Not long ago, the streets of Central and Sheung Wan were filled with the whirr of printing presses – until high rents and changing technology forced many of Hong Kong’s family-run print shops out of business. But there is one place where Hong Kong’s print culture survives: the Hong Kong Open Printshop.
“The technology we are using is now heritage – the sifus [masters] have all retired,” says Yung Sau-mui, a print artist and one of HKOPS’ founders. Earlier this year, HKOPS expanded its studio at the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, giving it space for a working print shop, a contemporary print art gallery and a collection of decades-old printing presses.
“Every press here has a story,” says Yung. She is standing with another HKOPS founder, photographer Fung Ho-yin, next to an intricate Original Heidelberg press from the 1950s — the first of its kind in Hong Kong — which was donated by a retired printer when he closed his Old Bailey Street shop. A stone lithographic press sits nearby, along with a slab of German limestone from a mine that is now exhausted. “You can only use German limestone because the texture is so fine,” says Yung.
Another press was bought at an auction held by the Hong Kong Museum of Art. “We expected to get it for HK$700,” says Fung, but there turned out to be a fierce bidding war with metal dealers who wanted to tear the press apart for scrap. “If we hadn’t bought it, it might be in a junkyard somewhere,” says Yung.
Despite their pedigree, these aren’t museum pieces: most of HKOPS’ presses are still used today. Fung says more and more young people are drawn to the hands-on, tactile nature of printing. “As technology advances, people want something tangible. The generation of 12 to 18 year olds don’t even know how to use pencils anymore, but printing is a full body effort. It’s something new for them. The digital revolution has taken over the world and we’re a few lonely soldiers trying to combat the trend.”
They might not be so lonely after all. Last year, HKOPS launched Pop Up Press, a series of roving print art exhibitions and workshops done in collaboration with local artists. The fifth and final exhibition will take place on December 13 at Freespace Happening in West Kowloon, where illustrator Jan Curious — best known as the lead singer of hit indie band Chochukmo — will unveil a new series of woodblock prints.
“You can say it’s destiny,” says the singer.“For years I’ve been emulating the style ancient illustrations or illustrations from the Bible, but it’s wasn’t until I went to HKOPS that I found out that the style I’m imitating comes from wood block printing.”
He probably isn’t alone in failing to grasp the scope of printing’s influence. Woodblock printing was invented by 10th century Song Dynasty craftsmen, which allowed books to be printed on a large scale, leading to widespread literacy for the first time in history. Chinese printers invented movable type in the 11th century, but it didn’t catch on because it was a huge burden to maintain thousands of ceramic pieces for each Chinese character; it was cheaper and simpler to hand-carve text into wooden blocks. It took four centuries for moveable type to reach Europe, when Johannes Gutenberg invented a mechanical press with movable type around 1440. The Gutenberg press unleashed a revolution in communications on par with the digital revolution we are experiencing today.
Printing has been revolutionary in other ways, too. In 1911, when Sun Yat-sen and his allies were seeking to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, appetite for uprising was spread through newspaper illustrations printed in Shanghai and Hong Kong. There seems to be something about the stylised, naïve aesthetic of traditionally printed illustrations that captures the imagination: Mao Zedong’s Communists used woodblock printing for Cultural Revolution propaganda, despite the availability of more modern printing techniques, and here in Hong Kong, local artist Karden Chan used the medium to great effect during the campaign to save the Central Star Ferry Pier from demolition.
Yung became interested in printing during high school and studied it at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, University of Alabama and University of New Mexico. Fung came to it through his career in photography. He saw an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London on historical photographic processes and he was intrigued by large-format contact printing, in which the final image is exactly the same size as the original negative. “It dawned on me that all photographic prints are a form of printmaking,” he says.
Yung met Fung when she was conducting research on printmaking in Hong Kong. They launched HKOPS in 2000. It led a peripatetic existence until 2008, when it found a permanent home at the JCCAC. It expanded into its current space last April. Since then, it has offered weekend workshops on printmaking and printing facilities for artists – many of whom, like Jan Curious, are new to the medium.
“It’s a conversion process,” says Fung. “We convert artists into printers, and then they become one of us.” Response has been good: when the latest Pop Up Press workshop was announced, it filled up within an hour. Even if Hong Kong’s historic print shops are closing one by one, the city’s print scene lives on.
Pop Up Press takes place at Freespace Happening on Sunday, December 13, 2015 from 2pm to 7pm. Click here for more details.