Before mice did the printing

[South China Morning Post]

Years ago, printing was an art form that required precision. Joyee Chan writes about people who still see beauty in it.

By simply hitting a button, the world’s fastest desktop printer can produce 500 pages in colour in less than eight minutes – just about one per second.

But before the computer age, printing was done with a letterpress machine. Back then, printing was a craft that required teamwork to carefully lock little blocks of lead letters into a bed, ink it, and press paper against it to form a print. It was a process that took several days. People had to check carefully to see that the ink went on evenly and the letters or characters were well-spaced.

However, the trade couldn’t survive the onslaught of modern technology and the growing need for efficiency. The once-famous printing companies on Wing Lee Street in Sheung Wan, where the award-winning movie Echoes of the Rainbow was filmed, all closed.

But now a group of young people, a retired printer, and two greeting-card-designing sisters who share a passion for letterpress printing are working to conserve and revitalise the art form.

Three Hongkongers in their 20s have given a second life to a cabinet of thousands of movable type characters, letters, punctuation and spacing in various sizes and fonts.

The equipment, which belonged to a digitised print shop in Yuen Long, has been moved to the group’s studio in San Po Kong. It, along with printing presses and more type from a Sheung Shui company, will be used in educational workshops and works of literature to be published in Fleurs des Lettres, a literary magazine for youngsters.

The magazine founders, who couldn’t be reached for an interview, wrote on their website that they hope “to pass on the heritage of the culture and craft of letterpress”.

The retired printer is Lee Zak-yue, 85, who owned the Wai Che Printing Company on Wing Lee Street for more than 50 years until he closed it in 2012. He had a dream that Hong Kong should have a print museum, and he tried in vain from 2006 until he retired to persuade the government to set one up.

But Youth Square in Chai Wan rescued most of his pricey equipment – including the heavy Original Heidelberg Cylinder Letter Press Machine – from being trashed in the landfills and gave them a new home at a permanent exhibition.

“I spent HK$140,000 on the machine,” Lee said. “It’s as costly an investment as buying retail space on a ground floor nowadays. It was hard to give up my trade. I want young people to know how printing worked before everything was a few clicks.”

Now Lee’s legacy includes teaching his beloved craft to young people in monthly workshops.

Two other antique printing presses can be found in the Aberdeen studio of sisters Nicole and Donna Chan, who own Ditto Ditto. The sisters love to go for the unconventional as they design and print letterpress greeting cards, calendars and postcards with an indented effect that is now all the rage.

The two fell in love with the craft after attending a one-day workshop at an American museum in 2011.

“We like the natural impressions and dense colours letterpress can produce,” says Nicole. “We originally planned to concentrate on the illustrations and send our work to letterpress shops. But our small-scale projects didn’t appeal to any printers. They thought our ideas were too complex and time consuming. That’s why we acquired our own printers.”

Each project begins from pen-and-paper sketches that are digitised and etched onto zinc or plastic plates for printing.

Yes, letterpress is a painstaking labour of love, but the resulting beauty makes it worth the trouble.

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