The Soul Of An Old Machine

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An old typewriter which was a big part of the Royal Presse's work now sits in the presse's museum.

An old typewriter which was a big part of the Royal Presse’s work now sits in the presse’s museum.

I pointed to the Original Heidelberg cylinder letterpress, an industrial, metal machine. It worked with German efficiency — paper moves from one tray, stamp, paper moves to the next tray. And again, and again, and again.  Stamp. Stamp. Stamp. A neat pile of printed sheets grew higher by the minute.

“How many sheets can you print in an hour?”

Ahmad shrugged. “Tak tahulah,” he said, “tengok mood dia.” (I don’t know, you’ve got to see the machine’s mood.)

It was the first time I’d ever heard someone say that a soulless machine had mood swings that could hold its operator at ransom. And it certainly wasn’t the last time I’d hear it that day.

That morning, Soon Wei brought me around The Royal Press to take a closer look at the various letterpresses there. “You know, these machines talk to you,” he said. As we examined the labels on the machines, he continued, “Look at these words — suction, blower, impression, run — don’t they make the machines come alive?”

And on that sleepy mid-morning, as the machines awoke, coughed and whirred into action, they began to come alive for me. Strips of metal became arms. Hinges became elbows. The wheezing of the old machines became the respiratory malfunctions of an old man. Machines became people. And I began to understand the romance of the letterpress.

It was all about people. Faithful, reliable old-timers.

I paced all the way to the end of the press, and found myself among millions of lead blocks. And amidst these lead blocks was one unassuming, wiry lady — Ah Chan. One could see how much she loved her blocks. She spent hours bonding with them. She criticized their results when they were not up to the mark. She proudly showed them off to acquaintances and strangers alike. They were her children.

I quietly slipped out from the room and then had a pleasant chat with Ken. An employee of The Royal Press for more than thirty years, Ken was the one who had lovingly tended all the letterpresses and other machines all these years. And these were his children. “They’re alive,” he laughed, “they’re special.” He fingered the age-worn machine. “Yes, you can get a beautiful digital print done; but when you print using a letterpress, you can feel the imprint of the letters. It’s different.”

At the end of the day, as I saw the bespectacled Ken leaning against the Original Heidelberg, I saw two faithful, reliable old-timers. Two figures deeply intertwined with the soul of the letterpress business of The Royal Press. One, a man who gives life to a machine; and two, a machine that gives life to a man.

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