Wong Hung-cheung

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2003, 12:00am

From 1952, I worked in small Chinese newspapers; the ones printed on one sheet, meaning each edition consisted of just four pages. Some were notorious, such as the Hung Luk Pao (the Red Green Daily) and Chiu Yin Pao. They were called 'pocket newspapers' because they were easily folded and stuffed into pockets if someone approached and you didn't want to be seen reading a naughty sheet. I also worked for 'mosquito papers' - news sheets that appeared unannounced and disappeared a couple of days later - and entertainment sheets. The newspapers paid very little in those days and turnover was very high. We worked 12-hour shifts, beginning at 4pm or 5pm and were paid $4 a shift. We were paid at the end of each shift. When the Korean War erupted more newspapers started publishing.

The Chinese papers sold for 10 cents and cost less than five cents to publish.

We worked for them because we were not on staff and were free to do other part-time work, if we had the energy after a 12-hour shift. At times it was really desperate. The $4 a shift broke down into 60 to 70 cents per thousand Chinese characters. And we worked from handwritten scripts, trying not to make mistakes. Labour was plentiful and it was easy to get fired. Some reporters had impossible handwriting and we used to dread being given their stories to work from.

What we did was sort individual Chinese characters and place them in proper order on printer's blocks. We worked back to front so the characters came out the right way round when printed. Once a block was ready, we covered it with a wet cloth and applied printer's ink with large brushes, before the blocks were heated. Each block could print up to 5,000 sheets.

I spent my entire working life as a printer - from the time I was 16 until I retired in 1997 aged 69. In the 50-plus years I spent in the profession, we went from hot metal to computers and from beating characters into place on printing blocks to photographing entire pages ready for printing. My wage when I started was one bar of soap and $5 in cash a month, and the boss paid for haircuts. This was during the war, when we were also given cash coupons.

My first real pay after the war amounted to between $70 and $80 a month. I was working for the Sun Wah Printing Company at the time. It sounds a small amount but it was enough to support my mother and myself. By the time I retired, my salary had increased to $7,000 a month.

When I started I worked only in the Chinese language. Later I worked in English for commercial printers. I never learnt English, but it wasn't difficult as there were just 26 letters to choose from and individual printers used the same words over and over, so you got to recognise and reproduce them without difficulty. We were paid 10 cents a line for English lettering. We printed anything and everything, books, copybooks, office papers, notepads - whatever was going, whatever we could get in stationery shops. I enjoyed this type of printing work best, because we got to do all sorts of jobs.

I did this for 11 years. I also spent 1984 and 1985 at the South China Morning Post's printing factory in Quarry Bay, working on telephone directories. We did it the old-fashioned way, placing names, numbers and addresses on printing blocks. The pay for part-time workers like myself was $1,200 a fortnight.

I married when I was 33. My wife, Kwan Siu, was a stapler. A friend introduced us. She continued to work in the printing business until we started a family in 1968. We had two sons and a daughter. After the birth of our first child, she worked from home, stapling annual reports. She also made dolls' clothes and sewed jeans at home. From time to time, she worked as a cleaner.

All three children completed secondary school and the two boys went on to graduate from the City Polytechnic University. One did computer studies and the other took a commercial course. My daughter did not want to do tertiary studies and went into accounting. My wife and I were happy that the boys wanted to improve themselves and we encouraged them to apply for government loans to further their studies. Each loan was paid within three years.

My younger son lives with us in Ma On Shan. We help look after our two grandchildren, by taking them to school and helping them with their homework.

In my spare time I visit the social centre for the elderly run by SAGE in Sha Tin to use its computer. I enjoy learning things online.

My wife and I have been very fortunate, we get on well with our children and their spouses. We have visited a few countries in Asia with the children, including Japan and Thailand. We also went on group tours to Europe, Australia and the United States. The younger generation insisted we enjoyed ourselves on them.

Contact vmaher@pacific.net.hk if you have interesting memories