Heritage letterpress from Malacca ends its KL stay with exhibition


3 A cylinder press machine used to print newspapers during The Royal Press’ heyday. IZZRAFIQ ALIAS / The Star. September 6, 2016.

Everything is gathering dust in this space – artefacts, machinery, half-forgotten ideas. The Royal Press building is leaky and creaky, water seeps through the walls, supporting beams are termite-infested, floor tiles cracked, and the upper timber floor is sagging.

It is, indeed, a far cry from its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. But within the dilapidated letterpress printing house in Malacca, founded in 1938, is a dream waiting to be realised.

Ee Soon Wei, grandson of The Royal Press founder Ee Lay Swee, had no inkling that this is the path his curiosity would take him. He had spent some time abroad, and not long after returning to Malaysia, decided that he wanted to document this piece of family history that is inextricably tied to the letterpress world.

“All I wanted to do was to find out more about the family history. I wanted to find out where my grandparents came from, I wanted to learn to write my Chinese name! That was all there was to it,” says the KL-born Ee, 36.

Ee Soon Wei, grandson of The Royal Press founder Ee Lay Swee.
Ee Soon Wei, grandson of The Royal Press founder Ee Lay Swee.

One thing led to another, and the initial idea of documentation for posterity quickly turned into an aspiration to convert the old letterpress printing house into a living museum where visitors can step into the past, into a world where letterpress is not just at the centre of the universe, but in the hearts of the whole community.

But there was a problem.

The premises in Malacca had structural issues and deemed unfit to be used as a living museum. With a major overhaul long overdue, it closed its doors to the public in preparation for building restoration, and relocated artefacts and machines to Art Printing Works (APW) in Kuala Lumpur in 2014, a commercial printing facility owned by the Ee family.

The Heidelberg windmill letterpress machine is still used today in The Royal Press’ product development efforts.
The Heidelberg windmill letterpress machine is still used today in The Royal Press’ product development efforts.

This was no easy feat as The Royal Press, on top of numerous heavy printing machines, has a letter-block library that houses over 150,000 blocks in four different language types (Roman alphabet, Chinese characters, and Arabic and Tamil script), a reflection of the multi-cultural society that the printing house has served throughout the decades.

At its peak, over 30 employees made up the workforce behind the printed medicine boxes, calendars, liquor labels, wine labels and old bus tickets that are now, for many, items that are a reminder of the nostalgic past.

The Royal Team’s preservation efforts have been ongoing at APW for the past two years. This month marks The Royal Press’ final month in the capital city before returning to its home in Malacca, where the living museum is tentatively expected to open its doors to the public in early 2018.

3 A cylinder press machine used to print newspapers during The Royal Press’ heyday. IZZRAFIQ ALIAS / The Star. September 6, 2016.
A cylinder press machine used to print newspapers during The Royal Press’ heyday.

The two-week 2929 exhibition at APW highlights The Royal Press story, including its journey with its supporters (Yayasan Sime Darby, CIMB Foundation, Novista, The Alphabet Press, Fine Paper Takeo, Universiti Malaya, multi-award winning designer Prof Phil Cleaver and letterpress machine technician Liew Kim Seng). This exhibition will run till Sept 25.

There are talks scheduled during the exhibition duration, including a session with cultural architect Ch’ng Sao Inn, who leads the restoration project of The Royal Press museum, and The Royal Press resident researchers Ngui Han Leong and Liew Siew Boon.

“The beauty of letterpress is that the process is very ‘real’; it doesn’t lie, you can’t rush it, it takes time. You really need to be precise and accurate,” shares Ee.

2 A health tonic advertisement by Sime Darby. IZZRAFIQ ALIAS / The Star. September 6, 2016.
A health tonic advertisement by Sime Darby.

It is a painstaking process, where not just a good sense of aesthetics is required, but also patience and attention to detail. The Royal Press faced a continuous decline in business since the 1960s, when modern printing technology started to take over.

“Unfortunately, in the context of the 21st century that we live in now, time is of such great essence. We are always trying to take shortcuts, to do things faster, to be more efficient. But the question is – does everything need to be fast?” questions Ee. 2929 offers a platform for such topics to be discussed.

Medicine and health tonic labels printed by The Royal Press.
Medicine and health tonic labels printed by The Royal Press.

Apa Khabar tote bag: one of the items available for purchase at Pressent, a collaboration between The Royal Press and young urban designers, where letterpress products are reinvented. Photo: ATB Media

The exhibition also showcases The Royal Press’ latest project, Pressent (sic), a collaborative effort between The Royal Press and local designers Angel Wong, Ejin Sha, and Cheong Zhi Ling and Zhi Ying of Kongsi Design, where letterpress artefacts are reinterpreted into lifestyle products such as tote bags, T-shirts, passport holders, hats, organisers and folders.

“This collaborative effort with young urban designers is the first project of its kind in the history of The Royal Press. Using existing artefacts of The Royal Press, they reengineer letterpress products and come up with the kind of products that would appeal to people in present day,” says Ee.

He is well aware that such new approaches are required for a traditional craft such as letterpress to remain relevant in the modern world.

A living museum, where the story of a family and the letterpress heritage is told, is certainly an important part of public awareness and preservation efforts, but it is these modern interpretations of letterpress that will perhaps be instrumental in introducing this traditional art form to the younger generation.

“We hope to have more designers come together and create new products. Content-wise, there should be on-going research, workshops and tours. My personal take on the future of letterpress and The Royal Press is that it has to be extremely collaborative to be able to grow and be sustainable,” explains Ee.

In this particular case, it is in looking forward that the past can be remembered and honoured. And Ee is determined to do just that.


2929 is on at APW Bangsar (29 Jalan Riong, Kuala Lumpur) till Sept 25. Check out www.facebook.com/theroyalpress/ or theroyalpress.my for more information.

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