Inside a 1,000-square-foot unit in a Kowloon Bay factory building, Leung Kwok-hung, founder of Sing Hung Printer Factory, was busy organising metal types by size, before bundling them together and washing them with soap and water.

Metal types used in movable type printing.
Metal types used in movable type printing. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Opposite his desk were several wooden shelves divided in small compartments, some of which were half-filled with cast metal types – short metal bars with letters or characters carved into their ends. Leung had his lead types organised by radicals, or components of Chinese characters. 

See also: A Hong Kong font designer’s bold effort to preserve Cantonese culture

As one of the last remaining owners of movable type printing systems in the city, Leung is looking to preserve the dying craft. 

Two offset printers in Sing Hung Printer Factory
Two offset printers in Sing Hung Printer Factory. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Before printing became as easy as clicking on a printer icon on our computers, it was, at one point, a painstaking process that involved picking individual lead types and organising them on a hand-held rack. There are 16 different point sizes for Chinese characters, Leung said, with the smallest just slightly bigger than a grain of rice. 

While it was barely possible to distinguish the smallest characters on the end of the metal type without a magnifying glass, Leung was adept at picking out the correct character from thousands available.

“I have never worn glasses for a day in my life,” Leung, who turns 73 this year, said proudly.

Leung Kwok-hung (left), owner of Sing Hung Printer Factory, and his son Jacky (right).
Leung Kwok-hung (left), owner of Sing Hung Printer Factory, and his son Jacky (right). Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Leung entered the printing industry after apprenticing at his uncle’s printing factory. He later founded Sing Hung Printer Factory in Cheung Sha Wan in the mid-1970s. Sing Hung represents the combination of Leung’s name and the Cantonese pronunciation of Bi Sheng, the Song-dynasty inventor of movable type. 

Like many other sectors in Hong Kong, the printing industry experienced a boom in the 1960s. According to the Hong Kong Printers Association, the number of printing factories in Hong Kong more than doubled from just over 600 in the 1960s to over 1,500 in the next decade. 

When he first established his factory, Leung had to obtain a printing press licence from the police, renewable yearly, for a fee of HK$40. The licence, at first available only in English, listed each machine in the factory. 

Wooden shelves with small cubicles holding metal Chinese types.
Wooden shelves with small cubicles holding metal Chinese types. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“At that time, a bowl of wonton noodles cost HK$0.5,” said Leung. “And a worker at my factory was paid around HK$500 to HK$600 per month.” The licence requirement was scrapped in 1977. 

The printing press moved from Cheung Sha Wan Resettlement Factory Building to Yip On Factory Estate in Kowloon Bay in 1990, and, as technology progressed Leung’s bread and butter became offset printing, rather than movable type. Offset printing is a more widely used method of mass-production printing.

Sing Hung Printer Factory
A volunteer at Sing Hung Printer Factory organising lead types by size. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

While Sing Hung managed to survive competition from mainland China and the city’s fading industrial sector, what Leung did not expect was that he would be forced to move again 33 years later. 

In May 2021, the Housing Authority announced plans to demolish four government industrial buildings, including Yip On, for public housing. Yip On’s site could provide 2,200 homes for 6,000 people, according to the Housing Authority’s estimation in 2021. 

However, the government’s redevelopment plan was met with fierce opposition from the tenants of the factory buildings, including Leung. 

Leung Kwok-hung cleaning metal types with soapy water and a toothbrush
Leung Kwok-hung cleaning metal types with soapy water and a toothbrush. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The 73-year-old attended meetings with the Housing Authority, and even wrote to then-chief executive Carrie Lam, but to no avail. Sing Hung relocated to a nearby industrial building in the same district soon after Lunar New Year this year. 

“Why did they have to kill small businesses? Xi Jinping said that China has to support small businesses, yet the Hong Kong government is killing them,” Leung said, in reference to the Chinese leader. 

Leung Kwok-hung demonstrating how to use a movable type printer.
Leung Kwok-hung demonstrating how to use a movable type printer. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Sing Hung’s monthly rent went from HK$8,000 to HK$14,000 after the printer moved from the government building to a private one, and that was not even the most difficult part of finding a new location. 

Leung’s machines require three-phase electric power, something that many factory buildings in Hong Kong do not offer. The 73-year-old also had to look for buildings with elevators capable of carrying the heavy machines. 

The print shop owner is still in the process of settling into the new location, slowly organising and cleaning thousands of lead types, a process that Leung estimated could take another three months. 

However, the tedious process was worth it, he said. 

Sing Hung Printer Factory
Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

He began organising workshops to promote movable type printing in the factory’s final days in Yip On, something that he hoped to continue in the factory’s new space. 

Over three sessions, workshop participants get an introduction to the dying art, from learning about the various fonts and point sizes of existing types, to picking out and printing their own designs. 

The printing press licence Leung Kwok-hung obtained for Sing Hung Printer Factory in 1974.
The printing press licence Leung Kwok-hung obtained for Sing Hung Printer Factory in 1974. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The 73-year-old has given himself three years to succeed in his new endeavour. If he can no longer afford to hold workshops or promote movable type after that period, Leung plans to sell his types. 

When asked if he would consider donating his tools to the government, Leung laughed and said “many people have asked me that before.”

With not many people knowing about movable print, Leung said even if he decides to donate the types and machine to the government or a charity, “no one understands how it works.”

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.