Testament 1 - 5
Hong Kong Type #5
This winter was never truly cold, and as if it had something to hide, it surreptitiously came to an end.
The two large kapok trees next to the housing estate opposite had bloomed early. When you casually glanced up, the brilliant red of the tree was quite astonishing. The few once barren Chinese hackberry trees outside my apartment building sprouted tender green leaves overnight. The arrival of spring was indeed startling.
Looking at such a vibrant scene, there was no longing in my heart, only a vague sense of unease lingering in the air. Every morning and evening, I would take a walk with Fox. Apart from that, I just stayed at home in a daze, falling into a drowsy sleep and having all sorts of dreams aimlessly.
When we adopted Fox, he was less than two years old, and now he was a four-year-old adult dog. Fox lost his sight due to illness not long after he was born. It was a neurological problem, so on the surface his eyes still looked intact. His previous owner abandoned him because of this, and my dad took him in through the referral of an old colleague. Other than goldfish and guinea pigs, we had never had any other pets before. Raising a blind dog for the first time was indeed a big challenge. But my dad demonstrated his meticulous personality, diligently learning from other experienced dog owners and finding information online about raising blind cats and dogs.
In order to ensure Fox had enough exercise, Dad patiently trained him to develop the ability and confidence to move outdoors. Starting with short distances, under appropriate guidance and cues, he adapted Fox to walk on the street without fear. In less than six months, Fox could freely walk on familiar routes, and others didn't even notice he was blind. It would be more appropriate to say he was a guide dog rather than a blind dog. It was Fox who led me, a blind person, back into a world that had become dark.
I could not see any imperfections in Fox. I even felt that he understood human emotions better than any human. Therefore, even if I was living a life isolated from people, I didn't feel lonely at all. However, there was still unease in my heart.
That morning, Dad said he was feeling a bit unwell and wouldn't come out of his bedroom. By noon, I went to the convenience store in the estate across the road to buy him a newspaper, and also picked up a sandwich and some fresh milk for my lunch. As far as I could remember, Dad always read Ming Pao. Perhaps I was too late, the convenience store had sold out of Ming Pao. I knew that Dad didn't read other newspapers, so I gave up and just bought the food to take back.
After paying at the counter, someone gently tapped on my shoulder. I turned around to see a lean young man, with fluffy and messy hair, like it hadn't been cut for a long time. His eyes were harmless like a small animal's, set in a pale face. Because he was wearing a mask, I couldn't recognize who he was at first.
“You forgot me so soon? I’m Ah Loi!”
Upon hearing the name Ah Loi, it took me several seconds to match it with his original appearance. He was the coworker who often helped me in the cake shop.
"You left without a word, and suddenly disappeared."
"Sorry! I didn't quit, I was fired," I quickly explained.
"Anyway, I'm not working there anymore either."
I noticed that his bag, hanging on his shoulder, was filled with thick books. He said shyly,
"I'm retaking the diploma exam this year. I've taken it three times before. I was supposed to be in the same class as you."
I didn't know how to react, as if I had touched on his sore spot. I felt more embarrassed than him.
"And you? Have you gone back to university yet?"
"Not yet. My health hasn't been good, so I'm taking another leave of absence this semester."
He nodded but didn't ask further. As the conversation ran its course, we moved out of the convenience store. Just when I was wondering whether I should say goodbye, he asked,
"Do you live nearby? I've seen you a few times, but you were with a dog, so I didn't call out to you."
"Are you scared of dogs?"
"Yes! I was bitten by a dog when I was young."
I pointed to the building across the street and said my home was there. He in turn pointed to the sky above where we were standing and said,
"I live up here, just across from you. But my room faces the other side, so I probably can't see your house. My place is right across from the Police Tactical Unit base, and I always see them practicing shooting down below. It's so distracting, I can't concentrate on my studies. I usually go to the study room in the public library."
I recalled hearing the constant bangs from that direction at home, which made me anxious. For some reason, my heart suddenly started pounding, and I broke out in a sweat. I vaguely remembered that this place, the open space in front of the housing estate shopping centre, was once filled with candles, fresh flowers, paper flowers, offerings, and slogans. Why was that? I realized that it had been a long time since I had passed this spot.
"What's wrong? Are you okay?"
My head was spinning a bit, but I managed to steady myself and said,
"Did something happen here, in this spot?"
From the look in his eyes, it was clear Ah Loi understood immediately, but he pretended to think for a moment before saying,
"This is where that girl jumped last June."
We both looked up instinctively. A wire netting had been installed on the railing of the stairwell that stretched up for over thirty floors.
"Do you live in the same building?"
"Do you know her?"
"I don't know her, but I recognize her."
"I'm sorry, Ah Loi, can you take me home? My legs are a bit weak."
Ah Loi didn't ask any more questions and helped me cross the street. He was thin, but steady like a cane. He saw me into the elevator lobby and waved goodbye from outside. I promised to keep in touch with him.
When I got home, I left the sandwich and drink on the dining table. I didn't eat anything, but went into my room and lay down on my bed. My chest kept pounding. Fox seemed to sense that something was wrong and curled up next to me.
It turned out that my dad's illness was just a common cold. It was a false alarm, and after a couple of days, he regained his spirits and started going out to buy newspapers on his own. I told him about Teacher Bei recommending me to help collect materials for the exhibition, and he agreed, thinking that my personality and physical condition made me suitable for this kind of work. Indeed, for a girl like me with no social skills, dealing with dead data was more comfortable than dealing with people.
The exhibition was curated by an organization called Hong Kong Print Art Workshop, and the person in charge was a lady surnamed Yung. I arrived at the appointed time at an art complex in Shek Kip Mei, a refurbished old public housing block. The workshop was on the eighth floor, and the space was quite open. There were three young female staff in the office. I peeked in through the glass door and nervously said that I had an appointment with Miss Yung.
Someone passed the message, and a middle-aged woman with a serious look and a black mask walked out from inside. She waved me in and led me to a meeting room at the back, chatting as we walked,
"You're a student of Ah Bei, right? He said you have excellent calligraphy skills."
Having heard from Teacher Bei that this Ms. Yung was an artist in lithography, I dared not be presumptuous and quickly said,
"Teacher Bei exaggerated! It's not that good, just neat handwriting."
"Ha! You call him Teacher Bei?"*
"Yes, everyone calls him that, or Bei Sir."
She seemed to find this very amusing and couldn't help but laugh again.
Once we sat down in the meeting room, Miss Yung poured me a cup of tea, treating me as if I were a guest of honor, which didn't feel like an interview at all. She asked me a few simple questions, but seemed to already know quite a bit from Teacher Bei. When I called her Teacher Yung, she seriously stopped me, saying, "Don't call me teacher, call me Ah Yung, or Miss Yung." The "Yung" she said was in a changed tone, pronounced in the second tone in Cantonese, homophonic with the word "embrace". Then she gave me a briefing on the arrangement of the exhibition.**
“The exhibition will open in October this year, and the venue is the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Shatin. There will be two exhibitions held simultaneously. One is a joint exhibition of local print artists to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong Print Art Workshop. The other is a retrospective on the history of letterpress printing in Hong Kong. In the original plan, it was intended to start with Hong Kong prints and press publications from the second half of the 19th century, then move on to the popular monthly calendar stone lithographs from the early 20th century, and finally to the decline of letterpress printing in the second half of the 20th century. The last part is about how young inheritors have turned traditional letterpress printing into a creative craft in the past decade.
“Then, unexpectedly, this thing called Hong Kong Type suddenly popped up.”
As she said this, Miss Yung spread her arms out wide as if something had burst forth. I was startled, but fortunately, I held myself from screaming out. She continued,
“Last summer, we received a letter from the head of a typecasting foundation in the Netherlands, inquiring about a batch of 19th-century Hong Kong typefaces. It is said that in 1858, the Dutch government purchased a batch of Chinese lead types from the Anglo-Chinese College in Hong Kong, numbering about 5,300. Over the next hundred years, the type foundry managing these types gradually created more types, increasing the total to over 9,000. By the 1980s, the foundry had closed, and the whereabouts of the lead types became unknown. Now, the chairman of this foundation wanted to trace the origin of these types from Hong Kong and came to ask us if we had any related information. The reason he approached us was probably because we had participated in a printing art seminar in Europe before and left our contact.
“Even though we were preparing for the exhibition, we had no idea about the existence of Hong Kong Type, nor did we know that this set of characters had been exported to the Netherlands. So, we couldn't really help. Not long after, we received a message from them saying that they had found the copper matrixes made from the original Hong Kong Type in the storage house of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. Wow! That was astonishingly good news! So, in December, I flew to Amsterdam personally to confirm the origin of those matrixes with their staff. Among the existing set of movable types, about 5,000 were from the original 19th-century version. These were the true Hong Kong Type.
“Well, now that we've found the matrixes, there's no reason not to try casting lead types. The foundation agreed to this cooperative project and provided us with the tools and personnel for casting. Due to limited time, I selected thirty characters for experimentation. Among them were the first ten words of Genesis in the Bible, as well as characters related to this exhibition. So, I brought these trophies back with me.”
Miss Yung stood up, took several wooden boxes from the metal rack behind her, and placed them one by one on the table. Each box was divided into three large sections from top to bottom, each section further divided vertically into a dozen narrow rows, each row filled with ten shiny silver lead types.
“These are all newly cast types, and there's also this.”
She placed another small box on the table, which contained about three or four dozen dull silver-gray old lead types that clearly showed their age.
“These are a small part of the remaining old Hong Kong Type from the Netherlands. Even though they may not be from the first batch of 1858, they could very well be cast in the 19th century. Very close to the original types.”
For some reason, all my hair stood on end, as if I could feel a strange aura approaching. I timidly asked,
“Can I take a look at them?”
I picked up those little lead rods with my fingertips and held them up close for inspection. Among them were unrelated characters such as "解", "率", "瞿", "監", "樂", "忽", "山", "號", "芝", "片", "殿", "議", all of which were reversed left to right, and some were repeated. I couldn't help but exclaim as I looked at them, saying,
“They're beautiful! So beautiful! Even more beautiful than gold!”
I seemed to feel an electric current coursing through my body, causing me to tremble slightly.
I don't know how long I stayed in this ecstatic state. When I came to my senses a bit, I realized how I had lost my composure. But Miss Yung didn't interfere at all. From the part of her face visible above the black mask, I could see her smiling.
“I'm sorry! I was just dumbfounded!”
“It's okay! When I first saw these characters, my reaction was the same as yours, completely stupefied. This shows that you are suitable for this job. Those who are not stunned won't throw themselves into such work.”
“Can I really help?”
“Of course, you can. Welcome to our team!”
She reached out to me without any hesitation, and I held her hand unreservedly.
“Come on! Let me introduce you to the other colleagues!”
Miss Yung took me back to the office, had me greet three female colleagues, and said to one of the long-haired girls,
“Come on! Master Lok! Show Sun Fei our printing machine.”
She turned to me and explained, “We all call her Master Lok because she is the only successor who learned the art from the old masters. Probably, she and one or two others are the only young people in Hong Kong who know how to use this type of printing machine.”
The girl named Ah Lok only bent over and laughed, seeming a bit embarrassed by the compliment.
The production and storage area of the workshop was quite spacious, filled with many machines, tools, and materials I didn't understand. The image of Teacher Bei hunched over a table, carving a woodblock, suddenly popped into my mind. Next thing I knew, we were standing in front of two single-person-operated printing machines, each about as tall as a person and around five feet square. I couldn't believe my eyes, as if I was seeing a dear one return from the underworld.
Ah Lok introduced me to them as if she were a tour guide, "These are two Heidelberg Windmill Platen Presses of the same model. One was donated to us by a master when he retired, and the other was entrusted to us for safekeeping by a conservation organization. The full rows on the wooden rack behind us are movable types donated by another master."
I said a bit shyly, "Actually, my grandfather used to run a printing workshop."
"So, you've seen these machines?"
"No, I never saw them with my own eyes. By the time I was born, my grandfather's shop had already closed. But I have seen them in my dreams."
"You've seen them in your dreams?"
"May I ask, do they still work?"
"Of course, would you like to see? Master Lok, start the machine."
Upon command, the girl rolled up her sleeves, checked the condition of the machine, lowered the safety guard in the front, adjusted some settings, pulled a lever below, and pressed the start button.
Like a beast exhaling, the machine started up. The ink roller spun, the feed and take-up rollers swung back and forth, and the press at the type's position rhythmically opened and closed. The sound and movement, like a wonderful musical instrument playing, were exactly as I had seen in my dreams. The pulsation, the breath – it was like a real living being. I couldn't help but shed tears, and it was too late to wipe them away secretly.
Feeling ashamed of my excitement, I choked up, saying, "I'm sorry! I don't know why—"
"It's okay! Are you thinking of your grandfather?"
Miss Yung opened her arms and embraced me. No longer embarrassed, I buried my face in her sturdy shoulder and cried freely. She gently patted my back and said,
"It's okay, it's okay, you're a good kid."
[To be continued]
* As remarked before, the word “bei” (悲）in the nickname Teacher Bei or Bei Sir means “grief.” It sounds both sad and funny.
**The surname “Yung” is 容 in the Chinese original. The change in pronunciation here makes it the same as 擁, which means “embrace” or “own.” She asks Sun Fei to call her Ah Yung (阿容) or Sister Yung (容姐). Sun Fei uses the latter expression throughout the novel, but I translate it as “Miss Yung” instead because “Sister Yung” doesn’t sound natural in English.