A dark burgundy Mercedes-Benz bearing the word “FABULUS” speeds past. There isn’t even enough time for passersby to realise there’s something amiss about the spelling. You wonder whether it was worth the owner’s while to splurge HK$5,000 on a number plate with a typo, but it was vanity plates like this that piqued Ogilvy creative director Michele Salati’s interest when he first moved to Hong Kong in 2017. With some friends, he started composing tongue-in-cheek poems using the words on the plates, and last year set up the HKVANIT1ES project, an online platform that collects similar verses written by professional writers, students and people just amused by the possibilities. Those works of found poetry—that which is created by taking words or phrases from other contexts and reframing them, a sort of literary patchwork blanket—will soon be put on physical display in an exhibition.
In keeping with the automotive theme and his desire to broaden poetry’s appeal, Salati’s show, which will feature 36 poems in print and video formats, including several as yet unpublished ones, will take place in a garage. Salati says the HKVANIT1ES project can be seen as a playful way to engage with a literary genre often considered to be serious, and as a reflection of the city itself. “Hong Kong is a city in constant change. [It can be] hopeful, proud, fearless, blunt, hungry, superstitious, smooth, nice, delirious, supreme, fun, in love and totally crazy. It just makes sense that a city [that is so visually stimulating] would use vanity plates to make personal statements,” he says.
Hong Kong introduced the Personalised Vehicle Registration Marks Scheme in September 2006, allowing car owners to create number plates of up to eight characters in any combination of letters and numbers. Before this, car owners were allotted licence plates with a two-letter prefix followed by four numbers, which were issued in alphabetical and numerical order; the only “personalisation” was for official vehicles, such as ambulances, which have the letter “A” at the start of the plate, or Legislative Council vehicles, which begin with the letters “LC”.
The scheme has become a creative outlet for car owners, a way to label their car with boastful, flamboyant or entertaining statements: “SUPREME”, “YOURBOSS”, “M1LL1ON”, “K1NG”, “1 AM FAT” and “MR R1GHT”, for example. Plate prices start at HK$5,000, but given that they are sold at auction, prices can skyrocket—sometimes illogically so. In the 2017 Lunar New Year auction of non- personalised registration plates, “V” was sold for HK$13,000,000, reflecting how seriously some car owners take this. Together with Scott Purkiss, the owner of the “Hong Kong Vanity plates” Facebook page, photographer Duncan Archibald, and Edward Szakal, who owns the “hk_vanity_ plates” page on Instagram, Salati gathered about 2,500 images for the HKVANIT1ES database. “This collection gives an extraordinary glimpse into how Hongkongers present and express themselves,” Salati says. “Some fun examples are ‘OK LA’, ‘HK HAPPY’ and ‘FISHBALL’. All of them reflect some very characteristic traits of the city.”
HKVANIT1ES co-organiser Jason Lee, an English literature lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, says the project taps into a new source of cultural creativity. Often, he explains, community poetry projects are inspired by visuals such as an old photograph or documentary. But creating poetry from number plates, he says, “is slightly different, because these are things that would not be considered of historic value, but they are part of the everyday visual culture of Hong Kong”. He adds that several of the poems focus on the idea of being rich, a favourite Hong Kong conversation. “There’s nothing wrong with referencing one’s wealth, and that’s what the vanity plate is all about. [The project] is a way of turning car plates into an art form that is in some ways poking fun at the whole culture of capitalism,” he says.
Lee suggests that the fact vanity car plate verse is easy to put together takes poetry out of the realm of high art and grounds it. A prolific poet himself, he adds, “This is what we need: to use this element of found poetry to enable us to interact more culturally and creatively.”