A great thing about moving back to Hong Kong after four years, is being able to rediscover the city again as an adult and find new treasures. One of these is Wing Lee Street in Sheung Wan district–an old street retaining its original 1960s flavour–which gained a lot of attention after the award-winning movie, Echoes of the Rainbow (歲月神偷) was filmed there last year. It also happens to be home to one of the last letterpress stores in Hong Kong with collections of both English and Chinese lead type. The area is extremely steep as it goes uphill, and until this day is still only accessible by walking up stairs, therefore the cheap rent was ideal for printing businesses that didn’t make a lot to open their stores there.
I had the opportunity to visit Wai Che Printing Company and speak to the owner about the history of Chinese movable type. Mr. Lee, the 81-year-old printer has operated on Wing Lee Street for many years. Printers like Mr. Lee were born into their industry, with generations of their family in the same trade. Even though the store is no longer in business, the lead type still sits on the shelve exactly as it did many years ago, preserving a bit of Chinese culture. In the 1950s, Mr. Lee paid $140,000 HKD for his Original Heidelberg Cylinder machine, which was enough at the time to buy land in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, while increasing population density has caused property prices to rise rapidly over the decades, Mr. Lee’s investment has now become a rusty piece of metal only for display.
Since mainland China introduced Simplified Chinese in 1956, few places left still use Traditional Chinese characters therefore I was very lucky to see Wai Chi’s collection of Chinese lead type. It was very interesting to learn about setting type bilingually, especially as Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997. I also learnt that Rixing Typography in Taipei has a much larger and complete collection of type and tabletop platens which I have not seen before! Perhaps this is a reason to make a short visit to Taiwan this summer…
And lastly, for my little announcement: I previously expressed my love for the design blog, IDSGN, so imagine how excited I was when the opportunity arose to become a contributing writer for them! After my visit to Wai Che Printing Company, my first article, The End of Movable Type in China, was published last week. The full article with more detail and photographs can be found here. Thanks for all the retweets, comments and e-mails… I’ll be writing for them again soon!