Urban Explorer Series: Interview with @streetsignhk
“It’s so easy to stick to your daily routine and take the same path everyday but exploration is about taking little steps outside your normal cycle to allow for the possibility of something interesting to happen.”
Ken Fung and Kevin Mak
Architects / Founders of @streetsignhk
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
We are Ken and Kevin, the duo behind @streetsignhk. We are both architects by day and work on this side project of ours as a passion. We preserve neon signs around the city and the two words literally translate into Chinese as ‘signboard-streetscape”, referring to the unique vibrant cityscape created by the dense signboards on the streets of Hong Kong.
Essentially, our aim is to explore and share in-depth signboard stories of Hong Kong as well as building regulations with the greater community, whilst shedding light on the importance of signboard-streetscape as urban heritage.
How did you both get into signage restoration in Hong Kong?
We both work at the same architecture firm and one day, we were going out for lunch in the Central district and we just so happened to come across a small boutique shop owner taking down their old street sign. This was in 2015, about 4-5 years ago, but we can still remember that very moment because we were so taken back by the beauty of its design – it was a classic circular shape with a bat-like frame above it with bright red Chinese characters inside and an intricate pattern outlining it. We were in awe of how such treasures could be found right here in the city. We immediately wanted to save the neon sign as we knew the shop owner was going to throw it out, so we asked if we could keep it and they said yes. Ever since then, we started noticing that more and more neon signs were being taken down due to government safety regulations. From a safety perspective, we can understand why the neon signs are being taken down but there is also its cultural value that is just as important that may be overlooked.
@streetsignhk may have started off as a passion project, so how did it evolve into something more?
As we began to notice more neon signs being taken down, we started collecting these street signs as a hobby and now we have about 20 sets from across various restaurants and shops around the city. We knew we wanted to do something meaningful and shed some light on the heartfelt stories but it was not until last year when we entered into a design competition focusing on creative tourism that made us want to turn our hobby into something that could benefit society. For this creative brief, we designed some multicolored street signs and hung them off various city street lamps in the Central district. Each sign possessed a significant story behind it, resembling memories of the place, the shop owner and the neighbourhood, and we felt that by sharing these real life stories it would allow people to feel a closer connection to these signs. From then on, we decided to start @streesignhk to make it a mission of ours to pass on these incredible stories with others and educate the public on this issue, as well as consulting businesses on how they can preserve these signs in a safe way that also contributes to the vibrant streetscape of our home.
How do you think you fit into the term Urban Explorer?
To us, urban exploration is something we do in everyday living. It’s not so much about mapping one specific landmark or destination to visit, but rather it is found and felt in the city streets wherever your day takes you. We really enjoy walking across the city and taking photos, and we notice Hong Kong’s identity is very much instilled in a mix of architectural design, signs on the streets and everyday happenings that make our city so vibrant and interesting.
Where do you both find time to explore the city with your busy schedule?
We are quite busy indeed but as said, exploration to us is in everyday living. We can explore on our way to work, during our lunch break or even on our way to a meeting. Sometimes, we intentionally take a longer detour to get to a destination, a new route perhaps, so that we can experience a different side of the city. It’s so easy to stick to your daily routine and take the same path everyday but exploration is about taking little steps outside your normal cycle to allow for the possibility of something interesting to happen.
As our urban explorers, do you find there are any differences in the city from when you explore the streets during the day versus in the night?
Indeed, there is quite a difference between day and night exploration in the city! During the day, you get to witness a lot more of the local “flavour” of Hong Kong because there are more boutique shops, restaurants and wet markets opened, and the best part of it is getting to witness the way the locals interact with one another. These daily interactions are what really adds to the overall magic of our city that you cannot find anywhere else. Whereas in the evening, the city becomes more vibrant and you get to see another side of Hong Kong – from hip bars and night clubs coming to life to lively dai pai dongs and street market stalls springing up across the city in places like Temple Street.
Do you think that by being an architect, you are able to notice more of the city’s changes and details?
As architects, we definitely notice more of the changes in the city’s urban landscape. For instance, every time we visit Paris or London, we can instantly observe the architectural design and style of a certain building because of its prominence and stature within the space. However, since Hong Kong is such a dense place with buildings literally packed tightly next to one another, sometimes a building’s design is not as blatant at first glance. In fact, we may not immediately register that an old building in Hong Kong is torn down and rebuilt into a completely new structure. Whereas with street signs, they stick out like a sore thumb with their easily identifiable design and character so it is much more obvious when you suddenly see so many of them being taken down; it is as if the heart and character of that street is missing.
Preserving History & Culture
We are a huge fan of urban street photographer @kingymak’s work and know that the Instagrammer has taken some photos that were on @streetsignhk’s Instagram. Can you tell us more about your collaboration?
Surprise! Actually, apart from being an architect and one half of @streetsignhk, I (Kevin) am also the master photographer behind the @kingymak Instagram account. Hence, you can see a lot of my photos on our @streetsignhk social media accounts.
So how does the whole process work, from saving the neon sign to restoring it?
We do a variety of things to shed light on the disappearance of neon signs from the streets, from self-promotion of @streetsignhk through various design exhibitions to hosting workshops to educate people on this matter. With that said, we have also been connecting with the greater community to let small businesses know that we provide consultation and advice on how to preserve their neon signs whilst adhering to government regulations. Obviously, we encourage businesses to keep their neon signs up and we provide advice on how they can handle these issues. However, if they choose not to do so and wish to dispose of it, we ask them to notify us so we can collect them; then when educational opportunities present themselves, we have the chance to restore the tubing of these neon signs and display them at various exhibitions.
Do you think photography has made you pay closer attention to the details of Hong Kong, like the streets and the neon signs?
Most certainly! It was actually because of our interest in photographing the streets and exploring Hong Kong that we have noticed the vibrant neon signs slowly disappearing around the city. A majority of the photos on @kingymak focuses on new architectural developments of the city, as well as certain issues about Hong Kong’s urban landscape and so when we see changes like our city’s neon signs being taken down, we wanted to take action and do something that can make a positive impact in our city.
How was your experience opening up your very first exhibition at the London Festival of Architecture? It is quite the coincidence as Page Hotels will also be launching its very first hotel in London in Q3.
We are definitely proud to have our very first exhibition in London, but more importantly, we are just happy that we can bring more awareness of the disappearing neon signs on an international level. Many of the other exhibitors at this year’s London Festival of Architecture coming from Hong Kong promoted our city as being so vibrant with all these images of the famous neon signs printed on posters, but this is not a realistic portrayal of our city. In fact, we want to let people know that these bright and beautiful neon signs are rapidly being taken down. Indeed, there is some irony in what we are doing compared to what other exhibitors from our city are showcasing at the festival but this an in-depth issue that is worth sharing.
Why do you think it’s important to preserve the history and culture of Hong Kong? So what inspires your creations?
We believe that it is important to preserve the cultural and historical aspects of a place. Often times, in our line of work as architects we are constantly designing and building new developments but it is crucial to make the ancient or “old”, if you prefer, new again. In recent years, we have noticed that many designs trends incorporate new elements of design into historical buildings. That way, you are revitalizing the old rather than just simply replacing it. In fact, at @streetsignhk we hope not to just simply preserve history by collecting old vintage signs but to breathe new life into these neon signs again to resonate with the youth of today.
Could you share with us any interesting people or stories you have come across in your work that really left an imprint on you?
A few months ago, there was a building in Kwun Tong that was taken back by its developer for re-development so some of the shops within the building that had been there for 30 to 40 years were forced to move. At the time, we collected signs from two different business owners that were quite fascinating because it really conveyed the culture of these small little shops back then. One of the businesses used to sell Gameboy games but now it sells mobile SIM cards, and what is so interesting about this store is that it was situated right next to a bus stop for passengers who want to line up for a direct bus from Hong Kong to China. Over the years, the owner’s mobile SIM card shop merged with the bus stop so people could buy both mobile SIM cards and bus tickets. These types of shops selling numerous random things can only ever be found in Hong Kong.
The other business owner that gave us their sign was an old man in his 80’s who owned and worked alone in a key cutting and shoe repair shop. Every day before he’d open up shop, he would take out his sign with the name of his business hand-written on it as if he was taking out a pot of plant to get some sun. As he spoke to us, he seemed quite disheartened that his shop may close and told us that if it were to close, he would retire. Then and there, he donated the sign to us after we told him about our initiative. These two signs and their heartfelt stories really resonated with us as these signs are a legacy of the area, its history, and what these people have dedicated their lives to. These stories will live on forever.
How do you think Hong Kong differs from other cities?
In such a high density place, Hong Kong is very diverse with a mix of old and new right next to one another. For instance, you can find a post-war building situated next door to a modern piece of architecture which can be a very unexpected thing. Inside this concrete jungle, you can also find pieces of greenery in some hidden places that you wouldn’t have expected had you not stumble upon it. With that said, we have noticed that there’s less and less of the unexpected in our city. In the past, there was such flexibility in the way people lived their lives – you could see old newspaper stands and cardboard stands around the city but now there is less of that. It would be nice to have a space for more spontaneity and the city’s design to allow for more community interaction. We would definitely like to see more of these unpredictable moments and whenever we come across it, we savour it.
So where does your inspiration for travel come from?
For traveling, we take inspiration from Instagram and other locals. Rarely do we rely on travel books or apps. We are more attracted to the city streets, the neighbourhoods and the architecture of a place rather than just a specific landmark.
What other destinations are on your bucket list?
Kevin: Cuba and Morocco are definitely on my list.
Ken: I would love to visit Tel Aviv in Israel as I think the way the stream of light hits the city with the shadows reflecting off the buildings and onto the streets is absolutely incredible. You can vividly see the different variation of colours bouncing off the buildings, depending on the light and time of the day.
Having been born and raised in Hong Kong, how do you think the city has evolved from 10-15 years ago till now, in terms of its urban landscape?
Our conversation has largely been focusing on the neon signs of Hong Kong that we feel really bring out its character and charm. However, this can also be applied to other facets of the city, such as the personalized trinkets, potted plants and decorations embellished on the exterior of boutique shops and local restaurants by their owners. Back then, it seems as if these mom and pop shops had more of these distinguishable traits – like few wooden chairs placed outside a shop to let neighbours and passersby sit and relax – but nowadays, we see a lot less of this in the city. It feels as though a sense of community and person-to-person interaction in our urban landscape today is not as prominent.
Where do you enjoy exploring in Hong Kong?
When we go out for the weekend, we will generally visit an art exhibition then linger in the neighbourhood to do some exploring; rarely, do we go visit a specific landmark or place. We really like to explore various areas that have an eclectic mix of old and new like Kennedy Town, Central, Sheung Wan or Tai Hang. It’s always interesting to see a melting pot of cultures interacting in one place.
If you had a friend visiting from out of town, where would you take them around the city?
Jordan would be a good place to take a friend who has never visited Hong Kong as there are more street signs still visible on Temple Street. It can be a little mainstream and touristy, but there are a few streets behind it where it is very local with many wet markets and shops selling various knick-knacks that would be worth visiting!
In 3 words, how would you describe Hong Kong?
Spontaneous, Diverse, Layered