Monday January 28, 2013
Every word carries weight
AT the Royal Press, every letter and word carries weight.
One Saturday afternoon, I asked Foong Yoke Chan or Ah Chan, the typeface composer at the Royal Press, to design and print for me a business card using the letterpress printing process. The card contains my name, “Alvin Ung,” and the title of my book, Barefoot Leadership.
“Do you want both lines centralised?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“No phone number or address?” she said.
“No need. Only four words,” I said.
Ah Chan pulled out a drawer filled with a few thousand alphanumeric movable type to create a letterpress block. She selected 24 letters that formed “barefoot leadership”; she deftly arranged the pieces of lead along a composing stick – backwards, in mirror image.
“I will use an italicised font for your name,” she said. She walked around the sun-lit room and rummaged through a dozen wooden drawers before selecting the eight letters that comprised my name.
By now, I began to feel bad for troubling her to walk dozens of steps and bend up and down just to compose four words for my business card.
Had I given her my name in Chinese, her task would have increased exponentially – given that there were hundreds of thousands of Chinese words catalogued in endless rows of movable type.
That arcane system of organising the typefaces could be remembered and retrieved by Ah Chan alone.
To finish up the block for my business card, Ah Chan had to insert additional pieces of lead above, below and in between the 18 letters that comprised my name and book title. This process is called “leading.”
“This is the most difficult part of the typesetting job,” said Ah Chan, who has composed typeface for more than five decades. With her skill and experience, it took her 15 minutes to find and arrange 56 pieces of lead, which she lashed together using red-and-white twine. The letterpress block weighed like a purse stuffed with coins.
The block was then inked, fed through a rotating cylinder that pressed paper against the block, and voila, with a loud “kerchunk”, one business card emerged.
“Not bad,” said Ah Chan, as she evaluated the card.
“I love it,” I told her as I held aloft the card. It was sobering and marvellous to behold the physical effort and mental dexterity required to print the four words.
This is this kind of experience that Ee Soon Wei, the managing director of TRP Management Holdings, a Royal Press startup, hopes to create for tourists who visit the company later this year.
“The joy lies in the constant challenge of solving spatial problems – to fit every single piece into a given frame size, tight and neat,” said Ah Chan, who has worked at the Royal Press for 56 years, and who continues to walk to work in the morning and take the trishaw home.
I, too, felt a sudden surge of joy that day. For the first time in decades, I could feel a profound sensation in the palm of my hands: that my name could carry so much weight. – By Alvin Ung