KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 22 — After two years of camping out at its sibling printing plant in Kuala Lumpur, The Royal Press (TRP) is packing up and heading back to Malacca, its home since 1938.
A Dutch colonial building within the Jonker Street heritage zone, 29 Jalan Hang Jebat has been undergoing extensive restoration and fortification in preparation for its transformation into what will be the world’s oldest living polyglot letterpress museum.
To facilitate that, TRP’s artefacts — including an Original Heidelberg windmill letterpress machine and over 150,000 lead types and wooden blocks in four languages — had to be shifted out of the way.
“We needed a space that was big enough to house all that and the logical choice was our printing plant in Bangsar, Art Printing Works (APW),” says Ee Soon Wei, the managing director of TRP who first mooted the idea of immortalising the letterpress printing company started up by his late grandfather, Ee Lay Swee.
APW itself was also being re-imagined into a lifestyle and design hub that now houses two cafes, an event and co-working space, and a pocket park. TRP’s temporary residency was a perfect fit.
For years, the artefacts had been pretty much lying idle in Malacca as business had dwindled noticeably over time, except for some small print jobs for regular clients.
At APW, they were put to work as part of TRP’s on-going efforts to raise awareness on letterpress printing and find its place amid today’s digital landscape. The lean team behind the project actively participated in design conferences and art bazaars, conducted talks and demonstrations, and in the first half of this year, organised letterpress printing workshops regularly.
While all that was going on, many other facets emerged that have helped shape the project. As TRP prepares to make its retreat from Bangsar, its last hurrah is 2929: The Royal Press Exhibition, named as both the Malacca and Kuala Lumpur printing facilities have their addresses at number 29.
Housed at The Bindery at APW and running till September 25, the exhibition showcases the important events that have taken place in the last two years as well as the milestones achieved. They include the RM3.11 million grant from Yayasan Sime Darby that is funding restoration works, and CIMB Foundation’s RM150,000 that enabled the artefacts to travel to Kuala Lumpur.
Also on display and available for sale is a small range of TRP merchandise created using a combination of traditional and contemporary letterpress printing techniques.
They include planners, a foldable map of Malacca, and Raya packets. A separate collection named Pressent is making its debut at the exhibition, the result of a collaboration with four up-and-coming Malaysian designers who have translated their inspirations from letterpress printing into contemporary daily use products.
You can join daily guided tours that will walk you through the two-year timeline. A highlight is the rare opportunity to visit the Workshop area, which occupies a small corner at APW’s printing floor but was not opened to visitors prior to this. Walking through the exhibition will give you an impression of what letterpress printing is about and a hint of TRP’s significance, but the Workshop is where the wow factor lies.
Your eyes will automatically zoom in on the wooden A-shaped display board where Chinese lead types in varying sizes are stacked in neat rows. This is only a fraction of the total number of types that are in TRP’s archives, and Chinese is just one of four languages they come in – the others are Arabic and Tamil scripts, and the Roman alphabet.
Even up close, identifying the Chinese characters is quite a challenge so you can imagine how tedious it was for typesetters back in the day to find all the required types needed to form just one sentence. “That is why,” Soon Wei explains, “Chinese newspapers back then only published six pages per edition!”
Next to the board, a long table sits under a row of yellow lights, displaying carved wooden and lead blocks that were created for TRP’s clients over the years. From company or brand logos to decorative designs and official emblems, each motif tells a different and distinct story. Altogether, they represent slices of Malacca’s — and to an extent, Malaysia’s — history told in minute, seemingly mundane but memorable details.
This exhibition is the last opportunity for these to be viewed until the TRP museum opens, and that may not be for another 18 months or so. The project had been peppered with one challenge after another from the start, which ran the gamut from termite infestation and water seeping through the walls to cracked floor tiles and a sagging upper timber floor.
There were also various guidelines, determined by Unesco for its World Heritage sites or set by the local government, that had to be adhered to. That includes using only materials that are similar to the original or at least close to, and finding craftsmen and construction teams that are skilled in such a delicate undertaking.
Restoration works have entered their final phase, but there are still hurdles that need to be overcome before the artefacts can settle back in their rightful home once and for all. “We’re just waiting for the final approval, the green light from local authorities and then we can start shifting everything back,” says Soon Wei.
Meantime, we will count the days until we can walk through the hallowed two-storey home of The Royal Press on their Baba Nyonya calendar, one of their bestselling items and something that has been the company’s tradition since the 1950s. If you’re wondering when 2017’s edition will be available, it all depends on Aunty Chan, a long-serving typesetter at TRP who singlehandedly composes the calendar.
2929: The Royal Press Exhibition runs till Sept 25 at APW Bangsar, 29 Jalan Riong, Kuala Lumpur
Guided tours 12.30pm, Mon-Fri; 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm, Sat-Sun
Vivian Chong is happy that print is still alive. Read her other stories at http://thisbunnyhops.com/