‘Prison Gothic’: Hong Kong road signs reborn as new font

HONG KONG (AFP) – Handmade in jail, the Chinese characters on Hong Kong’s old road signs have a distinct style that a group of enthusiasts has painstakingly documented and turned into a new digital font – “Prison Gothic”.

Their leader, Mr Gary Yau, says he became interested in them when he was a boy, even learning to write some characters by copying them from road signs.

As signs with computer-generated text began to replace the old ones, Mr Yau launched a personal quest in 2016 to record the handmade characters, imperfections and all.

“I want to preserve this local, visual culture,” Mr Yau, now 24, told AFP.

“The search and collection have been like a race against the authorities because we do not know when they will retire an old sign.”

Before digital design and production were introduced, the characters and symbols on Hong Kong’s road signs were hand-drawn, carved out and assembled by inmates at the city’s prisons.

Without the precision of computers and machine-cutting, these signs were not uniform, with varying characters and line thickness.

Over the last six years, Mr Yau and his team of six, who call themselves the Road Research Society, have scoured the streets of Hong Kong to find 500 of these older signs, produced by prisoners between the 1970s and the 1990s.

The 600 Chinese characters they collected from these signs became the base from which they developed a digital typeface of around 8,000 commonly used characters.

This month, the Road Research Society, which Mr Yau founded in his freshman year at university, launched a crowdfunding initiative to secure HK$700,000 (S$123,849) for the last leg of the project.

The medium version of the font will be released in November this year.

The irony that road signs for travellers are made by people in jail is not lost on Mr Yau, who said he was impressed by their skill.