Car number plates are a serious business in Hong Kong, with car owners prepared to pay top dollar for the perfect one. Now, poets are using them as a surprising source of inspiration

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poetry’s appeal, Salati’s show, which will feature 36 poems in print and video formats, including several as yet unpublished ones, will take place in a garage.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. 

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Above Douglas Young in his Rolls- Royce with his personalised number plate

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.”

All You Need to Know About Vanity Car Plates

How do you get a personalised car plate?

Step 1: Submit your desired registration to the Transport Department in January, May or September.

Step 2: If there are more applications than the allotted limit, applicants will be selected by lot.

Step 3: Assuming your plate meets the department’s requirements, pay a deposit of HK$5,000.

Step 4: Attend your allotted auction session. Each plate  is sold at a minimum of HK$5,000, if nobody else applied for it, but prices can run into the millions in a bidding war.

Step 5: Pay for your number plate and install it on your car.

What is the most expensive car plate sold so far in Hong Kong?

“W”, which was auctioned for HK$26,000,000 in the Lunar New Year auction in March this year.
What can’t you feature on a personalised number plate? Certain letters or combinations of letters are reserved for specific types of vehicles and cannot be used in registration plates that would suggest you have one of those vehicles. These include:

  • “A”, the prefix for ambulances.
  • “F”, the prefix for fire engines and other Fire Services Department vehicles.
  • “AM”, which is reserved for government vehicles.
  • “LC”, which belongs to Legislative Council vehicles.
  • “ZG”, the prefix for Zhù Găng, which means “stationed in Hong Kong”, is for official vehicles of the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong.

What is the Chief Executive’s number plate?

The CE’s vehicles do not have registration plates but bear Hong Kong’s bauhinia emblem in front and at the rear. Before the handover, the governor’s vehicle bore the St Edward’s Crown emblem.

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