In a city currently experiencing “massive rapid developments”, one man and his team made it their mission to capture and preserve a dying art in Hanoi.
Photographer and RMIT Vietnam Lecturer Simon Richards set himself the task to visually document the hidden art of typography and hand-painted Vietnamese signs in Hoan Kiem District, an area in Hanoi rich with cultural heritage and history.
As an old trading hub, Hoan Kiem District still clings to its past from the tight streets and preserved narrow shop fronts, to the marketplace hustle and bustle.
“The Hanoians are very proud of their heritage; [the Hoan Kiem] area is protected by a special group of urban planners, architects and families called the Hanoi Heritage,” Mr Richards said.
He described the district as a “real walking museum, street by street, featuring Vietnamese history for everyone to see”, and shared the difficulty of finding the hand-painted signs hidden in the noise of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
“My initial research was looking at sign writers and once [my team and I] started talking to people, we realised they wanted to share their stories. Some of the signs we found are more than 70 years old, and some are 40 years old but look 100.
“Because [Hoan Kiem] was an old trading hub, there’s a diverse range of typography styles taken from the French, Chinese and a mixture of different languages and dialects that still exist, but they were hard to see because most of the signs had almost faded.”
Through photographing the signs and connecting their stories, Mr Richards discovered a renewed appreciation for the art, noting several Instagram accounts emerging to document old signage and typography throughout Vietnam.
“Documentation is important. Preserving a cultural history that can easily get lost gives locals a sense of their own identity and tradition within the urban landscape of typographical design,” he said. “The general interest is there, we just have to communicate it properly.”
Through the research, Mr Richards and his team discovered many types of handmade signs, ranging from woodcarvings, concrete mouldings, ironwork and plastic lightboxes.
Moving forward, the researcher aims to expand his study to Saigon, which is home to a dwindling series of hand-painted signs and unique typography.
“Phase two is talking to the artists. The long vision of that is a documentary of artists discussing what these signs exactly mean. It’s not like you can go into a library and find this stuff,” he said.
Mr Richards’ research is part of a larger exhibition, Sign of the times currently on display in Lygon Gallery at RMIT Vietnam’s Saigon South campus. Sign of the times also presents the research and practice of Andrew Stiff, who focuses on event movement and space in the hems of District 4, Ho Chi Minh City.
In an age where development and wider global cultural influences dominate, these two research projects recognise and celebrate aspects of Vietnamese culture that are extraordinary in their ordinariness. The work reflects the endeavour of the people to make their urban spaces home.
Both investigations have been collated into two distinct archives that was developed in collaboration with RMIT Vietnam University Library. The Typography in Vietnam archive offers global access to the collected material.
Story: Michael Tatarski and Lisa Humphries