【Walk in Hong Kong Stories】When Words Come Alive: Mr. Yam’s Unexpected Treasures

by Paul Chan, Co-founder and CEO of Walk in Hong Kong

As Walk in Hong Kong enters its eighth anniversary, we decided to publish a series of stories about people we encountered and anecdotes during our tours.

Sometimes treasures do come knocking at your door.

Mr. Yam Wai-sang is one of Walk in Hong Kong’s most important partners. Having worked in the letterpress business for decades, he has witnessed every ups and downs of the industry. Over the past few years, Mr. Yam’s letterpress workshops have become wildly popular, and he himself has also received lots of love from both local and international media. Every time we visit him on tours, Mr. Yam would make sure to show participants his guest appearance in Alan Walker’s Sing Me to Sleep music video that has a whopping, I kid you not, 600 million views. His surprise appearance is a guaranteed screamer for teenagers.

As our office is located in Sheung Wan, I would make sure to greet Mr. Yam whenever I pass by his shop in Sai Street just a few blocks away from us. Since there no longer are any type foundries in Hong Kong, Mr. Yam usually replaces missing lead character types by making regular trips to Ri Xing Type Foundry in Taiwan. How would he be able to make his usual trips amidst the pandemic?

Mr. Yam then shared two stories about ‘treasures’ being delivered to him.

Photo of Mr. Yam Wai-sang, Danish adventurer Thor Pedersen, and Paul Chan, the author of this article.

A year ago, Mr. Yam received a call from a sheltered workshop in Tin Shui Wai. Clueless at first, Mr. Yam couldn’t help but wonder – what does letterpress printing have to do with a sheltered workshop?

It turns out that letterpress printing was one of the skills that could be learnt at the sheltered workshop in the past, so a complete set of equipment and lead character types were purchased during the time. However, soon came a time when typesetting was replaced by digital printing. As a result, the training was suspended, and the entire batch of lead character types was left abandoned.

As time went by, a staff member at the sheltered workshop happened to have read Mr. Yam’s story in the news, so he tried to contact Mr. Yam and offered to donate everything they had.

Mr. Yam gladly took over the type blocks on a whim. Soon after, several large cabinets containing all the equipment and lead character types arrived at Mr. Yam’s Sai Street office. Not only did the number of lead character types exceed Mr. Yam’s expectation, they were also in mint condition as they were only used for occasional training. Mr. Yam did not even have to worry about replenishing them.

Cabinets for storing lead character types from the sheltered workshop were sent to Mr. Yam’s type found

Two months later, a Mr. Tang knocked on Mr. Yam’s door on a rainy morning. He explained that his late father was also in the printing business and left behind some items after passing. He then asked Mr. Yam if he would like to take on late Mr. Tang Senior’s collection.

As soon as Mr. Yam was told what the collection was, he immediately knew that they were really something.

Usual lead character types come in several standard sizes. The largest standard size (‘initial size’ – 42 point) is around 15mm. Another type (“special size” – 54 point) is not commonly-used and only known to people in the industry. It is extremely rare to see ‘special size’ types nowadays as they are nearly extinct.

Late Mr. Tang Senior’s collection was a large batch of special size types.

Special size lead character types.

Mr. Yam later learnt that Late Mr. Tang Senior used to print characters on aprons for market stall workers for a living. Special size types had to be used for words to be legible from a distance. However, even 54 point types were too small to be read on aprons.

Late Mr. Tang Senior therefore turned to stencilling characters on white iron plates, which made words larger and clearer, as a replacement to letterpress printing.

The iron stencil plates were of no use today, so when Mr. Yam received the lead character types from Mr. Tang, these plates were donated to him as well.

When Mr. Yam looked closely at the iron stencil plates, he could not help but exclaim. The plates were organised systematically and well-preserved despite minimal wear-and-tear.

White iron plates used by Late Mr. Tang Senior for apron printing are now donated to Mr. Yam.

Just like that, these ‘treasures’ have all coincidentally made their way to Sai Street, connecting the fates of a few strangers.