Back Arts & Culture » Culture » Need a Sign From the Universe? Lương Hữu Khánh Street Has Every Color, Shape, and Size.

Need a Sign From the Universe? Lương Hữu Khánh Street Has Every Color, Shape, and Size.

Saigon is filled with addresses you aren’t looking for, announcements not aimed at you and signs for businesses you have no plans to frequent. Sign street demands delving into the oft-ignored.

Spending time amongst the shops that produce signs means examining objects forever in the periphery of people’s lives. Opening one’s first cafe, for example, can be an exuberant operation, but nestled between the excitement and optimism rests tedium: ashtrays must be purchased, ice maker secured, light bulbs installed and bathroom signs ordered. A couple about to experience their first night together receives a hotel key with a plastic room number attached. Visual disorders begin with a deterioration of eyesight first identified in a doctor’s office in front of a board printed with simple letters. Signs are rarely the most important element of any memory or experience, and yet they are everywhere. A few people even devote their lives to making them.

Lương Hữu Khánh used to be a railway track during the period of French occupation.

Running nearly 400 meters between Nguyễn Trãi and Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai Streets, what we affectionately refer to today as “sign street” had been simply numbered 2 during the colonial period before it was named Massoulard Street in 1920. In 1955 it was given its current name, Lương Hữu Khánh, after the 16th-century scholar.

Today, it is home to an enormous collection of signs, keychains, ceremonial flags, placards, and more.

By 1989, Lương Hữu Khánh was an abandoned stretch of former railroad while Phạm Hồng Thái Street was filled with crowded kiosks on the site of what was hoped to be a grand new hotel. The government thus relocated the shops for an expected three- to five-year stay. Yet as the decades rolled past, not only did the authorities not find a new place to move the stalls specializing in producing address signs and advertising boards, but more purveyors of the trade set up there.

Huỳnh Ngọc Sang has been making signage for decades.

Huỳnh Ngọc Sang was one of the vendors who moved over from Phạm Hồng Thái street where he’d been working since the age of 18. Over the years he says that not much has changed regarding people’s needs for the signs, though there have been technical improvements with the introduction of digital programs and equipment that allow him to design, print, cut and finish signs with greater ease and accuracy.

Address numbers, “no smoking” alerts, business names, company badges, “reserved” table indicators, fire exit placards: most of the displayed signs are rather mundane, though a few eyebrow-raising ones lurk in their midst including one giving the name of a flower in multiple languages and a trophy commemorating 40 years of collaboration between Vietnam, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. The ones covering each store’s facade allow for an interesting game of spotting what’s wrong with them. Sang explained that most of the display examples were either never picked up or contain an uncommon error of some kind in color, kerning or spelling, such as the “chief execcutive” we spotted at one shop.

“Fate” is the answer that Phạm Thanh Lâm, another sign maker on the street, gave when questioned about how people chose between the dozens of similar shops seemingly producing the same items. They know it's the street to have a sign made and something compels them to select this shop or that shop, he said. Phương Anh Tú, an owner of a shop on the street since 1996 added that word of mouth contributes a lot to the business he runs with his wife and how their customers find them.

Phương Anh Tú working on a custom sign for a client.

And regarding the designs, Phạm Thanh Lâm explained to Saigoneer that the clients either have a specific font and color in mind or they select from a few choices that he offers them. Understandably, the sign producers are rarely given free rein to make a sign based on their own creative intuitions. An exception is the signs they produce for their own stalls, which, visitors will notice, are understated but impressive. Sang explained that of the thousands he has produced in more than thirty years, his business’s sign might be his masterpiece as he designed it completely and it showcases a range of his skills.

Sign Street, the only place in Saigon where deputy chief "execcutive" officer hangs out with proctologists and cashiers.

Much of what we learned about the profession during our visit was rather expected considering that it is a fairly straightforward industry that aims to meet clear and obvious needs. However, the enthusiasm of the individuals was a pleasant surprise. Everyone we spoke with was excited to pause their laser cutting or printing, offer a stool to sit on and chat with us. We got the sense that they had few opportunities to discuss their jobs with other people and welcomed opportunities to reflect on their life’s work.

The art of precise sticking.

The sign makers admitted they were quite happy to recognize their creations on buildings around the city as it proved that their work is durable and appreciated. However, a tinge of sadness accompanied their responses when pressed about who would follow in their footsteps: “I’m ready to teach anyone who wants to learn,” Sang said before explaining that he has yet to find anyone interested in taking over for him as young people see it as nothing but an opportunity to make a little money and move on from as opposed to a satisfying career.

Not many young Saigoneers want to continue the family trade on the street.

The demand for enduring, affordable signs ensures that someone will continue making them for the foreseeable future, regardless of the passion the creators have for the work. And at least for now, they will continue to be made on Lương Hữu Khánh Street. Authorities have announced plans to move the operations numerous times over the years, but nothing has ever come of them and the owners now brush aside any new proposals. There never seem to be specifics for where they will be relocated to or how compensation will be handled and considering the importance of their work, they cannot just be told to abandon it.

Confusing messages on this collage of unclaimed signs.

The majority of people who set sign street as their destination do so to tick a simple task off a long to-do list. It’s worth, however, going there simply to spend some time appreciating the frequently overlooked necessities that surround us on a daily basis. Perhaps after a visit, you will pause beside your apartment building’s motorbike parking sign and wonder about the person that spent time crafting it and how the specific font was decided upon. Or you will look up at the water pipes running above your head and wonder where and how they were produced. You might even be compelled to consider what small contributions you’ve made today in filling the city’s nearly infinite assemblage of tactile communications we take for granted.

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