Meet the sisters who are reviving the traditional art of printmaking in a city obsessed with new technology

By Edmund Ho

Traditional letterpress printing has gone from being a dying art to a rising trend, thanks to a few dedicated individuals

By Edmund Ho |

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Sisters Donna (left) and Nicole Chan founded their letterpress company in 2012.

With the development of new printing technology, it seems strange that anyone would choose to be a traditional printer these days. But that is exactly what Nicole Chan and her sister Donna chose to do when they set up their own letterpress printing company Ditto Ditto. So what is letterpress?

“Printmaking at its simplest is putting ink on something, and then making an imprint on a piece of paper. There are, however, many kinds of printing; there’s screen-printing, or copperplate etching. Letterpress is one of the many types,” Nicole says.

Letterpress is the kind of printing that German inventor Johannes Gutenberg introduced to Europe in the 1400s; the text, which is on a raised surface, is coated with ink and then pressed onto a piece of paper. Because a press is used instead of a modern printer, the final product will have a unique texture and colour to it.

This method does have its downsides, though; the main one is how time-consuming it is.

Ditto Ditto team member Max operates the Heidelberg presses in the studio.
Photo: Ditto Ditto

“It’s more of a craft than a practical way of printing, because it does take more time to print out each project, and because each project has different requirements and considerations,” says Nicole.

Nicole discovered her love for design when she was a student; she was happiest when she was making greeting cards for her friends and teachers.

“I recall thinking how nice it would be to get a job at Hallmark or a company that would allow me to do what I love, but never considered actually doing it,” she says.

She admits to having doubts about pursuing a career in design and the fine arts at the time; many of her friends studied more “practical” subjects like economics or finance – subjects she was never very interested in. “I’ve always felt that my strength is in the fine arts, so I would want to use these skills to produce something. In the past, I considered studying economics or subjects like that, but I found it very hard to imagine myself working at a bank or in an office.”

Wooden blocks like this were used for letterpress printing.
Photo: Edmund Ho/SCMP

Since Nicole and Donna started Ditto Ditto in 2012, Hong Kong has changed; letterpress printing was not a popular craft back then, and many of the old printing shops which still used traditional printing presses were forced to close because of rising rents.

Donna, the executive director of Ditto Ditto, says that while handcrafted products are appreciated more now, these types of industries still do not receive enough recognition in Hong Kong.

“I think compared to Western countries, the appreciation level isn’t quite up there yet,” she says. “We can see that the expatriate market is more open here in Hong Kong, but the environment makes it harder for Hongkongers to have exposure to things like letterpress.

“I believe if they had more opportunities to interact with crafts like letterpress, they would appreciate the effort that went into making it.”

Despite these hurdles, Nicole doesn’t regret pursuing the path that led to Ditto Ditto.

Nicole is meticulous in checking the final products.
Photo: Ditto Ditto

“I think courage and confidence are the two most important [elements] to doing what you love. Courage, so you have the guts to take that first step towards achieving your goal; and confidence, so you don’t have to worry or be anxious about the steps after that. Taking the first step is what matters.”

Ditto Ditto has come a long way from being a teenager’s dream. Tomorrow and on Sunday, they will be conducting a hands-on demonstration of letterpress printing in the bookstore Eslite (10/F, Hysan Place, Causeway Bay) as well as a workshop on Saturday. But Nicole says nothing’s really changed from when she first started making cards for her friends.

“I can’t forget the first time I made a greeting card for my friend; that feeling of happiness is what I wanted to share with her, and that’s what I want to share with people now through letterpress printing.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge