Culture Vulture

A typesetter’s granddaughter takes a crash course on hand-typesetting

My obsession with words took me to an ink fume-filled studio to fiddle with old type

From the outside, it is hard to tell that the flatted factory complex in Genting Lane, an industrial area traversed by heavy construction vehicles, has anything to do with literary production. But, for weeks, I have been looking forward to this wordsmith pilgrimage of sorts. I ride a cargo lift up, the doors opening horizontally like jaws.

A bespectacled man greets me. He ushers me into a little studio in the middle of a printing firm: wooden cabinets and old machinery are pushed up against the walls; walls lined with hand-printed art movie posters. The acrid and heady odour of printing inks and chemicals assail my nostrils. Already, I feel high.

I have come to typesetter Sun Yao Yu's workshop for a crash course on hand-typesetting. That is, preparing text for old printing presses by manually putting in moveable text, letter by letter, space by space. Sitting in his office-cum-workspace, as offset printers rush to meet their deadlines beyond the thin partitions, the graphic designer- turned-full-time typesetter patiently takes me through the history of type, in particular the boom in mechanical printing in the South-east Asian region, as well as Singapore's role as a centre for Chinese, English and Jawi publishing.

"Letterpress printing has had to evolve," he tells me, referring to the now hipster-ised craft of hand-printing cards and posters with a debossed effect, the tell-tale "bite" of vintage presses.

"But I prefer the old ways of doing things. It's about education. Some young people don't understand the way things work. They use the wrong methods to print with antique type and it destroys the soft lead type. And then a piece of history is gone."

And then, sufficiently schooled in tradition, I am allowed to handle his painstakingly amassed collection of old moveable type. It gives me a kick to hear him explain printing terminology and how the terms arose from the constraints and process of typesetting of yore: upper- and lower-case letters were so named because the small letters, used more often in a sentence, were housed literally in the lower case of the typesetter's cabinet, to ensure quicker and easier access. The capitals, naturally, were housed in the upper case.

As we assemble the tiny typefaces on the metal composing stick, I realise that "leading" (say "ledding"), or the space between lines, that I first heard of as a rookie newspaper sub-editor, is literally the thin strips of lead you insert between rows of type.

I have chosen to work on a postcard design featuring a Virginia Woolf quote: "As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world."

Looking through his sample type, I decide on an Art Deco-esque drop capital for the initial A and a simple and elegant Garamond typeface for the text, but switching to a more ornate and flowery font to emphasise "the whole world".

What would normally take a few minutes to type, click and adjust on a WYSIWYG computer screen takes extremely long to typeset manually. I pick the letters from plastic boxes, place them carefully next to each other, ensuring that the "nick" - a little line carved into one side of the type - aligned so that everything faced the right way and was not upside-down.

One inserts the spaces in the form of shorter pieces in the same width as the letters and tries to centralise the text by a process of trial and error - inserting more or fewer pieces and then measuring the white space of the first test copies to be cranked out from the ancient platen press.

Even after the quote is typeset to satisfaction and the printing plate fed into the platen press - a heavy machine that looks like a cross between weighing scales and sandwich machine, and that works by way of pulling down on a lever to bring inked type and paper together in a clam-shell action - more adjusting is required. The type is old and worn out at different rates, so some cutting and pasting of paper is required to pad the printing surface so that the ink can leave an even impression on the thick, creamy card stock. But, finally, we are ready to begin printing for real. I flex my biceps and pull the lever: card goes in blank; card comes out covered in a declaration of intent not to be limited by patriarchy and geography.

By the time I leave the studio with a stack of cards in my hand, four hours have passed. The afternoon has faded and my stomach is growling for dinner.

To some, spending so much time and effort to typeset and print something by hand, when a laser printer could accomplish the same in seconds, might be baffling. Yet, to anyone obsessed with words, the romance and enlightenment of hand-typesetting is undeniable.

"A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her essay, A Room Of One's Own, a feminist call to freedom. What she did not specify, but remains equally important to any writer, is the means to control the mass production and distribution of one's literary output.

To that end, fed up with the whims and censorship from working with other publishers, she and her husband Leonard bought their own handpress for £19 and set up Hogarth Press in 1917. Hand-typesetting her own and other writers' words, she trained herself to think carefully about the visual impact of her lines - of her writing as units of words, sentences and paragraphs, to be shaped into the "block" of text on the page.

As the granddaughter of a typesetter - my paternal grandfather started out as a type-finder for Chinese newspapers here, before branching out into a successful printing company - I, too, long for the freedom of one's own press.

But more than that, I, too, crave the training that typesetting afforded Woolf in the way she approached composing and the boldness it gave her to experiment. In an age where the Internet and social media make words so easy to broadcast and seem so disposable and meaningless, it is well worth going back to basics and hunting for every single letter. Spend an afternoon in Mr Sun's studio and you'll learn the true cost of words - and understand the beauty of economy.

•Clara Chow is the author of Dream Storeys, and co-founder of WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2017, with the headline 'The typesetter's granddaughter'. Print Edition | Subscribe