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

Uncovered Signs in Shanghai is a new book detailing how China’s highly complex language norms have drastically changed with urban development.

17 August 2021
Reading Time
4 minute read

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 2007, 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.

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.

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 Type: Uncovered Signs in Shanghai (Copyright © The Type, 2021)

The Type founder tells us more about how the Chinese written language has changed in the last hundred years. In the early 1920s, revolutionists sought to modernise China in every aspect of life including its writing system. Though nothing was officially approved due to strong opposition from the government at the time, after 1949, the government began work on a national standard of simplified characters. The first draft of this work arose in 1955 which saw the writing system change from right-to-left to left-to-right. Then, in 1964, the complete standard of simplified characters was issued followed by a second round of radical simplifications in the 80s. Rex goes on to say, “Although this second round of proposals was officially retreated in 1986 due to a series of political turmoils and legibility problems, they still managed to propagate through public signage and many were preserved and captured through our photographs.”

Rex adds on the new book, “it reminds us as designers how our hands are tied by digital tools to create new forms. Pre-digital sign painting and lettering was the job of an artist-worker who only used their rulers, brushes, eyes and muscles to create print-like graphic works.” In some instances, signs are written by the shop owners themselves which “speaks to the freedom of visual production in pre-digital time before excessive professionalisation”. Digital design and Adobe suites are the norm when it comes to the execution of well set typography today, and having lost the physicality in the end process, Rex comments on how he and other designers were “amazed by the experimentation, creativity and imagination” on display in these hand rendered signs.

A record of Shanghainese history as told through its signs, the book shows how signs can be viewed as history-defining layers of visual culture much like architecture or art. It “reminds us of what we have ignored and forgotten under the grand narrative of linear growth and moving forward,” says Rex. Uncovered Signs in Shanghai is a window into Chinese urban history documented by its citizens. It hopes to encourage a wider conversation on the role of commercial art in urban landscapes and acts as a reminder that in a world full of seemingly commercial spaces, “there is still room for bold, considered and interesting interventions coming from designers and ordinary people.”

GalleryThe Type: Uncovered Signs in Shanghai (Copyright © The Type, 2021)


This is a store named Xin Hua Non-staple Food Store 新华付食品商店. The character 付 (secondary, subordinate) should be written as 副 by the current standard, but during the second-round simplification, many characters with the same pronunciation were reduced to share one simple form. The store probably dates back to 1950s–60s because of the name Xīn Huá 新华 which means “new China”. Xinhua Rd, Shanghai, © Colleague Dong


© Shen Jianwen


Signage reads as "Telephone 83459 Number", Shanghai © Colleague Dong


Three forms of the word xiāofèi 消费 (consumption). While 费 went through two rounds of simplification, 消 stayed in the same form. Simplification standards were made according to pre-existing cursive calligraphy traditions or speedy writing habits. Only a small portion of the Chinese characters went through two rounds of simplification.

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The Type: Uncovered Signs in Shanghai, Swimming goggles and swimwear, Rehe Rd, Jingan, Shanghai, © Shi Jiayu (Copyright © The Type, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.

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