Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Dying Art - Chinese Letterpress Printing


Cabinet storing the lead types

Chinese letterpress printing with movable type is a dying art, especially in a fast-paced city, like Hong Kong. Back in 2012, the closure of Wai Che Printing Company in Wing Lee Street was probably one of the saddest moments for all letterpress enthusiasts in Hong Kong.

Although there are still quite a few small print shops around Central and Sheung Wan districts that use movable types, the industry is counting down its final days.

Happy Printing Co., one of the last remaining Chinese letterpress print shops in Hong Kong that still use movable types. 

Reason calling the shop Happy? Yes, there is one. 

“Because the working environment in letterpress printing industry is very bad and there are very little ways to change this, so why not just make it sounds a bit more positive? Happiness is good!” Mr Kwan told me. Owners, Mr and Mrs Kwan, started the business in late 1970s right after they married and moved to the current address in 1980s.

Most of the lead types are worn out now

Characters are organised by radical or common combination of terms/expressions. The cabinet was once filled up with at least 4,000 commonly-used Chinese characters, available in different sizes. And now? Only less than half of them left.

Since the last Chinese type making shop of Hong Kong closed in early 2000s, it is now very hard for local letterpress print shops to find replacements for their types. Repairing a broken type doesn't seem to be an option as most of the type makers in Hong Kong are retired and can only help very little.

That basically means, once a type is too worn-out, it will be long gone. Print shops in Taiwan are a bit luckier, because there is still a type maker who insists to preserve this artistic craftsmanship. RESPECT!

 Holding a lead type character, 號, literally means number in Chinese

Geek Talk: Chinese type is using its own size measuring system. Unlike the popular point system using in western desktop publishing industry, in Chinese type sizing system, the larger the size number, the smaller the type. Its measuring unit is called 號. The one shown above is a size 7, which is an equivalent to 5.5 pt (also called ruby in UK or agate in US).

Quick fact: 5.5pt is also one of the most popular font sizes for Terms and Conditions or any mouseprint in DTP, because this size is good for saving space and still reasonably readable but no one would actually pay attention to read it. Lovely.
Print shop owner, Mr Kwan, demonstrating how the machine works

Mr Kwan bought a second-hand Heidelberg Platen in late 1970s and since then has been using it for thirty-something years. However, business demand of letterpress printing is decreasing since late 1980s. The extensive application of offset and digital printing nowadays is something nobody could tell in the past.

Colour is fading

Mrs Kwan can still recall the price of this machine was about $30000HKD, which could buy a family a decent 500 sq. ft. apartment back in the 70s.

Custom-made mould on plate

The shop still keeps the previously custom-made moulds. Those are mainly company letterhead and shop receipt templates.

“You will never know when the customers will come back.” Mr Kwan said. He also added, custom making a plate mould would usually take him 1-2 hours. From layout design to typesetting, including proof-reading the whole plate set.

Interested To Learn More About Chinese Letterpress?

If you happen to be in Hong Kong, here is the info for you to participate in a Chinese letterpress workshop!

- Printing Art Gallery of Youth Square

Mr Lee, owner of the former Wai Che Printing Company, holds monthly letterpress workshop and guided tour at Youth Square. There is also a regular exhibition of Chinese movable letterpress printing history there. You will have a chance to take a closer look at the old printing machine and metal Chinese types.

Address: 5/F, Youth Square, 238 Chai Wan Road, Chai Wan, Hong Kong
Opening Hours: Mon-Sun 08:00-23:00

- 活字寶手作坊

A group of letterpress enthusiasts in Hong Kong organises Chinese letterpress workshop with Kwong Wah Printing Company in Sheung Wan occasionally. Check out their facebook page for update of the next workshop. Cantonese session available only but may be worth asking if they can conduct an exclusive English session ;)

Valuing Traditional Arts And History Of Our Community

The visit to Happy Printing Co. gave me a flashback of the good old school days studying desktop publishing. I am never a letter-spacing or kerning police (even though I do always critique/BS fonts on menu when going to a restaurant), it's refreshing to see how people do letter-spacing on letterpress plate using metal straps. That's something I could only find on textbook before!

Redevelopment plan carried by Hong Kong Urban Renewal Authority has arrived in Tai Kok Tsui. I hope Happy Printing Company and its neighborhood can be saved from the wrecking ball.

I have a feeling, sooner or later, Hong Kong will become a complete concrete jungle, or even worse, a human zoo run by our own government. I am not quite sure if having more high-rise buildings filled up with even more luxury residential units is the thing I would be happy to see in Hong Kong. I found Hong Kong a charming and unique place because it used to have a balance between the good old and new bits.


  1. I am a digitalrev fan and I got to your blog through them. Very well written piece!
    You should probably check out 18 Pitt Street (碧街18號), they have a whole set of Chinese types, not sure what they will do with them though. hope to see workshops coming in the future

    1. Oh yeah! I heard of 18 Pitt Street but not sure if they still open to public, they once had a workshop/weekend market there but I missed the date.

  2. I also got to your blog through drtv. You should write more often! Thenerdytravelholic feels very personal and some of your thoughts doesn't even get mentioned in other travel blogs. Great photos and although there are some grammar mistakes you are improving with each post, don't stop! :)

    1. Thanks for the support :D I would try my very best to update here more often!

  3. I found your blog via instagram discover hong kong post, really glad that I read your post and went to visit the gallery in Hong Kong, located quite far from city center, but really nice to see the machinery on display. Thanks for the post :)


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