Brush strokes: Preserving Saigon’s heritage signage

There is much talk about the need to preserve Saigon's heritage architecture, but what about those more subtle flourishes of style that make the city? As heritage signage is pulled down, artists are working to preserve these disappearing relics of Vietnamese history

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January 26, 2021
Brush strokes: Preserving Saigon’s heritage signage
One of the unique signs destroyed during the renovation of Binh Tay Market. Photo: Steffi W. Neukirchen

Saigon is an urban space full of historic charm and character. However, with rapid modernisation and economic growth, many aspects of the city are often erased for a shinier, and blander, new. And whereas much attention has been paid to the destruction of Saigon’s heritage buildings, less focus has been placed on smaller elements that make the city unique. 

Typography is an ever-present feature contributing to a city’s dynamism. From the spray-painted numbers stenciled onto the bark of Saigon trees, to the barrage of advertisements in all directions, lettering may always be within an urbanite’s frame of vision. While hand-crafted type was a key aspect of Saigon’s landscape in the past, diminishing numbers of such pieces remain as hand-painted signage is often discarded or covered over by digitised replacements.

What is lost with these pieces of everyday heritage is more than just their iconic style but also the history and cultural identity they hold in Vietnam, including both the personal style and flourish used by Vietnamese typographers, as well as the historical influences of Chinese, French and American cultures.

In celebration of Vietnamese typography, Republish, a project of Saigon-based art studio Behalf, has been working to document typographic remnants first by scouring the city in search of striking design and then replicating them digitally as open source typefaces. The group is displaying these recreations in an ongoing exhibition seeking to preserve this aspect of Vietnamese heritage. 

A visitor to the exhibition. Photo: Linh Diep for Republish
Giang Nguyen, centre, at the exhibition. Photo: Linh Diep for Republish

On a Friday afternoon, Giang Nguyen, a design lecturer at RMIT University and the leader of the project, took the Globe on a tour of the show.

An eye-catching piece on the ground floor combines striking calligraphy, vibrant colour combinations and lyrical yearning. The piece is the original work of esteemed sign painter Hoai Minh Phuong, a master of the craft who has made a lifelong career at it.

The demand for the hand-painted shopfronts Phuong makes has declined since he first became interested in the art form at the age of 14 after coming across the artist Hoa Hue drawing on the street. Since then, painting has been a lifelong passion of his. 

In the mid-80s, Phuong was able to turn painting into a business, as he began creating hand-painted store-fronts for businesses in Saigon. Finesse, one of Republish’s fonts, is based on one of the artist’s hand-painted advertisements that adorned a small watch-fixing cart. 

Home alley, cold rain, soaked your shoulder. Fluttering, my heart, filled with yearnings. Love beseeched, in the rain, one afternoon’s memory. In grief, the heart listens to, its shattering within

But as electronic signage has become quick and easy to produce since the 2000s, Phuong has struggled to make a living and relied on discarded pieces of wood and metal for the base of his signs. Although he has seen an increase in business as the city has seen a growing trend towards all things retro, Phuong is one of the last well-known sign painters left in Saigon.

For the exhibition, the Republish team commissioned Phuong, now in his 70s, to create something for the exhibition using his trademark style of strong contrasts drawn with clear and precise lines. What the collaboration came up with was 12 signs which fit together as verses of Phuong’s own poetry, another artform he has been dedicated to since a young age. 

A rough translation of the poem reads: “Home alley, cold rain, soaked your shoulder. Fluttering, my heart, filled with yearnings. Love beseeched, in the rain, one afternoon’s memory. In grief, the heart listens to, its shattering within.”

Hoai Minh Phuong’s poem and hand-painted signage. Photo: Linh Diep for Republish

The hand-painted poetry signs demonstrate the potential for artistry in often-overlooked typography. Giang said the rest of the exhibition, made up mostly of digitally created forms, is intended to carry that aesthetic into the modern world.

“It is a collaboration from analog to digital – and back to analog,” he said.

The lyrics of the classic song, Xuan Da Ve, or Spring Has Come, were creatively metamorphosed into sheet music using Republish’s Patriot font. With the exhibition culminating at the beginning of Tet, the studio wanted to embrace the spring theme with the song you are more than likely to hear around the holiday. Inspired by the experimental sheet music of Brian Eno and John Cage, the team took four renditions of the song and turned the lyrics into music notation. 

“The way the lyrics play across the page mimics the rhythm and the thickness, [it] resembles the sense of music and the length of notes. So, technically you can play the songs with our type alone,” Giang explained. 

Taking a close look at the sheet music for Xuan Da Ve. Photo: Linh Diep for Republish
Checking out some of the iterations of the Xuan Da Ve sheet music using the Patriot Font. Photo: Linh Diep for Republish

Playfully bringing their typefaces into the Instagram era is another canny way the studio refurbishes classic Saigon designs.

Republish’s West Gate font is based on the concrete lettering of the western entrance of the landmark Benh Thanh Market. If a netizen with a public Instagram account posts a photo and includes one of these hashtags: #benthanh, #benthanhmarket, or #chobenthanh, a typographic poster featuring the art deco-inspired font, will automatically be generated on a website the studio setup for this purpose.

Digital posters created with the West Gate font. Photo: Linh Diep for Republish

The digital home for the font isn’t just a means of getting it in front of fresh audiences. It’s also a way to immortalise distinct styles created by artists that may otherwise be forgotten in the constant physical renewal of the city.

Barber, another font captured by Republish, is an example of that. This font draws its big, block-print style from a sign that once graced the front of a barber shop in Saigon’s District 5. 

Although Giang was able to get an unobstructed photo of the hand painted sign in 2014, last year it had been covered by a mechanically manufactured sign for a lawyer’s office. If you peek behind the current sign, the original advertisement can still be found wearing away beneath. This has been the fate of many such signs, although a great deal have been completely destroyed. 

The Barber Font’s R made into a 3D light box. Photo: Linh Diep for Republish

Steffi W. Neukirchen, a designer previously based at RMIT University, documents urban typography for her project Signs of Saigon. Neukirchen visited District 6’s Binh Tay Market in 2016 and found the market to be a treasure trove of professionally hand painted shop signs. Sadly, when the market closed for an extensive renovation in November 2016, all of the original signage was lost.

Neukirchen said the renovation planners recognised the architecture of the market itself as worthy of preservation, but “somehow they either concluded that the signs are not so important or too difficult or too cost-intensive to preserve because of the very thin plywood base”. She argues the signs themselves, while packed with aesthetic value, are also rich signifiers of the city’s history. 

“There is so much heritage,” Neukirchen told the Globe. “It is just a written word, but with the written word you can see so many connections.”

Tracing the history of the signage and the diverse font styles, she said the hand-painted shop signs known today began as the romanised alphabet, chữ quốc ngữ, came to dominate written Vietnamese with the onset of the French colonial era in the mid-19th century. 

You see that when people created hand painted signs there was the sign painter sitting there and really looking at the sign carefully and looking at the proportions, the colours, the way single letters and spacing works together

Use of the romanised alphabet grew with broad increases in literacy across Vietnam, bringing the written language into the lives of more people than ever before. This only expanded the relevance of typography in daily culture, where it eventually picked up influence by the other nations that have shaped national history.

“France brought a lot of fonts and typefaces to Vietnam that sign painters would use,” Neukirchen explained. “But then in Southern Vietnam there is also a big American influence.” 

But those broad overtones are just part of what goes into a sign, with the painter’s personal style equally important.

“It’s quite a lot to digest,” Neukirchen said of the vast array of signage in the city. “You see that when people created hand painted signs there was the sign painter sitting there and really looking at the sign carefully and looking at the proportions, the colours, the way single letters and spacing works together to really fill a sign depending on the name.” 

The signs of Binh Tay Market in 2016 before its renovation. Photo: Steffi W. Neukirchen for Signs of Saigon
The destruction of Binh Tay Market’s hand-painted signage. Photos: Steffi W. Neukirchen.
The destruction of Binh Tay Market’s hand-painted signage. Photo: Steffi W. Neukirchen.

These days, she explained, design runs wild as computerised typographies attempt to follow the aesthetic rules of traditional hand-painted signs, without the more painstaking attention to detail. 

But it’s that fine focus that can elevate a basic signboard into something more akin to art.  

“If you create a signboard on the computer and you do it very quickly and with less of an eye for detail, it doesn’t have the same artistic value or the same aesthetic value,” Neukirchen said, describing the warping that digital typographies undergo in the modern world. “At a certain point it gets very overwhelming.”

While hand-painted signs may not become the norm again, the Republish initiative aims to reintroduce that close attention to detail into the digital world.

Compared to Western typography, where everything is based on principle, Vietnamese type is a more idiosyncratic form. “Vietnamese typography is very much a rebellious handcrafted approach to type,” Giang said. 

With colonial influences, Vietnamese artisans were tasked with recreating styles, like art-deco, that they were unfamiliar with. Working within the design constraints, typographers played with the Western designs taking out aspects that weren’t to their particular taste or were challenging with the inclusion of Vietnamese diacritics. 

“They messed up a few things intentionally and it became something unique, and that is something you’ll never be able to do with digital.”

Reflecting on the exhibition, Giang said the project is intended to pull handcrafted designs out of the past. Instead of locking away these typographies as a record of Saigon as it once was, the Republish mission is to secure their lasting place in the city’s design.

“We want to provide an example of how type can be used … we don’t want to put it into a box and frame it as the past,” he said. “I want it to become a staple and an identity.” 

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