“Oh, that’s pretty cool”, I remarked about some metal types to which Sun Yao Yu of Typesetting.sg gently corrected me and replied, “Oh, ‘cool’, when we say it’s cool, but it’s actually a nightmare for the printer”. These are little tidbits you’ll learn when you spend an afternoon with Yao Yu, a man determined to preserve what’s left of our letterpress culture and heritage in Singapore.
It was an overcast Tuesday afternoon, and I found myself in Golden Mile Complex, better known as Little Thailand of Singapore. It’s a dizzying mix of loud, boisterous, fresh fruits in one corner flooded with the glow of neon lights and quite possibly the best Thai boat noodles ever. Yes, Golden Mile Complex is an exuberant pastiche of everything that seems frozen in time and hopefully immune to the horrors of redevelopment.
Things took a quieter turn from the cacophonous halls of Golden Mile Complex as I made my way to Typesetting.sg’s studio in the office building. In a seemingly never-ending hallway of office spaces, here is a room housing the last few Chinese metal types and carefully preserved letterpress machines that Yao Yu has painstakingly saved from old print shops. I knocked on the door, and I was ushered into a room that one might mistake for a stamp store.
A brief history of letterpress in Singapore
I didn’t know where to begin to uncover the stories they told with custom-made typecase cabinets with thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of metal types. In various corners of the room, there were printing presses worn and rusted with time, from what I can guess. A collector’s den, if you will. Yao Yu begins to show me around, starting with the Chinese metal types.
“Just this—this is actually the Chinese type used in the olden days of Singapore”, Yao Yu pulls out a typecase full of neatly arranged slate grey Chinese types. “I think it should be around 1960 to 1980s. This is the original type used in the Chinese newspaper called ‘Sin Chew Jit Poh’”. As my finger grazed over the intricate grooves of the Chinese type, I thought, surely someone must care about these pieces of history.
As though he heard me, Yao Yu continues, “Singapore does not have a printing museum. We basically don’t have any place that talks about what is letterpress printing. Even though this has been a very big portion of the industry for almost 200 years, this form of printing has been in Singapore since 1823, that’s almost 198 years of letterpress”, he finished rather sadly.
If you didn’t know, letterpress has been around since the 15th century and is regarded as one of the most important inventions because without it; we wouldn’t even be reading text on this screen.
Hunting for metal types in a haystack
A graphic designer by trade, Yao Yu picked up the craft during his time in university and began to delve deeper into the culture. He attended workshops and learned about the history of letterpress in Singapore. This leads him to scavenge in old printing shops for these now-defunct printing presses from old printers. It’s a rather fruitless and disappointing endeavour, with print shops quickly donating their printing presses as scrap metal in exchange for snazzy xerox machines.
Sometimes, he’s too late, and metal types and letterpress are lost forever. Then, glimmers of hope, and Yao Yu manages to get his hands on these lost metal types. Still, they are not enough; Yao Yu gestures at the metal types and tells me that they are utterly random and you can’t even form a complete sentence with them. It’s an uphill battle, but one that Yao Yu persists in.
While Yao Yu has taken part in a few exhibitions over the years, his focus is more on education. With his workshops, he hopes to let the younger generation understand the toil and backbreaking work printers had to go through to report the daily news.
Before the invention of inkjet, printing was a lot more manual and tedious than you can imagine and much more difficult than typing into a Google doc. Everything had to be done by hand; if you can imagine, there are 26 letters in the English alphabet and over 3 million Chinese characters.
A printer would have to have rather brilliant organisation skills to sort out these different characters and arrange them accurately day in and day out. Yao Yu tries to give a picture of the reality at that time, “Imagine there are 50,000 different unit compartments, and you have to memorise every single component by heart. […] It’s not cool, it’s not special; it is a nightmare. But somehow, in our generation, we all often see this as cool and interesting. But believe me, standing for 15 hours, seven days a week for 40, 50 years is not really that cool”.
200 years of Letterpress and beyond
While Yao Yu might have a different definition of what ‘cool’ is, I venture to think that printing and letterpress practices are indeed cool because they are the basis of everything we do today. Font size, font type, spacing, indent all these terms came about because someone had to choose these specifications and set them in place.
Not only that, letterpress and printing serve as an excellent living example of perhaps the swift and sometimes harsh onrushing changes that technology has brought with it.
“Things phase out,” Yao Yu continues as he shows me around the studio, “Letterpress has been phased out. However, we are doing all of this as this is regarded as the most important invention in human history. It is the turning point for civilisation. Without printing, without information, without knowledge, without the ability to distribute, we won’t have a modern society”.
As the afternoon waned on, I learned about woodblock prints used during the Seventh Month, precious Tamil type foundry that is carefully preserved, and how we would be approaching 200 years of letterpress in Singapore soon.
Like many people pursuing any artistic endeavour, they are all painfully aware of impracticality and the cost of going down this often lonely path. Yet, they beat on like Yao Yu, saving one metal type at a time. And for that, I’m grateful.
If you want to learn more about letterpress and typesetting in Singapore, Typesetting.sg conducts workshops where you can create your own print and pick his brain on the wealth of information he has on letterpress. All you have to do is sign up here, and the world of printing and letterpress await.
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5001 Beach Road, Golden Mile Complex, #06-62, Singapore 199588
5001 Beach Road, Golden Mile Complex, #06-62, Singapore 199588