Forgotten Hong Kong Icon: How a Letterpress Workshop Keeps Hong Kong Heritage Alive

Step into the Kwong Wah Printing Company on Sai Street and you will find a quintessential example of a Hong Kong letterpress shop. There is an original Heidelberg Platen Press, a hand-operated press and type cabinets. But this is no longer a printing company – it’s a living museum, offering workshops and a window into an important part of Hong Kong’s past. And its owner, 61-year-old Yam Wai-sang, is a walking encyclopedia of Hong Kong’s letterpress printing history. 

“The quality of Hong Kong letterpress printing was top-notch,” he says. “Many typesetters or printers truly cared about what they did and they were fastidious. Now there is not as much skill involved. You just need to know how to press buttons.” 

Photo-etched zinc plates being locked in place

There were once more than 200 print shops in Central and Sheung Wan, not including the industries they supported such as paper manufacturers, metal type foundries and ink and electroplating businesses. It all stems back to the area’s historic role as Hong Kong’s economic engine. As international trading companies, dried seafood shops, antique stores and other businesses planted roots in the area, print shops emerged to provide them with invoices, namecards, envelopes and more.

Kwong Wah was founded by Yam’s father, Yam Chiu-kwong, who arrived in Hong Kong in 1947 and learnt typesetting from his relatives. He worked for a printing company for seven years before being laid off, at which time he decided to rent a corner from another printing company on Aberdeen Street. He installed a letterpress printer and bought a type cabinet, turning an unfortunate situation into a new opportunity. 

The whole family was involved in the business. As soon as Yam was old enough, he began to help out after school. At first, he was responsible for menial tasks like fetching envelopes and ink. He later graduated to binding and paper cutting, and eventually typography – a part of the job that he found particularly exciting. The first movable-type printing system was developed by a Song Dynasty artisan named Bi Sheng in 1040, and Yam was thrilled to be part of such an important part of Chinese history. “Both the language and letterpress printing are part of a five-thousand-year-old Chinese culture,” he says with a grin. 

Yam has spent most of his life around Shing Wong Street. He remembers how families who had televisions—a rare luxury in the 1960s—would put them outside for the neighbourhood kids to watch. During the Yu Lan festival, he and other children would tease people who were putting out offerings of small change. His attachment runs deep enough that, when the Urban Renewal Authority was preparing to evict people for a now-aborted redevelopment scheme, Yam spoke up for those who had not been fairly compensated, even though he was not directly affected by the renewal plan.

All the while, Yam worked and saw the neighbourhood’s printing industry evolve. At first, any reputable print shop needed a complete set of lead type pieces, including Chinese characters, the Latin alphabet, numbers and punctuation marks. It was common to have five different Chinese fonts, including sans serif (known as cou1 tai2 粗體), regular script (zing3 gaai1 正楷), Song typeface (lou5 sung3 老宋), which has fine horizontal strokes and thick vertical ones. Those three were both common around the Chinese-speaking world, but two more were unique to Hong Kong: Imitation Song typeface (fong2 sung3 仿宋), which has only fine strokes, and Old Song (coeng4 sung3 長宋), a slender typeface. Anything out of the ordinary, such as extra-large type or a company logo, required Yam to custom order photo-etched plates from an electroplating company.

There were once four Chinese type foundries in Sheung Wan and an English one in Wan Chai. Different foundries had their own bronze moulds so there were slight variations in style even for the same Chinese character. Yam points out “the foundries each have their own markings – one even with their logo engraved at the back of each type to avoid disputes.”

Yam officially took over Kwong Wah in the 1980s, around the same time it settled on the current premises. He not only inherited the business from his father, who had retired, he also absorbed his work ethic. “I always tell people how hardworking my father was, but I am just the same,” he says. “For over a decade after we moved our base here, I worked night and day. My wife can testify to it.” Luckily, she understood, having come from a printing family herself. She and Yam met through her brother, with whom he had a business relationship.

Printing something was a labour intensive process. Clients would arrive with handwritten drafts, then Yam would show them the styles and sizes of type they already had in store. If they wanted to print their text in the style of Chinese calligraphy, Yam would need to go to the calligraphers along Aberdeen Street, Hollywood Road or Gage Street to custom-make the characters.

Before the magic of computers could do everything with just one click of a button, every step in printing involved manual labour. First, a typesetter would start by retrieving the right type with the help of a composing stick in one hand and tweezers in the other. He would then transfer those loose pieces onto a flat, level surface, creating what is known as a forme. After all the right pieces were in place, they were secured using a metal frame known as a chase. Then ink was applied—sometimes with resin powder to achieve an embossed effect—and it would be ready for printing.

The introduction of offset printing in the 1980s turned the industry upside down. Also known as the four-colour process, this modern computer-to-plate technology allows for fast, consistent bulk printing. Kwong Wah jumped on the bandwagon and shifted to offset printing, buying a new printer for almost HK$500,000. But that wasn’t enough in the face of an entire industry headed for decline. Hong Kong’s last type foundry, Tak Hing Matrix Type Founders Company, shut down in 1995. Most of the type stock, together with bronze moulds, were seen worthless and subsequently discarded. “Conservation was not really on their mind,” says Yam.  “I had the luxury of space so I could keep one tenth of my stock.”

Even equipped with the latest technology, Kwong Wah still found it hard to compete with corporate printing companies and the business took a hit. That was especially true when personal computers and consumer printers made it cheaper and easier than ever to print documents. Kwong Wah sold its printer at a fraction of its original price. Then, in 2012, Yam made an unusual decision: he decided to transform his family’s print shop into a museum. Now known as Letterpress Printing, he uses the space to run workshops and walking tours that explain the artisanal value of letterpress printing.

The shop’s layout remains the same as ever. Yam walks visitors through the history of his family and their business, accompanied by well-kept documents such as his father’s last handwritten payslip and the dismissal letter that launched him on the path to starting his own business. Workshop participants also get to try their hand at letterpress printing.

Wong’s workshops are occasional, and he laments the fact that most participants aren’t interested in pursuing their interest in a regular and consistent way. “People are pragmatic,” he says. “When they are aware that they would not make a living out of this craft, they would not want to learn it.”

Letterpress Printing remains virtually the same as ever

There is one exception. A few years back, Taiwanese designer Huang Chung-tang tracked Yam down and joined his walking tour in Hong Kong. Huang’s enthusiasm for letterpress printing during the tour was the catalyst for an uncommon and remarkable friendship. Huang had purchased a printer but, with no experience with letterpress printing, he found it impossible to tame his new acquisition. Yam poured his heart into teaching Huang, who now uses his printer to make products. Yam’s help is still only one phone call away; now his expertise is taking root on foreign ground.

Yam has spent more than 50 years of his life in the letterpress industry. He has never had another job. He is deeply attached to his family, friends, industry, community and roots. After all, the neighbourhood helped shape him, while letterpress printing fed him and introduced him to his wife. “My favourite Chinese characters have always been Kwong Wah (gwong1 waa4 光華),” he says. He believes if his father were still around, he would agree with his decision of transforming the printing company into a museum and workshop. “If I could speak to my father again, I would really want to say thank you. Really.”

Letterpress Printing (活字寶手作坊) is located at 45 Sai Street. Click here for more information.

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