In the western world, your signature is your word – you have to sign your passport, the back of your bank card, your credit card statements, your driver’s license, your marriage certificate to prove that you are who you say you are.
In the far east, however, instead of a signature, traditionally people used a hand-carved seal or stamp, typically in stone or jade, with the Chinese characters of your family name. Putting your stamp on a document can officially and legally can represent you, your family, or your company. In China, these stamps are known as “chops”, and many say that in a company, whoever holds the chops, holds the control.
Just around the corner from my office is the “Chop Alley”, a little street lined with chop shops where you can get your own chop made for a very reasonable price; that is, unless you want it in some fancy expensive jade, a rare stone, or even (god forbid) ivory. They have a beautiful array of choices and styles – round chops, square chops, irregular chops, chops of all sizes and colours, chops made from different materials with various designs. Many chops have an animal on it for the Chinese zodiac, to show which year you were born (I’m a cock… I mean… rooster). You can also get other things carved onto the side of the chop. The choice is all yours.
The use of chops, however, seems to be dwindling here in Hong Kong. Chops have been around for thousands of years in China (although hasn’t everything!?), but todays’ generation seems to have put this as a thing from their grandparents’ or great grandparents’ time. I guess as it gets more westernized, these old time customs fade a bit from every day use.
According to some Chinese colleagues of mine, back in the day many people may not have been fully literate or been able to write their full name with complicated characters, so a chop served as a handy tool for official signatures. Emporers had chops, family elders had chops, and of course business people had chops. The more important the person, the fancier and more elaborate the chop.
Chops aren’t just for Chinese people though; many foreigners get their own chop, and even tourists get a chop made while passing through Hong Kong as it only takes a day. To accommodate these English speaking round-eyed clients, the chop shops all have a dictionary which lists common English family names with a Chinese translation, or at least something that sounds close enough to the pronunciation of your name (though I’d be VERY skeptical).
Technically, you could get a chop made with anything on it – the chop makers probably don’t care, and being very practical people, they know that at the end of the day, business is business, even if it means carving a chop that says “SWEET PIMP” (can you find it?)
If you are ever in Hong Kong and want to get your own chop made, you need at least 24 hours to get it made. The address is Man Wa Lane, a few steps from Sheung Wan MTR station exits A & B. Man Wa Lane is a tiny alley, not a street. It connects Des Voeux Street and Wing Lok Street. The chop shop can provide an English-Chinese dictionary to find your name, though I would STRONGLY suggest finding a native Chinese speaker beforehand to try to do a nice translation for you to choose good characters. The price ranges from about HKD 180 and up, about USD $25. The price includes a gift box along with a really cute little porcelain stamp pad. And please don’t buy the ivory!!!