This collection of “ghost signs” shows how the Chinese written language has changed over the last century

Over the past century, China’s highly complex language norms have changed drastically to coincide with the ease of technology. Uncovered Signs in Shanghai is a microcosm of these changes. The book traces the modern trajectory of the Chinese written language, from the full-bodied sign boards erected in hand rendered traditional script dating back to the late Qing dynasty to the socialist slogans written in Latinised Pinyin. Pinyin is the romanisation of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation as opposed to its traditional logosyllabic writing system. The book captures the old and new, from the history of the old town to the present day department stores rippling throughout the city.
The project began years ago with a collection of photographs, Rex tells us, “and these materials accumulated to a certain point we thought it was time to give them the unofficial record they deserve.” Come 2020, Shanghai reviewed deadlines for several urban development projects after five years, and The Type saw the opportunity to mark the occasion with a celebration of the city’s ghost signs. Discussing the topic further, Rex says, “Conventional ‘ghost signs’ mostly refer to sign-paintings that have been preserved on the building exterior. ‘Uncovered signs’, on the other hand, have been hidden behind a layer of multiple layers of modern banners or shop fronts and are revealed accidentally during urban regeneration.” Either way, the photographers look out for these typographic masterpieces, snapping them up in remembrance of an extraordinary visual history that is gradually fading away.
Since the 90s, the sprawling city of Shanghai has undergone tremendous development. Its old neighbourhoods have gradually been bulldozed to match its surging urban population and economy. In this short 30 year period, Shanghai has rebuilt its image with many of its shabby streets getting a revamp, but with this regeneration, much of the city’s historic visual culture has also been lost. With this in mind, the independent collective The Type pays tribute to the uncovered signs in Shanghai in a new publication of the same title. Founded by the London-based designer Rex Chen back in 2017, The Type strengthens the public’s awareness on design and visual culture through graphic design, technology and text.
Its latest release features over 170 previously unseen “ghost signs”, signs which are privy to Shanghai’s urban regeneration. Found on the rare, untouched street corner or behind fallen walls that are in the midst of being demolished, these signs feature exquisite handwritten typography once abundant on the city’s walls. The Type worked closely with three photographers to document these hidden design gems: Colleague Dong, Shi Jiayu and Shen Jianwen. While Dong is an urban history researcher who organises city walks, Jiayu works in historical building conservation and alternatively, journalist and editor Jianwen specialises in urbanity issues.

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