It is early in the morning. Tucked away two rows behind the YMCA in Brickfields, Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad slowly stirs to life, groggily shrugging off slumber. Long before anyone else has filled the street, the sound of printing presses chugging merrily away fills the morning air. Welcome to what I would like to call Print Street, an almost one-stop solution to all your mass printing needs.
Wedding invitations and greeting cards provide the main source of income to most of the businesses along Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad, although many printers do offer an extensive list of other print services as well. Despite the misleading demeanor of crumbling, old shop fronts with paint peeling off the walls, I find that the analogue print business is actually thriving here, contrary to popular belief.
My first stop is at Percetakan Chemy Sdn Bhd, better known as Chemy Cards. Sitting smack in the middle of the Print Street, it is arguably the largest, most commercial printing press in the area with cards distributed by agents located all around Malaysia and Singapore. The shop is strewn with a mind-boggling kaleidoscope of festive greeting cards and decorations for the upcoming Deepavali celebrations. Tamil songs blare from loudspeakers as a continuous stream of customers drift in and out of the shop to pick up their customised orders.
In this age of e-mail, text messages and Skype calls, it’s surprising to see just how many people have stayed with tradition, preferring to send paper greetings, with envelopes, stamps and all. I manage to sit down with the obliging resident designer for the past ten years, Ms. Rathiga Krishnan. She tells me that they receive 30 to 40 design orders every six months, printing more than a thousand copies for some designs as well as cranking out thousands of copies of pre-made cards.
With humble beginnings in Masjid India more than fifteen years ago, Chemy moved to Brickfields in 1999 and now boasts around twenty employees. They work with a combination of old school and hi-tech equipment, and boast a website that features their entire catalogue. Like many of the shops of the street, Chemy have not been afraid to venture into online sales, and this has no doubt helped their business to grow where it might have otherwise stagnated.
A few shops away, I speak to another proprietor, Mr. SL Vasu of SLVS Print Enterprise. Mr. Vasu, originally from Negeri Sembilan, personally started the business ten years ago. Mr Vasu tells me that business has been getting better over the years, with the top earner being wedding cards. “People generally don’t respond as enthusiastically to a digital wedding invitation as they would to a real one. It shows the effort that was made to invite you,” he explains.
It’s this effort; this “going to the trouble” of picking out cards is what has kept businesses on this street thriving. After all, pieces of paper mark some of the most important occasions in our lives, from births to weddings to funerals. This is confirmed by Mrs. Kasturi of AK Prompt Print Work. “People are quick to think that the printing business is a dying industry,” Mrs Kasturi tells me. “But the Asian culture is one that is deeply rooted in customs, traditions and formality. No one I know would dream of sending an E-card instead of a paper card as an invite or greeting. It’s just not done.”
Mrs. Kasturi, who is the sole female proprietor on the street, opened for business 11 years ago. Her shop is open seven days a week and proudly displayed on the office wall are rows of their best cards, from the gloriously tacky to more conventional and classic designs. “We design customised cards, working with the customer to get their desired effect,” she says, quelling my interest in a curious iPhone shaped wedding invitation. Cards range from RM1.80 each for simpler, preset designs all the way to RM3 each for the most elaborate types, all with a minimum order of a thousand cards. AK also designs and prints motivational and religious books as well as gift boxes for larger corporate clients.
I find it heartwarming that printing traditions are alive and well in the heart of KL. Indeed, some of the shops on this street still survive using machines that are nearly one hundred years old. I discover two such machines at Mani RM Printers, a tiny shop with no signage whatsoever save a small, dusty banner announcing the names of the previous tenants. Amid the noise emitted by an ancient machine shaking and shuddering at the skilled hands of his mere two employees, I meet Mr. Subramaniam, who has around 17 years of experience in the industry.
“We mainly print books and magazines here, not cards,” says Mr. Subramaniam. To my utter amazement, he pulls out a glossy business magazine. Mr Subramaniam’s antique single colour printing presses churn out up to seven or eight thousand copies of books and magazine orders a month on average, miraculously managing to fit in a few more orders of exercise books and invoices for regular customers.
It’s clear that the shops along Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad are meeting a high demand for printed products, as well as creating a number of skilled jobs. While it’s still a labour intensive craft, the combination of traditional paper customs and modern technology has allowed these printing businesses to find their niche. Hopefully, the employees of these printing veterans will eventually start their own businesses or take over the existing shops, and thus ensure the survival of the Print street for many more years to come.
Photos by Stacy Liu
Ready-made greeting card – RM1.80
Bespoke wedding invitation – RM3.30
Deepavali Decorations – RM5
Chemy Cards, 131 Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad, Brickfields, KL (www.chemycards.com).
SLVS, 121 Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad, Brickfields, KL (www.slvsprint.com).
AK Prompt Print Work, 110 Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad, Brickfields, KL.
Mani RM Press, 141 Jalan Sultan Abdul Samad, Brickfields, KL.