The Little Plastic Plate That Signifies Local Hong Kong Culture

“Yau lok, ng goi.” (“I want to get off, please.”) That’s probably one of the most common phrases you would hear in Hong Kong. Unlike other public transportation in Hong Kong, passengers need to yell to notify the minibus drivers for a drop-off point. This mini version of a bus that can carry 16 commuters is a special product in Hong Kong and it has been with Hong Kong residents for more than 50 years. And, along with this unique local transportation is the plastic signage with the iconic red and blue paints on a white plate.

Mak Kam-sang, who has already turned 60, is the last craftsman for minibus signs in Hong Kong. He started as an apprentice in the plastic signage industry when he was 15. He learnt to make different signage for restaurants and shops. Mak began making the minibus plastic signage emerged in 1982 when he moved his business to the Yau Ma Tei and Jordan area where a lot of minibus lines operated. Since then, a lot of minibus drivers have asked him to make a lasting signage for them. Then, it gradually became his speciality.

The typical sign on a minibus with the red characters pointing to the destination and blue ones indicating the places the minibus would pass. Photo: Zoe Law

“Minibus, for sure, signifies our culture. A lot of people around my age grew up riding minibus,” Mak said, “Many youngsters nowadays do too, but the only difference is that we only had the red minibuses back then.”

Some red minibuses use signs with plates of different colors, like this one has a sign with a red plate. Mr Mak said it’s the indication for special lines. Photo: Zoe Law

To him, the red minibus is special because his business prospered alongside with the red minibus industry. Mak explained that the emergence of the first batch of minibuses was during the 1967 riot in Hong Kong. In those three months when the bus drivers went on strike, the then illegal rural vehicles that offered flexible travel routes became the main transportation method. After a few years of negotiation, the red minibuses were finally legalized in 1969 with a licensing system. Despite the system, red minibuses can operate with its original flexibility without any prohibitions or regulations. A few years later, a more regulated version of the minibus which is the green minibus emerged.

Having been in the industry for more than 30 years, Mak witnessed the ups and downs in both the minibus and signage industry, as well as the drastic changes in Hong Kong’s economy.

“In the year when the minibus was legalized, Hong Kong was in an economic downturn. In the following 48 years till now, Hong Kong’s economy has been gradually growing, and the red minibus industry rises with it.”

Mak Kam-sang is the last craftsman who makes minibus signage in Hong Kong. Photo: Zoe Law

However, Mak’s business went down since 1995 because the demand for the minibus emblem has slowly declined as most of the drivers had purchased theirs which could last for quite a long time. Until a few years ago, a group of young people who are interested in the red minibus and its signs asked Mak whether he could make some related souvenirs so that they can also keep the iconic plastic plate. He then came up with the idea of making keychains as the miniature of the signage.

Mr Mak makes new products which are these keychains. Photo: Zoe Law

Mak not only creates the exact miniature of the signage but also puts in different local slangs on these small keychains. On the traditional minibus signs, the red characters point to the destination with an English translation in blue while the blue Chinese characters denote the places the minibus would pass. With the new creations of the keychains, Mak incorporates different popular local sayings among the younger generation, such as “the outstanding loser”, “cats’ slave” etc. Meanwhile, Mak holds different calligraphy workshops with different youth organizations as more young people start to become interested in learning this local culture.

The keychains using popular slangs and sayings. Photo: Zoe Law

Even with the new changes, Mak does not think that the industry is looking good in the future because the inextricably intertwined red minibus might soon be gone.

“If my prediction is right, the red minibuses will disappear in 10 years because the government would not allow this kind of uncontrollable transportation to remain in Hong Kong. The drivers could charge you a thousand, and even ten thousand dollars for one trip because it’s not against the law,” Mak said, “But, you could never find something like this in other places.”

 

Writer & Photographer: Zoe Law

Editor: Yoan JinSoul Lee

Copy Editor: William Ho

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