Sometime in my first year of living in Saigon I came across a key-cutter at work at his small metal cart on a pavement. He’d borrowed wall space from the shop behind him to hang up his sign, a blood red hand-painted sign with a big car key on it. A simple and effective form of advertising one’s services, of the sort that has been common world-wide since the Middle Ages. The key was wonky and the lettering was not centered. But what struck me was the hand-painted metal, with dusty enamel brushstrokes. In Vietnam, hand-painted signs are not even a dying species, they are already extinct. I admired the man’s sign, expressed my admiration to him and went on my way happy to know there were gems hidden amongst the urban visual clutter.
Vietnam is very well sign posted. Most shops have the full street address written somewhere on the front. Vietnam also has much outdoor advertising, in the form of billboards straddling the landscape or covering façades, as I discussed in this post. The signs are, 99% of the time, digital products of no aesthetic value.
Naturally, it hasn’t always been like that. Some of the marquees sheltering street coffee shops and restaurants are painted by hand, I take pleasure in noticing. In rural areas like the Mekong Delta, some hand painted road signs (left) and street signs can still be found. Notice below the difference between the fading pink business sign on the left – obviously computer-generated, and the fading and rusting but compellingly attractive blue street sign – skillfully hand painted by an anonymous, and probably long-gone craftsperson.
Sometime later, on holiday in rural Cambodia, I was disappointed to see the rise of digitally printed signs. Some street vendors still had metal boards with paintings of hairdressing services or puncture repair, but the demise of this hand painted tradition is patent, and for me personally, a sad loss which I was beginning to panic about. Local perceptions, I theorise, are that the digital signs are more ‘modern’ and ‘perfect’, and thus something to aspire to. Mechanical reproduction is a sign of luxury in this framework. It takes the economic leap of post-industrial societies to value manual creations.
The sign below is an extreme rarity. I saw it in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. It advertises a hairdressers, and it is simply wonderful. The lettering is shaped in a graffiti style, complete with 3D shading effects, but it is enamel on metal, applied with a paintbrush. Randomly finding hand crafted advertising like this thrills me immensely!
Back in Saigon I came across an old shop that had this sign:
I spent a while enjoying the now completely anachronistic image of an old man in traditional clothes, smoking a pipe. As I was taking some photos of this curious little shop sign, knowing this was one of the very last hand painted signs left in the city, I was approached by the shopkeeper. She invited me into the shop, which sold mainly tea and coffee along with a random selection of household goods. She was perplexed that I was not interested in what the shop sold, and had merely stopped to see the sign. Once this bizarre idea sunk in, she offered to sell me the sign. How much was it? She went to ask her family members upstairs and came back to announce it was $100. I politely declined to pay such a high sum (‘old’ objects are not much valued in Vietnam, and a new sign to replace this one could be made for very little money. Presently, $100 is a monthly minimum wage in Vietnam.). I walked away happy that Saigon’s urban landscape hid the odd remnant of an old sign-painting tradition.
Occasionally, I went back to the road where I had seen the key cutter’s sign. It had disappeared, I choked. For months and months, I never saw it again. Then one happy day last week, the key cutter was back where I’d first seen him a year before, with his sign behind him. I don’t think he remembered me. By now my Vietnamese language skills were marginally better than during our first encounter, and I wasn’t risking losing this opportunity. I enquired if the sign was for sale, and he asked how much I’d pay. How much do you want? I replied. He thought about the value of this old piece of metal for a minute, and requested 200,000 dong (about $10). No hesitation on my part, I paid him, put the rusty object under my arm and caused much interest to a local resident who couldn’t understand why I’d pay so much for an old sign. We laughed about me being overcharged, and I skipped home to dust my new treasure a little and hang it on my wall. I feel a little sorry that Saigon has now only one hand-painted shop sign left – that I know of – but the key cutter’s sign has adapted well to its new unpolluted residence and is much loved. I think the sign knows that it will not be dumped in the rubbish when the key cutter retires… And I will occasionally visit the key cutter to say hello.