THE LAST PRINTING PRESSES OF HONG KONG, SHEUNG WAN
The death of the printed page is imminent. I’ve watched first-hand how a magazine I loved, and loved by tens of thousands more, crumbled in what seemed like an instant – shut down by the dollar-dazed corporate suits. (RIP Feast, you were, and always will be, the greatest food mag on earth.) This kind of thing happens almost every month now. And while magazines are slowly and sadly phasing out, so is the art of printing.
Hong Kong is a place where nostalgia rules. French toast and milk tea are still favoured menu items in remembrance of the British colonial years, pictures of antique letterboxes and traditional iron gates are now framed in trendy homewares stores and printed on t-shirts, and old wooden trams still trundle across Hong Kong Island for tourists and locals alike. So it’s not surprising that the last of the printing presses, while dwindling fast, can still be found tucked away among the busy streets of the city.
It was on a walk through Sheung Wan, on Hong Kong Island, that we spotted this tiny print shop – a literal hole in the wall no more than a few metres wide. Here we met Mr Wong, a printer who has been practicing his craft for the past 60 years, with 43 years working in this cosy little shop. Because we were on assignment here for a different story (coming soon), we had lucked out with one of Hong Kong’s friendliest tour guides, Michael Kan, who was acting as our personal tour guide and translator for the day.
Mr Wong was in the process of making a batch of invoices on his smaller printing press, but dominating his tiny space still stood his old Heidelberg windmill letterpress, a mechanised press used in the industrialisation of printing in the 1950s. Movable type is arranged onto a plate, inked and printed onto the paper in a mesmerizing cycle. This stamping effect creates a more tactile print, almost three-dimensional in comparison to the flat, lifeless prints of today’s offset printers. These German-made machines were previously sold for about $15,000–$30,000 Hong Kong Dollars (up to $5000 AUD), almost two year’s wage for a printer in the 50s. This was now a precious antique.
Behind the Heidelberg was a huge chest of drawers, a house for all Mr Wong’s letters for the old letterpress. He explained that each English and Chinese characters was represented in 40 different fonts and three different sizes – there were thousands of letters in these drawers, too many to count. Sadly, they can’t be used anymore – once they become worn out they are irreplaceable and type-makers no longer exist here in Hong Kong.
We say goodbye to Mr Wong and he hands us one of his business cards. It’s designed in a simple traditional style, one he says can’t be made anymore because the typographer has now died. It’s not just the machines that we're losing, it’s the people who hold the knowledge of the craft who are disappearing, too.
NOTE: Thankfully, as you can count on Hong Kong, history will always be preserved. I discovered far too late that you can sign up for a free letterpress printing tour and workshop with one of the now-retired printers, Mr Lee, who is working with a new-generation printing group. They run every month, so if you’re heading to Hong Kong – check here to see if Mr Lee is running one of his classes and help print live on.