In ancient China, when scholars wrote on paper, the paper became valuable.
In a groundbreaking project, Ee Soon Wei, 33, is rewriting the 75-year strong business model of The Royal Press. Just like the scholars of old, his vision is to create valuable products and experiences out of obsolete technology and moldering paper.
The Royal Press was established in 1938 to print all sorts of things, from stock certificates to liquor labels. In 1941, the Japanese invaded Malaya. Among the countless businesses that were destroyed, The Royal Press was spared because the owners printed documents for the Japanese. The paper created value and saved The Royal Press.
In the 1960s, the Royal Press faced a new threat perhaps more devastating than the invading Japanese soldiers: offset printing technology. With new printing methods, customers no longer streamed through the doors of The Royal Press. In recent years, the company has sustained annual losses of RM30,000. “Yes, my relatives had the money to expand,” says Soon Wei, “but if they did, then the people who worked at the press would have no purpose.”
Today, this same mindset remains with Soon Wei, who aims to give a new injection of life and purpose to The Royal Press and its workers. For a start, tours will be offered to the public in June. This will not be a museum spotlighting the past — but an “open house” highlighting the present. Printing work will go on as usual while the tours are being conducted. Soon Wei explains: “There’s a path marked out for tourists to walk around the Royal Press, and there’s also a path marked out for the printers and typesetters to do their work.”
Soon Wei and his collaborators, the web design company Trinity, are developing boutique letterpress products – including traditional folded angpows, letter-writing sets, diaries, redesigned Peranakan calendars and even wedding sets. One fun innovation currently in the works is the ‘Pick n’ Compose’ concept, whereby single alphabets are printed on colourful notebooks. Visitors to the press will be able to purchase notebooks with the desired alphabets, and put them together to spell out a name or word.
Soon Wei is also conceptualizing a writer-in-residence program where international writers can write about their experiences in Melaka and The Royal Press. The final product will be printed on decades-old cotton paper by a letterpress machine. “What would stand out globally,” Soon Wei said, “would be renowned writers, renowned designers and The Royal Press coming together.”
And once more, with 21st century writer-scholars writing on paper, the paper becomes valuable.