Wai Che Printing Company
One of the Last Remaining Letterpress Shop in Hong Kong
By Jessica Chhou
As trends tend to resurface ever so few years, it appears letterpress printing has made its comeback within the art and design community. While the Western letterpress printing has made a revival, what was once considered one of the Four Great Inventions of Ancient China is no longer a sustainable practice.
Although many are unaware, the earliest origins of letterpress were actually conducted in the land of the Far East. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Bi Sheng invented the Movable Type. He carved individual characters on identical pieces of fine clay that would eventually be fired to be durable for printing. This concept of mass-producing literature developed very quickly. The introduction of printing in China dramatically lowered the price of books, thus aiding the spread of literacy. It also gave a boost to the development of drama and other forms of popular culture as the scripts became inexpensive to produce. Eventually, the art became popular, and advancements lead movable type to being composed from wood, lead, tin, and copper. From copper type, became a very influencing concept to the great Johannes Gutenberg..
As Movable Type was one of the greatest technological advances defining typography, it is upsetting to see Wai Che Printing Company being the last remaining letterpress shop in Hong Kong in 2012. From Central to Sheung Wan, the streets used to be filled with printers, print shops, and other paper-related storefronts. The shop’s 81-year old owner Lee Chak Yu has preserved its bilingual lead type collection and original Heidelberg Cylinder machine for over 50 years.
Upon entering the Chinese letterpress shop, there are rows of shelves of type. Instead of using a type drawer, the Chinese characters were typically stored in cube shelving with the type stacked into a column. They face outward for easy identification and access. However, with the vast language, it became very difficult to create a system to categorize the type. They had no alphabet, and with new words evolving, there were endless Chinese characters. In practice, it would be difficult to work with more than 45,000 unique characters. Typesetting in Chinese was a challenge and the accuracy needed was on a whole different level especially when the characters were made of many radicals and ideograms. Running a Chinese letterpress shop would require an enormous storage space and at least 4,000 commonly used characters. Many businesses were affected when they were unable to source new characters when needed. Little by little, the print shops in Hong Kong shut down, including the last one standing, Wai Che Printing Company.
The space where Wai Che lies was under high demand due to development and gentrification. Similar to the shops around, the government wanted to take over to use it for redevelopment. However, the owner wanted to turn his shop into a museum. Lee Chak Yu wanted to spread the knowledge of movable type and engage the visitors into hands-on activities of letterpress. He wanted to show the visitors the history of the neighborhood of Sheung Wan and educate the ways things were before the digital age.
Sadly, his idea did not catch on and on one winter day, the shop was all packed up and moved to a different location. It appears Lee Chak Yu would not have his shop as a historic museum. He left with optimism as one day he can share his stories of the past.