“I don’t have anything to say.” That is how 24-year old Le Quoc Huy begins his story. However, he changes his mind somewhat over a two-hour conversation with Thanh Nien
“The project, which is called ‘Luu Chu – The Lost Type Vietnam’ has been in operation for a year, and many people send me photos.”
The project he was referring to runs as an online community, where people can send photos of vintage signboards they see on the streets. They can also share their feelings about the signs and others’ photos.
“The youngest [correspondent] is in 10th grade and the oldest is just over 30. I think there are many young people interested in old things, I’m not the only one” Huy said a smile.
The signboard of electronic shop Nguyen Van, the very first board of Tran Quang Khai Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quoc Huy.
His day job as a graphic designer led him into the diverse world of letters and typography. Three years ago he realized his passion for retro lettering when one day he saw old photos of Saigon that a Flickr user called Manh Hai had posted, showing the city’s evolution over the decades.
“What caught my eyes were not the women in their elegant ao dai or fancy cars but colorful hand-painted signs.
“What I also noticed was the beautiful calligraphy-like writing, block lay-out and harmonious color combination. But they have dwindled rapidly. So I started ‘Luu Chu – The Lost Type Vietnam’ hoping somehow it could save the images of those typefaces.”
He began by looking for historic documents about the period when the first hoarding was made in Vietnam, but discovered there were few records about it.
“The more I looked for the files, the more interested I got. The research gave me an opportunity to travel to different places, talk to a lot of highly educated people, and learn much more about Saigon as well as the country. It also connected me with several friends who shared the same hobby.”
During his research, the young man discovered that despite its diacritics making Vietnamese different from other languages, it did prevent local artists from creating impressive signboards. The signs’ lettering, style and materials also reflected the absorption of exotic cultural aspects from China, France and America.
“French-style notice was made in cement, Chinese-style signs used corrugated iron sheets with bilingual information, and Americans brought the billboard to the sidewalk.”
Huy and his friends on Luu Chu – The Lost Type Vietnam have visited 22 provinces, towns and cities and collected photos of around 300 old-style signboards and the stories behind them.
The group, whose Facebook following has reached nearly 5,000, documents vintage Vietnamese signs on Instagram with the hashtags #luuchu and #thelosttypevietnam besides sharing them on other social media with their thoughts on each.
Huy said his group organized an exhibition last August and hopes to release a photo book which can reach students, especially of graphic design, for free.
Huy said since he appreciates the issue of copyright he take photos of vintage typefaces that are still in use and not ones documented in magazines or books. He also scrupulously seeks owners’ permission before taking photos.