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 I spotted this tiny print shop – a literal hole in the wall no more than a few metres wide. Here I 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.
有恒印务，它是经营了接近 60 年的印刷公司，座落于香港上环，隔着马路去看这家小店，现时仍然提供柯式印刷的业务。时至今日，有恒印务一人操作，在200多呎的开放式小店内，凭数部手动印刷机，便可印出制作精美的公司名片、宣传单张、贺卡小帖。店中还保留了一台 Heidelberg 海德堡 120 活字印刷机，以及十数版铅字粒，字盘字托，选字排版，以至付印的详细过程，全部均由人手操作。
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. This is 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 in Hong Kong.
With the ‘80s came the advent of chain print shops and offset printing – a far simpler and more consistent method of commercial printing. In the past, layouts were drawn by hand and the blocks were set manually, but now everything is done on a computer. Traditional typesetting, by comparison, is extremely labour intensive. First, you have to find all the different Chinese characters, then you have to give them to a sifu to slowly piece together. It’ll be one line of Chinese and one line of English and so on. It’s like slowly building a lego sculpture. It takes lots of time to assemble. Printing also takes a great deal of time and skill in calibrating the press so that the pressure is just right. And then there’s speed – a traditional letterpress can put out about 3000-4000 copies per hour, but an offset printer can put out about 5000-6000. About twice as fast.
As chain stores took up the lion’s share of business, traditional printing houses began closing down. Those that remained could not afford to invest in new machinery and, as a result, businesses that served printers such as printing plate manufacturers, blade sharpeners and type block makers began shutting their doors too. The death of the printed page is imminent. This kind of thing happens almost every month now. And while magazines are slowly and sadly phasing out, so is the art of printing.
After offset printing came about, only then did people start feeling like, “oh, there’s a human touch to this” or “you can feel life in this”. It’s only because traditional printing is disappearing and people yearn for what is lost. It’s only because of this that they value how tactile and “alive” traditional print feels. There is a feeling that traditional print, with its slight imperfections, variations in quality and physical nature, lends itself to something more ‘authentic’ or ‘human’.
I hope this skill and history can be preserved and recorded so that people of the future will have it and understand it.