Kerry Ann Lee looks at the enduring appeal of Chinese typeface and letterpress design in the digital age.
In 1952, a slow boat from Hong Kong arrived in New Zealand carrying one metric tonne of lead type. This would be used by the Dominion Federation of New Zealand Chinese Commercial Growers Incorporated to print The NZ Chinese Growers Monthly Journal (僑農月刊) until 1972. Stories about the Chinese Growers and their journal have circulated through families for decades, and been made more accessible thanks to scholarship by Wai-te-ata Press, landmark books by Ruth Lam, Lily Lee and Nigel Murphy, and an essay by Emma Ng. A taonga that lives up to its namesake, the Growers Journal empowered the post-war Cantonese Chinese community to grow and organise in Aotearoa. As this country’s only surviving Chinese language printing typeface collection, it also stands as a glorious example of grassroots community publishing and letterpress design.
A typeface is the design of a letterform and refers to a family of fonts which display particular attributes of a typeface. Ya-Wen Ho (賀雅雯) from Wai-te-ata Press explained that the Chinese Growers type comprises of nine font variations from which there are three different Chinese character typefaces. In Cantonese, Kai She 楷書 or ‘Standard Script’ is the most common, appearing as headline and body copy, Fong Sung 仿宋, references woodblock printing and books produced during the Song dynasty; a special variation called Sheung Fong Sung 長仿宋 was used for subtitles. The first two are perfectly square while the last is long and skinny, like a stretched condensed face.
Movable type printing was invented a thousand years ago by Bi Sheng (990–1051), propagating the written word throughout China during the Song dynasty (960–1279). Literature was a privileged pursuit, while the common person might have barely known how to write their own name. During this period, ‘Fong Number One’ as he’s apocryphally known, was first bestowed our family surname by a general, or perhaps a king after doing a good deed. I used to practise writing this family name character – 鄺 – over and over again. My awkward chicken-scratches exposed my hardwiring as a diasporic third culture kid. I grew into a shameless il-literati scholar, using my visual literacy in art and design and enough make-do moxie to get by. I know little about Chinese typesetting and defer to MS Unicode equivalents.
My own sideways approach to Chinese language learning involves slowing down to listen and observe, and asking a lot of questions. The “art of looking sideways”, as suggested by designer Alan Fletcher, encourages new awareness and appreciation of old forms. If language is a bridge for communication, these tiny chunks of lead type might be breadcrumbs on a trail without end, scraps I can see and grasp short of actually reading or tasting the words on my tongue.
As a primer on Chinese typography, Ya-Wen introduced me to Mariko Takagi’s beautiful book, Hanzi Graphy: A typographic translation between Latin letters and Chinese Characters (2014). Nuance is everything. There is Hanzi (Traditional full-form characters used in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau), Hanzi (Simplified characters used in China and Singapore) and Kanji (Chinese characters adopted by Japan). Takagi demystifies Chinese language type as more than just pictograms, rather a “writing system of exquisite complexity” that parallels Latin type. The Chinese Growers type follows “function over form” to dutifully communicate information unnoticed, echoing Beatrice Warde’s essay, The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible (1930), yet its stroke forms are essential. Equally so is the immense labour and love involved in letterpress typesetting and printing the publication.
Comparing apples with oranges, Latin type and Hanzi have different sizing systems. Due to the volume of characters, Chinese type pieces, or “sorts”, came in fewer sizes, with their own measurement scale from 0-7. Unlike their Western counterparts (like 12pt Times New Roman), the larger the number, the smaller the size (a “1” used for headline titles, translates to 27.75 points). Both systems have worked together in bilingual typesetting by numerous printing companies in Hong Kong, including Universal Type Founders which produced the Growers type. The Journal features English for proper nouns (people and place names) alongside Chinese characters.
The Journal was published locally in Wellington. The photograph of editor Lionel Chan (Chan Lai Hung 陳賴洪) sitting at his office desk was taken above the produce auction warehouses on Blair Street. Lionel’s children Ting and Danny were brought in to do typesetting. In its final years, the letterpress composition room moved to Lionel’s home in Newtown. The Journal served county associations (Seyip, Tung Jung and Poon Fah) and church groups who would promote their meetings and events. Lots of Wellington CBD-based businesses advertised, including importers and exporters of Chinese foodstuffs, dry goods, medicine and books. It also promoted financial services, banks, insurance and travel agents — Chinese businesses wanting to reach out to Chinese clientele.
The Federation of Growers worked together to advance the welfare and rights of Chinese in New Zealand whether or not they were market gardeners. Significant moments of political organisation for the community, like uniting to lobby the government around rice quotas, were documented through AGM minutes or special editorials during the first decade of the Journal. When the first editor Dan Chan (陳中岳 Chan Chung Yock) came on, he was supported by David Fung (Fung Chiwei 馮智偉), Chan Sou Nam (陳秀南), Wong Cho Nam (黃灼南) and others, after which Charlie Shek (Shek Chong 石松) took over as the paper’s second editor. At its peak, 700 copies per issue per month were distributed to Federation members via postal mail.
Since its first issue in July 1949, the Journal occasionally printed poems and stories to accompany news and advertising features. Upon receiving a government notice in 1960 to stop publishing political news from abroad, the Journal began to feature an explosion of literary pieces, under third and final editor Lionel Chan. A poet and a calligrapher who enjoyed writing, Chan penned a series of poems, Wellington Bamboo Branch Songs, and published them in the Journal under the pseudonym, A Scattered Leaf.
Ya-wen and I talked about mutual friends who run letterpress studios abroad and are keeping Chinese letterpress alive through international outreach, education, and creative revival. It’s a very literal desire and dedication to ship a metric tonne of lead type across the world with you. A few years ago, I visited the office of one of Cuba’s first Chinese community newspapers, active in the late 1930s, in Barrio Chino de La Habana, one of the oldest Chinatowns in Latin America. “There are diasporic Chinese newspaper rooms all over the globe,” said Ya-wen. “The transmission of heavy type is a parallel history to the migration of the people. Wherever they went, they wanted to take their language with them. Even in places where the language is alive and well like Taipei or Hong Kong, young graphic designers are gravitating towards it because the script is pre-digital and it has its own beauty and aura.” I can see why. The Kai She typeface is balanced, open and perfect on paper.
These hardy workhorses from Hong Kong now have a creative afterlife at Wai-te-ata Press, where they are used by Ya-wen Ho, Sydney Shep and their studio team to print limited edition artist books, literary volumes, posters and tokens. As kaitiaki, they are also knowledge-holders of the object’s whakapapa and make this available through their community-focused publishing activities. “It’s wonderful to be reminded that different ways of being Chinese can be so expansive,” said Ya-Wen. “The metal type was made in a time before this split in the writing system — before Simplified Chinese characters even existed. When we talk about them now, we have to qualify that these are full-form hanzi but back then, they just were. Some of the characters are uniquely Cantonese and were never turned into digital fonts. They rupture your assumptions of what Chinese is. I love that because we need those moments to remind us that our current state is not immutable, and that change is still possible. ”
I caught up with my dad for yum cha on Friday after his Chinese literature group met for the first time since before pandemic. I thought of Lionel, upstairs in his office behind us on Blair Street writing poems that my dad would help translate 60 years later, and how the printed word still brings people together.
Noticing the signage through the window, I asked him about the double character ‘康康’ beneath ‘Big Thumb Restaurant’. He said it’s Hong Hong in Seyip Cantonese, meaning ‘health health’, or ‘Number One’! Hong, as in the owner Chinese name, as in my granddad’s Chinese name. Locals refer to the restaurant as Hong Hong. Otherwise, he said, it would be dai siu gong, a “dead translation” meaning “the chubby appendix on your hand”.
He picked up a copy of the latest Home Voice newspaper and put it in his book bag on the way out.