Feature: 70-year-old HK printing shop makes traditional craft lasting impressions

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HONG KONG, April 23 (Xinhua) -- Tucked away on the slope of Sai Street in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong, lies a printing shop that has been in business for nearly 70 years.

Kwong Wah Printing occupies several dozen square meters, of which nearly half is taken up by two printing machines, including an original Heidelberg Windmill that has been in use for over 50 years.

Yam Wai-sang is the second-generation operator of the letterpress printing shop founded by his father. In 1947, his father came to Hong Kong from Heshan, Guangdong, and learned printing from Yam's uncle. In 1954, Kwong Wah was established.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the printing industry in Hong Kong began to take off. With Central and Sheung Wan areas being the center of Hong Kong's prospering banks and other businesses, letterpress printing shops around the area thrived with surging demand for invoices, contracts, envelopes, and letter paper.

"At that time, there were at least more than 200 letterpress printing shops in the Central and Sheung Wan areas," said Yam. "All the complementary shops, including hot stamping, ink, and typecasting companies, could be found in this area."

During the heyday of letterpress printing, it was common for children to inherit their parents' businesses, and a number of family-run printing shops emerged. Yam began working in the industry at around 10 years old, and all of his six siblings started helping out from a young age.

"After school, my father would ask us to go buy lead typeface and ink," he said.

Lead typeface is an indispensable item in letterpress printing. Unlike modern computer typesetting, a single misplaced letter in letterpress printing requires starting all over again.

For Yam, the "composing" process of lead typeface is the most complex and technically demanding. He would carefully select the appropriate font and size with tweezers, place the lead typeface into a wooden tray called a "type case," and adjust the spacing between each letter. The line spacing is adjusted using a thin lead strip.

Once the lead typeface is composed, it is locked and fixed onto a printing plate before being placed into the machine for printing. Unlike modern printers that depend on consumables like ink cartridges, Yam's business uses hundreds of thousands of lead typefaces stored in wooden type cases that are not replenishable.

"If we need 100 lead typefaces for a composition, we can't print if even one character is missing," he said.

Each lead typeface can be used to print between 20,000 and 30,000 times, and every letterpress printer cherishes their typefaces because they cannot be easily replaced once they are worn out -- Yam's childhood experience of buying lead typefaces is now a thing of the past.

Offset printing, which does not require manual typesetting, gradually became popular 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.

Lead typeface and letterpress printing are inseparable, and the closure of typecasting companies dealt what Yam called a "devastating blow" to letterpress printing shops.

Once running a bustling shop, Yam and his wife are now the only ones left to keep the machines running. While modern technology has rendered traditional movable-type printing almost obsolete, he takes pride in this traditional craft for its technical demands and aesthetic appeal.

The selection and arrangement of lead typefaces, the gradation of the ink's tone, and the coordination between humans and machines all require precise manipulation to produce letterpress prints with a special touch of warmth and texture.

Hong Kong's culture conservation programs have brought renewed attention to letterpress printing. Since 2014, movable type printing technique has been listed in the intangible cultural heritage inventory of Hong Kong in the traditional craftsmanship domain.

With the help of Hong Kong heritage conservation groups, Yam now runs his shop as a living museum. Through the influence of social media and the promotion of conservation organizations, he now holds two or three workshops per week, with students and volunteer groups participating.

Visitors carefully appreciate each step of the printing process, from selecting typefaces and typesetting to inking and pressing, to experience the warmth and texture of letterpress printing. As the workshop's reputation grows, its most prominent items, apart from lead typefaces and vintage printing machines, are photographs, banners, and trophies.

"In addition to fulfilling my father's wish, I can also promote letterpress printing and let more people know that letterpress printing, one of China's Four Great Inventions, once had a glorious era in Hong Kong," Yam said. Enditem

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