Diving into Hong Kong’s vanity plate phenomenon

Hong Kong has gained an international reputation for its embrace of vanity license plates.

Diving into Hong Kong’s vanity plate phenomenon
Source: J3 Private Tours Hong Kong

Hong Kong has gained an international reputation for its embrace of vanity license plates. These are a luxury, as buying a vanity plate usually costs thousands of dollars in the city. Our news coverage yesterday mentioned how the Hong Kong Transport Department just auctioned off a plate with the single letter “R” for HK$25.5 million (US$3.2 million). Other examples of high-ticket plates have popped up over the years – a plate with just the number “18,” which is considered lucky in Cantonese, went for HK$16.5 million (US$2.1 million) in 2008, and “28” went for HK$18.1 million (US$2.3 million) in 2016.  

Hong Kong’s Transport Department began auctioning vanity car plates in 2006. Each auction, held about once a month, raises millions of dollars. The minimum price for a vanity plate is HK$5,000 (US$640). To get one, a person has to request a specific character combination, and then that combination goes up for auction. If there are no other bids, the plate goes to the person who registered for the plate by default. Tens of thousands of personalized plates are auctioned off in the city every year.

This money goes straight to Hong Kong’s Treasury, according to a spokesperson speaking with CNN. This money is reportedly put toward charities.

Three years ago, Hong Kong’s Michele Salati started an online platform gallery of vanity plate photos called HKVANIT1ES, where users can rearrange the images to create poems. He explained Hong Kong’s personalized plate phenomenon to CNN, saying, “These vanity plates are used by their owners to highlight their status, wealth, humor, desires, superstitions or even their favorite food.”

Yes, one of the major reasons that a person gets a vanity plate is for … vanity. Status and bragging rights are major motivators for this plate frenzy.  
“Dropping US$3 million on a plate announces to the world that you have substantial means. It’s a very clear message,” vanity plate aficionado Jamie Lloyd said. “Cecil Chao the billionaire has three that I know of: two Rolls-Royces, one with the plate ‘4’, the other with ‘CECIL’ and a Bentley with ‘CHAO’. A little-known fact is that the money paid for license plates at auctions goes to charity and, presumably, is a tax write-off, which explains why someone can pay HK$26 million for one.”