Yum Wai-sang, Traditional Letterpress Printer

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It’s a late October morning and the city has shut down as typhoon Haima makes landfall. Despite the storm outside it’s business as usual at the Kwong Wah Printing Company on Sai Street in the quiet neighbourhood of Po Hing Fong, Sheung Wan. In fact Yum Wai-sang, the second generation owner of Kwong Wah has been running his letterpress late into the night in spite of the storm. Pulling levers, turning knobs and daubing ink with a palette knife, Mr. Yum makes minute adjustments and calibrations to a huge jet black press. It inks itself and pumps out prints, by the hundred, with Teutonic precision. It pneumatically inhales paper like a champion sprinter regulates breath, with easy power.

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Yum sifu and his trusty Heidelberg letterpress.

A family trade – starting young

Born in the post ‘50s generation, Mr. Yum has been a part of the industry all his life. He proudly shows his birth certificate, which bears the United Kingdom’s coat of arms; under ‘rank, or profession of Father’ – ‘printer’. ‘I’ve worked in this company since I was a child,’ says Yum, eyes gleaming in his shop’s fluorescent light. ‘It was the ‘60s and Hong Kong’s economy was booming so after school we’d come in and do the lighter jobs like going out to buy the paper and envelopes, arranging type blocks, collecting small consignments of card and delivering orders to customers.’

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By his mid-teens, Yum was beginning to operate the machines on his own. Pointing at the black Heidelberg letterpress Yum exclaims, ‘I’ve been working with this machine for about 30 or 40 years so you could say I’m extremely familiar with it!’ The press itself is a 1967 model Original Heidelberg Platen 13×18 with close to 5 decades of history. Asked how he was able to learn this intricate skill – part master machinist, part artist – Yum explains that there was no formal method of training. ‘[My Dad] didn’t really teach me, I just followed him, and slowly picked it up by watching. There was no master and apprentice arrangement. I just watched and then tried with my own hands. It wasn’t like kung fu where you learn things step-by-step!’

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Mr. Yum arranges a plate and fixes it in place.

Simple beginnings and immigrant dreams

Yum Sifu’s father entered the world of printing in much the same way, through family and learning by experience. ‘[He] came over from the mainland just after the war in 1945. He joined my uncle in the printing industry. Back then many people from our village, who came down to Hong Kong, worked in printing. My dad actually started off by lining up and arranging type blocks. He didn’t really know how to do the actual printing so when he opened the business he hired printer sifus. By following the sifus, asking questions and watching he slowly learned by experience. There was no formal process of learning, he just picked it up.’

Lead type blocks that Yam Sifu's father would have arranged.
These lead type blocks are wearing out one by one and can’t be replaced. Yum Sifu’s father would have arranged type blocks just like these.

In the halcyon days, Yum’s father polished his craft creating envelopes, stationery and receipts. The elder Yum worked in a printing house that was just one of several hundred – all part of Hong Kong’s thriving print industry. ‘Back then there were lots of small printing presses in Sheung Wan and Central. In the ‘70s and ‘80s there were probably over 200 independent printers.’

Bad news for a changing industry

But the good times did not last. 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. They take a digital file and create a film, input that into the machine, then it’s done.

Traditional typesetting, by comparison, is extremely labour intensive. First, you have to find all the different Chinese characters (there are 4 to 5000 individual 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. Offset printing is so simple. With offset printing there is no need to calibrate. 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.’

Thus began a vicious cycle. 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 last shop that manufactured type blocks, the lead rods with Chinese characters on the ends, closed down in 1993. Since then, Mr. Yum has had to make do as his type blocks wear down one by one. The demise of these supporting businesses dealt yet another blow to struggling independent printers and they were faced with the choice of going out of business or abandoning traditional ways and turning to offset printing themselves.

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Mr. Yum inspects a printing plate and chisels out any imperfections by hand.

Is traditional print making a comeback?

In recent years, the proliferation of digital formats, screens and e-books have made us nostalgic for traditional print media. A recent surge in interest for niche areas such as typography, graphic design and the ‘haptic’ qualities of physical print (often touted as the advantage of ‘real’ books) have lead to a yearning for the past in popular culture. 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’.

Mr. Yum smiles. ‘Back in the day that didn’t count for anything. People didn’t care if it felt more “authentic” or “human”. They only cared about getting the job done on time and meeting deadlines while maintaining good quality. These were our requirements for making a living and doing business. 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. Back when we were just doing business nobody prized it. There were only three requirements and they were to get it done fast, well and on time. Only in these past ten years have people started to value imperfections like slight debossing from pressure and that tactile quality.’

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Finished prints ready to be packed by Mr. Yum’s wife

Yum Sifu embraces the public’s new found love for traditional print. These days he rarely takes on new printing clients and devotes his time to teaching traditional printing methods and its history to eager students. His shop has become the school for a dying art. ‘Printing is one of China’s four great inventions (the others are gunpowder, the compass and paper). It has over a thousand years’ of history. In another 10 or 20 years, people might not know what this was and I feel that would be a shame. I’ve been doing this for several decades and I have an attachment and affection for it. I hope this skill and history can be preserved and recorded so that people of the future will have it and understand it. This is my mission.’

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Kwong Wah Printing – over 50 years and still going strong.
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