Kwong Wah Printing, a family-owned letterpress printing shop, is nestled on the slope of Sai Street in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong. For almost seven decades, the shop has been catering to various businesses’ printing needs. The shop’s interior covers several dozen square meters, of which almost half is occupied by two printing machines, including an original Heidelberg Windmill that has been in use for over 50 years.
Yam Wai-sang, the second-generation operator of Kwong Wah Printing, inherited the shop from his father. Yam’s father came to Hong Kong from Heshan, Guangdong, in 1947 and learned printing from Yam’s uncle. In 1954, Kwong Wah Printing was established. Since then, the shop has become a prominent printing service provider for numerous businesses in Hong Kong.
The printing industry in Hong Kong began to flourish in the 1950s and 1960s. Central and Sheung Wan areas were the center of Hong Kong’s prospering banks and other businesses, leading to a surging demand for invoices, contracts, envelopes, and letter paper. Yam mentioned that during that time, there were over 200 letterpress printing shops in Central and Sheung Wan areas. Besides, complementary shops such as hot stamping, ink, and typecasting companies were also located in the same area.
Today, Kwong Wah Printing continues to operate as a letterpress printing shop. Although technology has progressed, some businesses still require traditional letterpress printing. Kwong Wah Printing uses the original Heidelberg Windmill, which has been in use for over 50 years, and other printing machines to produce high-quality prints. The shop caters to various businesses, including graphic designers, advertising agencies, and wedding invitation companies.
Yam hopes to continue running the shop for as long as he can, passing it down to the next generation. He is proud to continue his family’s legacy and provide a traditional printing service that is still in demand in today’s world. He is also grateful for the shop’s loyal customers who have been supporting them for decades. Despite the rise of digital printing, Kwong Wah Printing remains an essential part of Hong Kong’s printing history and continues to operate with pride and passion.
During the era of letterpress printing, it was customary for children to inherit their parents’ businesses, resulting in several family-run printing shops emerging. Yam was introduced to the industry at the age of 10, and all of his six siblings were involved from an early age. Yam reminisced, “After school, my father would ask us to go buy lead typeface and ink.”
Lead typeface is an essential component of letterpress printing. Unlike modern computer typesetting, if one letter is misplaced in letterpress printing, the entire process must begin again. Yam regarded the “composing” process of lead typeface as the most complicated and technically demanding. Using tweezers, he would meticulously choose the appropriate font and size, place the lead typeface into a wooden tray known as a “type case,” and adjust the spacing between each letter. The line spacing is fine-tuned using a thin lead strip.
The process of composing lead typeface for letterpress printing necessitates a great deal of precision and expertise. Each character is manually inserted into the tray in reverse order, requiring the printer to have a thorough understanding of the text’s structure and flow. The placement of each character affects the overall layout of the print, making it critical to have a steady hand and a keen eye for detail.
The development of new technology has made letterpress printing obsolete; nevertheless, it has retained its appeal to printing enthusiasts who value the craft’s historic significance. The process of composing lead typeface for letterpress printing necessitates patience, time, and dedication, attributes that are often disregarded in today’s fast-paced world. For those who appreciate the craft’s aesthetics, letterpress printing remains an enduring art form that requires a unique skill set.
Despite the long and complex process, letterpress printing’s appeal remains strong, with a growing community of enthusiasts who seek to preserve the craft. As the industry progresses and new technologies emerge, the tradition of letterpress printing endures, with people like Yam working tirelessly to keep the art alive. The legacy of letterpress printing continues to thrive, thanks to the dedication and passion of those who recognize its value.
Letterpress printing, an ancient printing technique that has been around for centuries, is still being used today by some small businesses like Yam’s. To create a print, a lead typeface must be composed and locked onto a printing plate before being inserted into the printer. Unlike modern printers that use consumables like ink cartridges, letterpress printers utilize hundreds of thousands of lead typefaces stored in wooden cases that cannot be replenished.
Yam’s business requires a certain number of lead typefaces to be able to compose a print, and even a single missing character can prevent them from printing. Yam explains, “If we need 100 lead typefaces for a composition, we can’t print if even one character is missing.” This shows the level of detail and precision required in letterpress printing, as any small mistake could ruin the entire print run.
Each lead typeface has a lifespan of between 20,000 and 30,000 prints, and letterpress printers are known to cherish their typefaces because they are irreplaceable once worn out. Yam himself remembers the difficulty of buying lead typefaces as a child, and now the experience has become a thing of the past. The scarcity of these typefaces adds to the value of letterpress printing and makes it a unique and special art form.
Offset printing, a method that does not require manual typesetting, gained popularity in the 1980s, posing a challenge to traditional letterpress printing. By the mid-1990s, all four major typecasting companies in Hong Kong had closed down, further limiting the availability of lead typefaces. However, small letterpress printing businesses like Yam’s have managed to keep the tradition alive, offering a distinct aesthetic that cannot be replicated by modern printing techniques.
Despite the challenges posed by modern printing methods, the popularity of letterpress printing has not completely faded away. Its unique qualities, including the tactile feel of the print and the authenticity of the printing process, have kept it in demand for specialty printing projects. Letterpress printers like Yam continue to use their expertise and passion to create beautiful prints that are cherished by their customers.
The use of lead typeface is integral to the letterpress printing process, and the closure of typecasting companies had a profound impact on letterpress printing shops like Yam’s. Once a bustling operation, Yam and his wife are now the last remaining practitioners of the craft in their area. Despite modern printing methods making traditional movable-type printing almost obsolete, Yam takes pride in this time-honored craft for its technical demands and aesthetic appeal.
To produce letterpress prints with a special touch of warmth and texture, precise manipulation is required in the selection and arrangement of lead typefaces, the gradation of ink tones, and the coordination between humans and machines. Yam understands the unique value of this traditional craft, which requires a level of precision and attention to detail that cannot be matched by modern printing techniques.
Yam’s passion for letterpress printing has been reignited due to Hong Kong’s cultural conservation programs, which have brought renewed attention to the art form. In 2014, movable type printing techniques were listed in the intangible cultural heritage inventory of Hong Kong in the traditional craftsmanship domain. This recognition has helped preserve the craft and has made it accessible to a new generation of people who appreciate its beauty and value.
In addition to the technical skills required for letterpress printing, the process itself also requires a deep understanding of the printing machine’s mechanics. Yam and his wife are experts in maintaining and operating the machinery, ensuring that the machines remain in optimal condition for producing high-quality prints.
The unique aesthetic appeal of letterpress printing is a significant factor in its continued popularity. The tactile feel of the print, combined with the authentic printing process, creates prints that are both beautiful and memorable. Yam’s customers appreciate the warmth and character that letterpress printing brings to their projects, and they understand the level of skill and craftsmanship required to produce these prints.
Hong Kong’s heritage conservation groups have helped transform Yam’s letterpress printing shop into a living museum. With the support of these organizations and the influence of social media, the shop has become a popular destination for visitors interested in learning about the traditional printing process. Today, Yam offers two or three workshops per week, with students and volunteer groups eager to participate.
During these workshops, visitors get to experience each step of the printing process. They begin with selecting typefaces and typesetting, then move on to inking and pressing, where they can feel the warmth and texture of letterpress printing firsthand. The workshop’s growing reputation has made it a must-visit destination for anyone interested in the history of printing. Alongside the lead typefaces and vintage printing machines, photographs, banners, and trophies are some of the most prominent items on display.
For Yam, the workshops represent a fulfillment of his father’s wish and a way to promote letterpress printing to a wider audience. He takes pride in the fact that people can learn about this time-honored craft and appreciate its value as one of China’s Four Great Inventions. Yam believes that it is essential to preserve the history of letterpress printing in Hong Kong and share it with future generations.
Through the workshops, Yam and his team can teach visitors the intricate techniques required for letterpress printing, as well as the importance of preserving traditional crafts. This knowledge is essential for the continued survival of letterpress printing, as well as other traditional crafts, in an age dominated by modern technology.
As the popularity of the workshops grows, Yam is optimistic that more people will discover the beauty and value of letterpress printing. He believes that the workshops offer a unique and authentic experience that cannot be replicated by modern printing methods. For him, the workshops represent a way to keep the legacy of letterpress printing alive, while also introducing it to a new generation.