Mr. Chan and the Machine




Mr. Chan and the Machine by Caitlin Dwyer

June 16th, 2013 reset - +

IT SOUNDS LIKE A WOMAN GASPING over and over, in constant astonishment. She gasps twice. The first note holds, a drawn breath; then a quick exhale and a deep, compressive sigh. The repetition makes a shuffle beat, taah ta TAH, taah ta TAH, taah ta TAH: cymbal dragging behind the snare, syncopated on the off-count.

Covered in a layer of grease and ink, the machine looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel. It runs about the length of a dining room table and rises to shoulder height. Individual pieces shudder and click: blackened teeth ticking over gears; arms grabbing pieces of paper and burying them in the bowels; chutes spitting them back into neat, collated piles. A plaque, suspended atop an iron bar like an antenna, reads ORIGINAL HEIDELBERG. The letters might once have been gold, or at least burnished, but are now greased black. Mr. Chan says the machine is between 55 and 60 years old.

As the machine depletes the stack of papers — an advertisement for free drinks at a local bar — Mr. Chan places a towel beneath the stack. When he does this, the papers tilt up at an angle. “Easier,” says Mr. Chan, miming a grabbing motion. He changes the position of the towel as the stack gets shorter.

His glasses have fallen down his tiny fleur-de-lis nose. He absently pushes them back up and leans back on his heels. In house slippers and a burgundy sweater-vest, he looks more ready to crack a beer on the couch than deal with industrial machinery. His potbelly protrudes just slightly, but for a man in his sixties, Mr. Chan moves well, with the languid attention of someone who has spent his life on his feet. He is among the few remaining people in Hong Kong who know how to operate a printer like this, who have spent their lives nursing the convulsions and enduring the clamor; one of the last for whom a beautiful, weird machine like this is a day at work, rather than an exercise in nostalgia.

Mr. Chan’s shop smells of ramen noodles and ink. Degreasers sit on shelves; stacks of paper; a machine for cutting name cards. Another man holds a piece of paper to the light, squinting through it. The shop could exist at any point within the last century, except for a cell phone charging in the back.

Mr. Chan occasionally collects and shuffles the papers into stacks. He sits in the swivel office chair on the stoop. Much of his job, it seems, is waiting. Being present with the machine, attuned to its needs, ministering to its moods.

A tourist could find Mr. Chan’s print shop by turning down an alley near the Gage Street wet market. On either side of the alley, central Hong Kong teems with commercial activity. But hardly anyone walks down this way. Scrawled with graffiti, the alley collects forgotten items — screws and wires, air ducts, a stack of plastic chairs and an empty slop bucket — which mark the back entrance to the Shanghai Kitchen. From the market drift the smells of carnations and rot, which mingle with the ink to make a sour, unpleasant perfume.

Like this alley, traditional print culture in Hong Kong has nearly been forgotten. “It’s a sunset industry,” Mr. Chan says, slipping a hand onto a lever. One yank, and the machine shudders to a stop. “Nowadays no one needs envelopes.”

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Fifty years ago, the area around Mr. Chan’s shop would have been filled with the snapping and whirring of print machines. Hong Kong’s post-war print industry centered around the hillsides of SoHo and Sheung Wan, old neighborhoods perched above the central commercial district. Mr. Chan moved the family business to Hong Kong Island from Kowloon, across Victoria Harbor, to join the boom. “All my friends were here,” he says. He remembers the entire street full of print shops. Most of them have long disappeared, their workshops turned into tapas bars, their machines disassembled and sold for parts. Only Mr. Chan and few others remain, tucked down alleys: the remnants of a dying industry.

Most of the mid-century printers used a machine like Mr. Chan’s: the Original Heidelberg Platen Press, produced in West Germany by the Schnellpressenfabrik AG Heidelberg. In the postwar era, Heidelberg printers were the cream of the crop, the ultimate in engineering. Fully automated, pneumatic presses like Mr. Chan’s became an industry standard. His machine earned the nickname The Windmill, for the flying arms that scooped and fed paper into the printer — an innovation that made it one of Heidelberg’s most successful products.

The Heidelberg company hasn’t produced a printer like Mr. Chan’s in 30 years; they, along with the rest of the industry, transitioned to offset printing starting in the late 1960s. But no one has produced a better product since, Mr. Chan insists.

“One thing that I really like about it is it’s machinery. It doesn’t require fixing. It’s from Germany, and they use really good quality parts and it doesn’t break down easily,” he says. I ask how he fixes it when it does need repair.

“It never breaks down,” he says. I stare at him, unbelieving. He stops and gazes at the florescent lights, searching memory, to make sure. “Yes, forty years it has never broken down. It still has all the original parts.” He runs one finger over the body of the Heidelberg. “Only chipped paint.”

The bestial, snorting machine is so different from today’s technology, where all the functions are miniaturized and hidden inside a sleek silver package, like an iPod. Mr. Chan's machine looks like it should require elaborate repair. And yet, we replace our phones year after year, while the ORIGINAL HEIDELBERG chugs on.

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Inside Youth Square, it is cold and air-conditioned and feels like school. A mottled grey carpet runs under fluorescent lights. Teenagers sit at tables, bent over books, sharing bags of potato chips, tapping thumbs on smartphones. A short walk from the metro in Chai Wan, the last stop on the Hong Kong Island line, the Youth Square community center has a dance studio, a hostel, and private study rooms. It also now houses the complete contents of the former Wai Che Printing Company.

Along a narrow raised platform, two Heidelberg printers lie on their backs like overturned beetles. Their knobs and arms poke stiffly into the air, the greased black shells silent and still. Around the corner, the rest of the Wai Che company sits under lights on a separate platform. Held up by their original rusty tables, covered in a fine layer of machinery dust, sit the Blueprinting Machine, the Eyelet Machine, the Hand-Press Printing Machine, the Lead Sheet Cutter, and the Electrical Long-Reach Stapler. The Adana Thermograph originally came from Twickenham, England, at least according to the plaque; it was used to emboss business cards by flash-melting white powder. A conveyor grille over the top once sucked the powdered cards inside and spit them out again, gleaming, tattooed with raised type. A cardboard box nearby is full of brass tacks.

The Wai Che Printing Company operated for 60 years in Mr. Chan’s neighborhood. It specialized in moveable type: metal letters laid manually onto the press. In Chinese, this involves thousands of characters; it can take hours to set a paragraph. When Wai Che closed its doors in December 2012, Hong Kong lost one of its last manual letterpresses. An artist and curator, Mr. Stanley Wong, arranged for the shop’s contents, including its files, clock, and the desk where the owner did his accounts, to become an exhibition in Youth Square.

The display intends to educate the youth of Hong Kong about heritage printing, the sign reads. A black-and-white video imbedded in the wall shows Mr. Stanley Wong directing the machines into place. In the video, he wears hipster glasses and a scarf. He gazes lovingly at the machines: no longer functional, they now await the reverence of museum pieces. Admiration, protectiveness: this is how curators look at an objet d'art. It is not the way Mr. Chan sometimes glares at his machine, like it’s a stubborn family member.

Teenage girls wander past, chatting in Cantonese. The hallway is narrow and there are no distractions, nothing to look at except the huge black carapaces of dead machinery. The students do not look up. One seems absorbed in her phone, a pink earbud dangling on her shoulder. The other girls, in woolen school uniforms, prance by without even noticing the display.

I sit for two hours, watching to see if anyone stops. No one does.

Finally, one boy walks by slowly, his eyes scanning the displays. He wears a blue school polo and has a pudgy face. When he stops to look at a box of moveable type, I swoop in. “What do you think of the machines?” I ask him.

He looks at me from behind the simultaneous disdain and awkwardness of adolescence. “It’s very old,” he says finally, and turns away.

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The first mechanized printer arrived in Hong Kong in 1843, courtesy of the London Missionary society. Just after the British took control of Hong Kong Island, the Society decided to move its Asian operations from the Straits of Malacca, in what is now modern Malaysia, to the new colony. Reverend James Legge sailed into Hong Kong Harbor bearing his evangelical zeal and a printing press. “It is true that to move from Malacca to Hong-Kong is a great step in advance — a long march nearer to the seat where Satan has enthroned his power; and so far there is reason for joy in the movement,” he wrote in a letter. His printer churned out religious material, but also translations and Chinese literature.

In 1870, a Shanghai man who had studied under Legge, Wang Tao, bought the press. Wang had worked as a translator of Chinese classics and penned a travelogue about his tour of Europe with Legge; after he acquired the press, he began to print a popular Chinese newspaper called The Universal Circulating Herald. A supporter of parliamentary democracy and educational reform, Wang helped establish the commercial print industry in Hong Kong. His printing house was a short walk from where Mr. Chan’s shop is today.

Nearly a century after the first printer arrived in Hong Kong, Mr. Chan began his apprenticeship. His father had bought the Heidelberg Windmill after the war and passed the family business on to his teenage son. Today, letterpress printing is a craft industry, experiencing a nostalgic revival in the U.S. and the U.K. In Mr. Chan’s youth, those romantic associations didn’t matter; printers simply made a good living.

Print apprentices usually trained for three years, Mr. Chan says. When he finally inherited the press and moved the business to Hong Kong Island, he made enough to support a family.

“The machine watched my kids grow up,” he says. The business paid for his children to attend college; both now work in casinos in Macau. I ask if his children know how to use the ORIGINAL HEIDELBERG. He laughs. “They don’t know how to use the machine and they don’t want to know.”

Around 20 years ago, his print work began disappearing. Larger, faster machines took the high-volume jobs; then computers made ink even more obsolete. Mr. Chan still prints small-batch jobs, anything under 1,000 copies. He specializes in the thin, fragile paper used to make receipts. Nowadays, nobody could make a living as a printer, he says. You can’t raise a family on an antique.

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“It’s kind of like driving a car.” Mr. Chan pulls on a lever with a bulbous red head near the base. The machine immediately reacts: its wings fold out, the flying arms scoop paper away. He grins, exposing his few remaining teeth and set of uneven dimples, which skew at different angles when he smiles.

Since the Wai Che exhibit, I’ve started to worry about what will happen to Mr. Chan’s machine in the future. I ask if he has plans to take on an apprentice or train a new generation in Hong Kong’s printing heritage.

His raised eyebrows say: Get real. “It’s not necessary to learn how to use it now, because it’s not going to earn you anything,” he says, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t want my kids to use it.”

Then, abruptly, he leans into the levers and the machine stills. He turns, speaking more directly than he ever has before. “Even though it’s an antique, no one appreciates it — no one knows how to use it and there’s not enough space,” he says. His eyebrows droop over his eyes. One hand remains on the lever, resting on a knob a few inches from the end. He doesn’t even look at it. His hand just finds the knob, knows where it is by touch.

“What will happen to the Windmill when you retire?” I ask.

“They will take it apart and sell it for parts,” he says simply. I ask if he will feel sad, but he shakes his head no. It is, in the end, just a machine.

“You could donate it to a museum,” I say. I realize at this point I am not so much asking questions as making suggestions — almost pleading with him.

“They wouldn’t take it. There’s no value in it.” With a shrug of his shoulders, Mr. Chan tilts a new stack of papers onto the plate. A few shifts of knobs and levers, and the ORIGINAL HEIDELBERG kicks into action: a roar of compression and convulsion, paper disappearing between its black molars.

Mr. Chan reaches for a San Miguel can, rattles it, finds it empty, places it back on the desk. After a lifetime of standing with the machine, nursing it, tweaking it, waiting for it, he doesn’t see the value in preserving it as an artifact. “There’s not much point in not putting it to work,” he says.

Mr. Chan turns to begin sorting the finished papers. The machine gasps on in the background, permanently out of breath. Down the street, men in suits are hurrying along crowded sidewalks and women are sliding up glass buildings with views of the harbor. Ten steps from Mr. Chan’s stoop, you can’t even hear the ORIGINAL HEIDELBERG; it’s just another rattle among urban noise, a sigh lost in the roar of a city pushing forward.

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Caitlin Dwyer is a freelance writer who wrote and taught in southern China for the last three years.

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