Cho Lon

Chợ Lớn (= big market) is Ho Chi Minh City’s chinatown. It started as a small settlement of Chinese refugees in the 17th century, west of Gia Dinh (official name of Sài Gòn from the 1690’s to the 1860’s). It was incorporated as a city in 1879, still more than 10 km away from Sài Gòn, but 50 years later it touched their city limits. The two cities were merged together in the 1930’s.

Nowadays, Chợ Lớn is an area including District 5, 6 and 11 – depending on the source you are looking at. Bình Tây Market is located on Tháp Mười street in D6 and when you slowly wander the streets around the market, you are able to find some hand painted treasures. Many of the signboards in Chợ Lớn are bilingual: Vietnamese and Chinese, due to the shop owners origin, the customers the business wants to attract or both.

Whenever I am on the hunt, I am in the back of a taxi or on a xe ôm (= motorbike taxi), staring under every awning and then suddenly shouting: “STOP! here please” and “chờ đợi” (= wait for me please) and “just five minutes” – reinforced by my hand raised in the air. The drivers’ reaction varies from wondering about what I am doing, being amused to stoically observing me climbing to find a good angle, kneeing on the floor or putting away something that is disturbing my motif.

This sign board I found in October 2018, while sitting in the back of a taxi. It caught my attention because of its expressive, three-dimensional letters that had been used for the business name. Interestingly, the business names are very often shaded and the shadow aligned to the bottom right. After documenting it, I found some details of its story in C. Nualart’s article from 2016: “The Schwarzenegger Hide and Seek”.

Út’s motorbike repair shop was already running for a few years, when he commissioned the sign board at the end of the war. It was installed 1975 – 44 years ago. The idea of including the Honda logo might have brought him a lot of customers, as it was a “fashionable brand” back then.

Even though this signboard is quite small, maybe 15 by 30 cm, it carries not just typography but also illustrations of the goods being offered. The style of these illustrations is often very simple – pragmatic or naive – but always on the point.

Sometimes the colors of the signboards are extremely faded and the metal backgrounds rusty. Sometimes there are just shadows left like single bones of a skeleton and a hint of Chinese characters.