Pressing on with Malaysia’s history of printing

Tools of the past: Muhammad Al-Amin explaining about the function of the Linotype Model 78 machine made in 1961 at The Royal Press Museum in Melaka. — Bernama

MELAKA: The Royal Press might not ring a bell with most of us, but the company made a mark in letterpress printing during the 20th century.

Its operations have since been overtaken by modern printing technologies, but a number of the letterpress machines it owned – said to be among the oldest in the world – are exhibited at The Royal Press Museum, housed at The Royal Press’ original two-storey premises at Jalan Hang Jebat here.

Having operated as a polyglot printing house between 1938 and 2010, its possessions are displayed at the museum. These include romanised Malay and English, Arabic, Chinese, and Tamil character blocks, as well as various types of letterpress machines that were used during the pre-Merdeka era and are still in good working order.

Letterpress was among the oldest forms of printing and involved the use of relief blocks bearing characters, whose surfaces were inked and impressed against sheets or continuous rolls of paper.

The Royal Press was founded by Ee Lay Swee in 1938 after he purchased a printing machine called the Hand-Fed Jobbing Platen Press.

According to museum manager and in-house tour guide Muhammad Al-Amin Mohd Fadeli, records show that the printing company bought new machines from time to time, with some of them acquired during the 1940s and 1950s.

“At that time, no other printing company in Melaka had machines like those owned by The Royal Press. There was good demand for The Royal Press’ services.

“Those days, prior to 1957, it cost around one sen to print a newspaper,” he told Bernama.

He said The Royal Press was forced to wind up its operations in 2010 due to various factors, including shrinking orders and stiff competition from companies that used modern printing technologies.

Over the seven decades of its operations, it printed schoolbooks, government documents, newspapers, bottle labels, calendars, and bus and cinema tickets, using its letterpress machines.

The golden era of letterpress printing also witnessed The Royal Press creating a letter-block library to make it easier for its staff to find the letters on the printing blocks, considering that there were over 150,000 blocks featuring romanised Malay and English, Arabic, Chinese, and Tamil characters.

“One can imagine how efficient the workers were then. Not only must they know where the blocks were placed, but their eyes had to be sharp enough to read the lettering on the blocks concerned. This is because the letters came in different point sizes and fonts,” said Muhammad Al-Amin.

He added that it is sad the heritage craft is disappearing into oblivion, along with the people equipped with the skills to operate letterpress machines.

Fortunately, The Royal Press chief executive officer Ee Soon Wei, a third generation member of the founder’s family, is preserving the letterpress craft by ensuring the printing machines and materials are kept in good condition.

A technician maintains the machines periodically by cleaning them and applying grease.

Soon Wei said his family wants the heritage craft to be remembered and appreciated by the people, adding that if not for their initiative to turn the company premises into a museum, the young generation would not have known the existence of printing machines that formed a part of this country’s history.

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