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Vanishing Hong Kong crafts: the unique magic of wooden movable type

For Peter Lam On, printing was his life – and maybe his lifesaver: from a troubled family, he was homeless and roaming the streets of Hong Kong’s Central district when he was apprenticed to a printer at the age of 10. “At least you’ll have food to eat and a place to stay,” said the friend who recommended he enter the trade.

Now he is passing on a lifetime’s skills to a new generation at the Hong Kong Open Printshop in Shek Kip Mei, to which he donated his precious Heidelberg letterpress printer when he closed his business, Wing On Printing Press in Aberdeen Street, Central, three years ago.

The word “apprentice” brings to mind a diligent trainee receiving instructions and tips from a master; however, that was hardly the case. To retain their skilled employees and avoid a brain drain, masters at the time would not immediately pass on the skills of operating a printing press or directly teach the apprentices. Instead, Lam learnt most of the trade’s techniques by secretly observing the more experienced workers at the printing shop in Gutzlaff Street, Central.

He spent the first five to six years there assembling boards of wooden movable type, meticulously picking out the blocks he needed – character by character – from cabinets. It was the humble beginning to a career that would span six decades, during which Lam witnessed the rise and fall of the printing industry in Hong Kong.

In 1973, Lam, then 25, finally left the printing shop in Gutzlaff Street to found his own company. With his savings, he made a downpayment on a second-hand Heidelberg letterpress, which was the most versatile press at the time. It could imprint, perforate and punch and work with various paper stocks. It cost HK$14,000, the equivalent of two years’ income for an average worker at the time, which Lam paid in three instalments. As for the blocks of movable type, he had to slowly accumulate them – buying several at a time or just a particular one when he needed that character.

His biggest clients were manufacturers in the booming textile industry, such as the Siberian Fur Store Ltd. A fastidious craftsman, Lam always had a hands-on approach to the job in order to consistently produce high-quality work.

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“My principle is very simple. The most important thing is to offer a fair price. And if the result isn’t satisfactory, keep trying until it is,” says Lam, whose high standards earned him loyal customers that employed his services until his retirement.

He had one intriguing rule for clients: “Don’t visit me at the store.” Lam preferred dealing with customers over the phone. “Why would you come to the store and disturb me? I am a craftsman, you only needed to see my handiwork. And if the product was not okay, I would redo it.”

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With the rise of digital printing, business began declining for Lam in 2000. With his health and strength also declining, he finally shut up shop in 2013. Some of the apprentices he trained have retired too; others opened their own printing businesses.

While today we can print whatever we want almost instantly with the click of a mouse, for Lam, letterpress printing is irreplaceable. “With offset printing, two hard surfaces collide to create the print, which ends up looking very rigid. But with wooden movable type, it’s a soft surface on a hard surface and the result is a lot more three-dimensional,” says Lam. “And every single print-out looks different.”

He and other master printers will share their stories and skills at the seventh annual Hong Kong Graphic Art Fiesta, a month-long celebration of the art of wooden movable type.

Organised by and held at the Hong Kong Open Printshop, it also includes an exhibition tracing the development of printing in Hong Kong and workshops on how to operate an Adana letterpress printer.

The Story of Movable Type, The Hong Kong Graphic Art Fiesta, November 19-December 18, 1pm-6pm, L8-06 Open Gallery, Hong Kong Open Printshop, Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, 30 Pak Tin Street, Shek Kip Mei, Kowloon. For inquiries: https://www.facebook.com/pg/hkopenprintshop/photos/?tab=albumalbum_id=939829442788521