairs.
The calligrapher says he wants to use any means possible to teach young people about tradition and how to value it.
Mak’s efforts to keep calligraphy alive earned him a nomination for the South China Morning Post’s Spirit of Hong Kong Awards in the Cultural Preservation category.
Although he has absolutely “no plan to retire”, Mak is looking for someone to train up – just like how he was trained in his younger days by a calligraphy master before he started his own shop.
“Handwriting requires potential, not everyone can do it. I’m trying my best to find someone to pick this up.”