Digitised examples of Prison Gothic characters. (Image: Road Research Society / Gary Yau)

Prison Gothic: The criminal record written on Hong Kong’s road signs

When I first came to Hong Kong fifteen years ago, I noticed the Chinese characters on road signs looked a little odd. Chinese characters are the epitome of balance and proportion, but the Chinese writing on these street signs was often lop-sided or slightly awkward. They may not be graceful, but these characters certainly have character. Their flaws and quirks have an energy and charm that calls attention to the work of the sign-writer. I wondered, who lettered these signs? Not a professional typographer. Certainly not a master calligrapher. Little did I know, these typographic misdemeanours were cryptically pointing to the answer.

(Images: Road Research Society)
A small selection of the hodge podge of hand-lettered characters found on road signs across Hong Kong. Stroke weights vary between characters; many are unsymmetrical and unbalanced. But these characters have their own identity and style. (Image: Road Research Society)
A hand lettered street sign on Hong Kong Island. The English text is based on Transport. Note that 利 is larger and thicker than the other Chinese characters. This is probably because the sign-maker re-used a stencil of this common character used previously for another sign (Image: Wikimedia / K.C. Tang)
The workroom in Pak Sha Wan Correctional Institution, where inmates produce almost all of Hong Kong’s road signs. These days, the signs are made using digital printing and standardised templates.
(Image: Road Research Society / Lok Ho Lam)
(Image: Road Research Society / Ka Ming)
The hand lettered road sign character (left) is more lively than a more standard typeface (right). One reason for this is that the hand-cut stencils often have flared ends on the strokes. (Image of road sign lettering: Road Research Society)
Examples of hand-lettered road signs (on blue) compared with a standard typeface (grey). The road sign lettering is rougher and less well proportioned. In some cases the road signs use variant forms of Chinese characters, for example: the base of 青 is 円 rather than 月 … also 朗, 龍 and 鐘 use horizontal strokes in place of dots. (Images of road sign lettering: Road Research Society)
The Road Research Society have identified several ‘generations’ of hand-lettered road signs, each with their own unique style. (Image: Road Research Society)
A screenshot from the digitisation process: characters are being converted into digital glyphs for a typeface
A screenshot from the digitisation process: characters are being converted into digital glyphs for a typeface
The Prison Gothic Revival Program is documenting and digitising as many examples of Prison Gothic as possible. (Image: Road Research Society)
Examples of digitised Prison Gothic characters. (Image: Road Research Society)

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