By the Deathbed of an Old Trade
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Walking up and down the steep, narrow streets of old Sheung Wan in the gross humidity that Hong Kong summers are famous for, I’m with my printing mentor, Mr Red, here to visit a handful of small print shops and suppliers. Most people probably don’t pay too much attention to these tiny little shops, and one by one they are closing up to be replaced by more hip cafes and boutiques. We jostle with well-dressed young professionals on the sidewalks who come over from Central district for lunch.
‘See all these rich people drive over here in their BMWs and Mercedes to line-up and eat at these local diners,’ Mr Red chuckles.
These simple diners (or ones similar) were around when Mr Red worked near here in the 70s and 80s. Like much about Hong Kong, these establishments are ridiculously cramped. You walk like a crab to move amongst the tightly packed tables, which you will most likely share with strangers, and one feels obliged to eat in a hurry so as to make room for those standing over you waiting for their turn. But it’s fashionable to come here. These places have become famous establishments – it’s the ‘real’ Hong Kong, you see.
Back in Mr Red’s days, Sheung Wan was teeming with small print shops, but now, not many of this remains to be seen. Much of the business has moved to printing factories operating across the border in Shenzhen where labour is cheaper. The few places that are still around are run by old hands like Mr Red himself.
The first one we enter has the familiar dimness of an old shop, with only a couple of fluorescent tubes lighting up key work areas. An AB Dick one-colour offset litho press, similar to Mr Red’s before he retired, takes up the front part of the shop. And like most other small print shops, the space that remains is crowded with other print related machinery and supplies: a large electric guillotine and a plate exposure unit, tins of inks and stacks of paper.
The place is quiet with little sign of activity. It turns out his old colleague who runs the place has just gone out for lunch, but his wife is at the back, and on seeing us, she instantly recognises Mr. Red.
‘Such a good memory!’ Mr Red praises Mrs Lam.
It has no doubt been many years as Mr Red’s business has been Kowloon-side for the last decade of his career. They talk with ease and familiarity. Mr Red asks her how business is doing. Mrs Lam sighs and says, ‘You know how it is, just some old customers.’
‘Not too many new clients, walk-ins?’
‘Well there are a few, but Mr Lam doesn’t want to pick them up. The other month, some Indian fella kept wanting help with stuff but my husband shooed him out of the shop, said the first job we did for him was too troublesome!’
‘Well,’ Mr Red smiles, ‘none of us are young anymore, we don’t have to break our backs working. It’s now just about having enough to do from keeping bored.’
‘Yes,’ she agrees.
I love hearing their banter, their brief mentions of happenings from long ago. Such a different time and place they speak of when compared to the Hong Kong of today. After some more small talk and exchange of news, Mr Red asks Mrs Lam to pass on his regards to his old friend and we say our goodbyes. Onwards we move to a printer further up the steep and narrow street.
We enter the door and see a man similar in age to Mr Red, about sixty, but with less hair and bespectacled. He is beside his press mixing a spot colour, or ‘brick colour’ as it’s known in Cantonese, in reference to its solidity. He looks up as Mr Red greets him and instantly flashes a wide grin, delighted to see an old face. Pleasantries are exchanged as he continues mixing. He seems frustrated at not being able to get the exact shade so Mr Red, being quite the pro at this, jumps straight in to help. As they work on getting the right colour, Mr Red explains to Mr Wing my story: a young man interested in running his own small print shop back in Australia. Mr Wing is gracious and says if there’s anything he can help with I simply have to ask, to which I thank him.
On listening in as they chatted, I get the impression Mr Wing is a little more consumed by his work than Mr Red when he had his business. Mr Red not only mastered his trade but he managed to have a life outside it, albeit a simple one. Now, he is happily retired with enough money saved to travel the world with his wife and see out the rest of his days comfortably. Having balance doesn’t seem to be the case with Mr Wing today, still working with a sense of urgency, his shop visibly cluttered with various jobs on hand. I relate to Mr Wing in his determination to take on whatever comes his way, but I’m glad to have Mr Red as an example of someone who has gotten his priorities right in life.
Mr Red finishes helping Mr Wing mix the colour he needs and proceeds to load the ink onto the ink rollers of his two-colour press. We leave him to finish his job as we go to visit one last printer.
Mr Dou has to be in his seventies, pottering around in his shop as we came in. He is a friendly old man who has more machinery than anyone else we’ve visited, including a beautiful 1950s Heidelberg letterpress. Noting my interest, Mr Dou, with a visible twinkle in his eyes, excitedly tells me all about it. I’m very impressed with his metal type collection that not only has English characters but hundreds upon hundreds of Chinese ones also. Seeing that I found this highly fascinating, he gives me a handful as a souvenir, from one avid print fan to another. I thank him for his generosity. Out of all the printers, I found Mr Dou the most endearing. He seems to truly love what he does.
Soon, these shops will no longer be around, which is a sad thought. There is a certain authenticity attached to them that helps define the real Hong Kong to me. It isn’t the malls or the dazzling skyline, but these ‘old hands’ and their small businesses that imbue the city with what little remaining charm it has. If you find yourself there, keep an eye out for these little gems, before they all get snuffed out by globalisation, big business and our modern way of life.
Dickson grew up in Perth and studied graphic design at Curtin Uni before going back to where his parents came from to run amok. During his 7 or so years in Hong Kong and mainland China, he dabbled in teaching English, slaved away at ‘creative’ design agencies and explored the motherland. He now runs Central Server, a print and design studio in the Perth CBD, together with his wife.