“What leads to the demise of artisanal shop signs
in Vietnam and why it is important to preserve the craft culture
in the digital era?"
Have you ever wondered back in the old days in Vietnam, in the 60s until probably early 90s, what did business people do when they want to have their own signs for the shop or company that they own ? Apparently, at that time the printing technology did not exist, and the ones that we nowadays consider “basic technology” like hi-flex printing, the installation of LED lights or laser cut were by then not even in human’s imagination. Everything must be made traditionally by hands, and through the hands of the sign painters whom we could respectfully call “artisans”, artistic shop signs were created. Little do we know that these painted signs could be considered as the very early form of modern advertising that we see today. And more importantly, why should we appreciate this nearly lost art and and also preserve other forms of craftsmanship as our precious heritage in the era of digitalization and mechanical reproduction?
To take a closer look that a subject that is very rare-researched like hand-painted signs it is essential that we examine the advertising industry in the business capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh city.
According to Nualart (2017), it is a misinterpretation that advertising is a new industry in Vietnam. In the 1960s, with the American colonization, Vietnam developed the infrastructure and increased schooling, which resulted in more newspaper readers. Abundance of billboards, film posters and street advertising which are seen in photographs of Saigon between the 1960s and 1970s prove that even the war did not wipe out outdoor publicity.
In the early 1970s, some advertising agencies in Saigon (Kỷ Á for example) were founded and had placed many advertisement on public transportation and shop signs around the city, proving hand-painted signage industry in Vietnam was alive and well during wartime.
Between 1975 and 1986 is the era of “postwar reunification” or in Vietnamese - “Thời Bao Cấp” (subsidy) period. During that decade, famines and shortages were the biggest problems so reasonably there was little use of commercial advertising, besides hand-painted signs with nationalistic rhetoric dispersed by government propaganda. The disconnection with the rest of the world caused Vietnam to lose in touch with international trends. As design lecturer Giang Nguyen stated, “we had this gap in design after the Americans departed” (Giang Nguyen 2015, cited by Nualart).
Advertising was virtually banned in the mass media until 1986 (Frith 1998, cited by Ciochetto 2002). After that came the bloom in the market economy. Promoting health, education and social values were strongly emphasized in government propaganda. Only in one district in HCMC the government appointed the sign painters to create up to twenty hand-painted billboard a month to be displayed locally. (Tùng Bách 2015, cited by Nualart).
However, in the mid to late 1990s, when digital printmaking technology arrived in Vietnam, commercial advertising has become omnipresent. Since then, most shop owners decide to have plastic signs with printed type or sometimes vinyl lettering. Despite the destruction of war and the insane development afterwards, many shop signs in Vietnam still survived as decades passed and could be considered historic value because of the rarity of such cultural objects.
With the development of printing and signage technology we can have all what we can imagine with sharper products and higher resolution images, wider range of colors and endless font types to use. Nevertheless, the hand-made ones always have their own values.
First of all, “while technology usually makes things faster, it rarely produces the kind of unique and soulful results that come from the hearts and hands of humans” (Delana, n.d.). Hand-painted signs contain the reflection of the painter’s perspective and understanding, which most of the time is fun and creative. The artists, though their lens of imagination or exposure with common objects in life, interpreted nature of business differently in their own way. Therefore, their personality and humanity shine through.
Not only do we, the pedestrians, will turn our heads when we see an eye-catching identical artistic shop sign, but the sign painters themselves, are also happy and satisfied when they could create a piece of work that shows their skills and personality. A recent interview (conducted by Tien Thanh 2016) with Nguyen The Minh, a 67-year-old sign painter who has been keeping his passion alive for over 30 years, reinforces this statement. When asked about his profession, he said:” I love this job partly because it gives me the feeling of freedom in creativity.” Also, in a video recording (Yolo Pictures 2015), another artisan named Tran Khoi shared his thoughts about sign painting-his long loving profession: “I pour my heart into my work when it comes to painting. Because only through the dash of the brush stroke imprints the proof of my existence in this life.”
Losing the “hand-painted signs” culture is not only disadvantageous to the general public but also, most importantly, the business owners themselves. “Many business owners don’t want to invest in their shops like they used to”(Barton, S …, cited by Levin and Macon). Back in the days, shop owners used to have more investment in their shops, including the creative concepts. In interviews, when asked about particular details on a sign, several shop owners will take pride in a good idea in either text or composition, which they claim to have instructed the painter to execute (Nualart 2017). For instance, according to Nualart (2017), a body building club on 135 Hai Ba Trung Street, HCMC, used to have a sign with a portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger painted by one of the body builders of the club who had some knowledge of painting. The sign’s unique illustration is so powerful as it spreads American pop culture far and wide. However, the Arnold sign has now gone and was replaced by a plastic one featuring a not-so-familiar body builder. Why didn’t the club owner utilize the figure of Lý Đức – Vietnamese proud world weight-lifting champion? It seems like business owners now find it time-consuming to create a shop sign that does not look exactly the same like other shops on the same street. It is sad to know they would rather use cheap vinyl sign than take pride in their uniqueness and identity.
Hand-painted signs have a role to play in heritage that is currently under-appreciated (Nualart 2016). While the face of Ho Chi Minh City is changing everyday – more skyscrapers going up, more old buildings coming down, traces of time imprinted on the peeled, frayed signs. It’s time business owners realized the power of hand-painted signs and we appreciated this nearly-lost-craft. It’s time to acknowledge the power of individuality and authenticity, which directly links us to the concept of “Aura” from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, published in 1936.
According to Benjamin, a work of art only has “aura” when it is uniquely presented in a certain time and place, hence loses its its aura and authenticity when being mechanically reproduced. This applies to our situation here, when everywhere signs appear with the same lettering, color palettes, the same materials and techniques taking over our beautiful city, replacing our eccentric cultural characteristics with uniformity. Take the comparison between two coffee shops – McCafe which is globally famous and omnipresent and “Út Lành”- a vintage coffee shop which looks exactly like everyone’s “grandparents’ s place”. Isn’t it much more interesting to visit a place where you can enjoy home-made goods with furniture and design details carefully collected and planned by the owner intentionally to represent the old Saigon in nostalgia, while dreaming about those “good old days”? Despite that HCM City is a busy modern city as it has to serve its title as the “economic center” of Vietnam, in a quiet corner, such vintage cafes still have their own charm – “a quiet charm, as pure as childhood, as sweet as memory” (Yen Trinh 2016) - that nobody can resist.
“There’s almost more stopping power in showing something that’s been done with human hands.” ( Tom Murphy, CCO, McCann Erickson, cited by Beltrone 2012). Therefore, important as revitalizing hand-painted signs is preserving the traditional craft culture which had been embedded in Vietnamese culture. Enduring through wars which destroyed many artworks following their associated skills but Vietnam today is still considered “a country alive with all manner of traditional arts and crafts” (Finney, S, 2013). Craft is in fact deeply connected with Vietnamese culture and history. Excellent pieces of folk art well-known all over the world, for example textiles like silk and embroideries from Ha Dong, Thai Binh, are made with eccentric local materials and traditional native skills passed over generations and generations. Realizing and utilizing the potential of these hidden treasure, a number of Vietnamese companies have dedicated themselves to promoting and preserving Vietnam’s craft, for example: (according to Finney S 2013) Craft Link, Uma, Au Lac Designs, Reaching Out, Duc Phong,… Thanks to these talented Vietnamese entrepreneurs, now Vietnamese craft items have reputation all over the world for their affordability as well as unique and distinctive design due to its tremendously rich ethnic diversity.
All of this finally leads to a message for not only Vietnamese business owners but for all Vietnamese people, especially the young generations who will be the next guardian of our heritage- our rich arts and culture. At the same time globalization and corporation began taking over our cities full, replacing them with their uniformed style and repetitive predictable experiences, we also lose something. We lose the eccentric nature of old historic buildings and a part of our cultural identity. But once we realize the trap of corporation monotony and stay away from them, undoubtedly shall we see Vietnamese businesses return to hand painted signs or promote artisanal Vietnamese craftsmanship.
1. Figure 1,2,3. Sài Gòn Vi Vu, 2016, “Advertisements from Old Saigon”, image, Saigoneer, 14 May, viewed March 26, 2017, >http://saigoneer.com/old-saigon/old-saigon-categories/7007-photos-28-advertisements-from-old-saigon
2. Figure 4. Tien Thanh 2016, “Saigon’s aging sign painter”, image, VnExpress International, November 6 2016, viewed March 21 2017, http://e.vnexpress.net/news/travel-life/saigon-s-aging-sign-painter-3494903.html
3. Figure 5. Neil Massey, 2013, “Work by artisan Tran Khoi”, image, Creative Roots, 21 February, viewed March 26, 2017, http://creativeroots.org/2013/02/saigon-map/
4. Figure 6. Nualart, C., 2017, “Body building club- Old hand-painted sign above, new digital printed sign below“, image, in Schutt, Roberts and White (eds), The Schwarzenegger Hide-and-Seek: Finding Disappearing Hand-Painted Signs in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghost Signs, 1st edn, Routledge, Abingdon, page.126.
5. Figure 7. An Vietnam, 2016, “ Ut Lanh coffee front door”, image, An Vietnam Wordpress, August 6, viewed March 26, 2017, https://anvietnam.wordpress.com/2016/08/06/goi-nho-tuoi-tho-du-doi-o-ca-phe-ut-lanh/
6. Figure 8. GIang Nguyen 2014, “Once upon a type”, image, Tangent, viewed March 26, 2017, >http://thisistangent.com/once-upon-a-type
1. Tien Thanh 2016, “Saigon’s aging sign painter”,image, VnExpress International, November 6 2016, viewed March 21 2017, >http://e.vnexpress.net/news/travel-life/saigon-s-aging-sign-painter-3494903.html
2. Nualart, C., 2017, “Body building club- Old hand-painted sign above, new digital printed sign below“, image, in Schutt, Roberts and White (eds), The Schwarzenegger Hide-and-Seek: Finding Disappearing Hand-Painted Signs in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghost Signs, 1st edn, Routledge, Abingdon, pp.126..
3. Beltrone, G. (2012, Oct). ARTISANAL ADVERTISING. Adweek, 53, pp.48-51. Retrieved from >https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.rmit.edu.au/docview/1113346926?accountid=13552
4. Benjamin, Walter 1968, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, Illuminations. New York, Schocken Books, original work published in 1935.
5. Cate, S. (2005). Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art. By Taylor Nora Annesley. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2004. 192 pp. $52.00 (cloth). The Journal of Asian Studies, 64(3), pp.805–807.
6. Ciochetto, L., 2002, “Advertising in contemporary Vietnam”, Media Asia, May, vol.29, issue 2, pp.92-101, viewd March 22, 2017, >http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01296612.2002.11727229
7. Delana n.d.,”The Incredible Lost and Found Art of Hand-Painted Signage”, Weburbanist, viewed March 22, 2017, >http://weburbanist.com/2012/10/24/the-incredible-lost-and-found-art-of-hand-painted-signage/
8. Finney S, 2013 August 14th, “ Promoting Artisanal Vietnamese craftsmanship”, Culturetrip, viewed March 26, 2017, >http://theculturetrip.com/asia/vietnam/articles/the-art-of-making-promoting-vietnamese-craftsmanship/
9. Nualart, C., 2017, “The Schwarzenegger Hide-and-Seek, Finding Disappearing Hand-Painted Signs in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam”, in Schutt, Roberts and White (eds), Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghost Signs, 1st edn, Routledge, Abingdon, pp.121-133.
10. Tien Thanh 2016, “Saigon’s aging sign painter”, VnExpress International, November 6 2016, viewed March 21 2017, >http://e.vnexpress.net/news/travel-life/saigon-s-aging-sign-painter-3494903.html
11. Yen Trinh 2016, “HCM City’s vintage cafes harken back to bygone era”, Vietnamnet English, May 23rd 2016, viewed March 26, 2017, >http://m.english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/travel/156607/hcm-city-s-vintage-cafes-harken-back-to-bygone-era.html
12. Yolo Pictures 2015, “The artisans”, The sign painter, Video Recording, Yolo Pictures, Vietnam, October 15, viewed March 21 2017, >https://vimeo.com/142475592