Located in the heart of Melaka, The Royal Press is a polyglot letterpress living museum dedicated to preserving the craft of letterpress printing.
Relive the journey of an age-old printing business. Explore Melaka’s culture through its rich legacy.
Launched in October 2013, The Royal Press is a letterpress living museum. It began its existence in 1938 as a letterpress printing house on the historic Jonker Street. The Royal Press is one of the oldest surviving polyglot letterpress printing houses in the world. It has withstood the vicissitudes of time, and continues printing for a small clientele today. The museum houses a range of letterpress machines and printed artefacts from its 78-year printing history. There is also an extensive letter-block library with over 150,000 blocks in four writing systems: Roman alphabets, Chinese characters, Arabic and Tamil scripts.
The name Royal is inspired from Luo Yang (洛阳), which was one of the four great ancient capitals of China and cradles of Chinese culture.
In the early 1900s, a young man left the Fujian province in China for the shores of Malaysia in the hopes of finding a better livelihood. Ee Swee Tiang settled in Klang and opened a printing shop that was passed on to his son, Ee Lay Swee. In 1936, Lay Swee moved to Melaka with his wife, Lim Kim Bee, to start his own printing business — The Royal Press.
The Japanese occupation during World War II almost closed the business down as the original shophouse was destroyed, but The Royal Press persevered and moved to its present location.
After the war, business thrived, catering for the needs of the community.
The 1960s brought with it the onset of modern printing technology. Business began to decline. Although the family could afford to expand the business, they chose not to buy new machines and instead, opted to continue using the labour-intensive letterpress cylinder machines – a decision made to protect the livelihood of the staff, as introducing modern technology would have meant fewer jobs.
By 2000, The Royal Press was a shadow of its former glory. From over 30 employees at its peak, only 4 remain today to run a dying printing business.
In 2009, Ee Soon Wei, the grandson of Lay Swee, embarked on a journey to preserve not only a family legacy, but a unique facet of Melaka’s cultural history.
The building where The Royal Press makes its home tells part of that story. It is situated in a century-old building that was originally a Dutch colonial house. Its eclectic architecture is a combination of Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese influences, reflecting the Peranakan culture that has come to define Melaka.
Reviving The Royal Press has been an arduous labour of love. When refurbishment works began, a dilapidation study was conducted, revealing the alarming state of The Royal Press building, which was in a worse condition than previously thought. Water was seeping through the walls, damaging refurbishment works on antique murals. Beams supporting the roof were infested with termites; the terracotta floor tiles were cracked; the clay roof tiles were found to be brittle, and the timber floor on the upper level of the building was also sagging.
While the museum undergoes refurbishment, The Royal Press team continues to develop content for the museum.
Our design and development team is currently based at APW Bangsar, where a workshop has been specially set up for The Royal Press. Here, visitors can view some of our machines and letter blocks, which have been moved from Melaka. A dedicated team of researchers remains at the museum premises for archival work.
The Royal Press is scheduled to reopen in mid-2017.
Restoration works at the museum focus not only on the structural preservation of the building, but also bringing back to life the character of the building such as the murals on the arches and walls. Specialised artisans from China who have more than 30 years of experience with heritage building restoration have been recruited to meticulously recreate all the murals in the building.
We have a letter-block library that houses over 150,000 blocks in four different language types: Roman alphabets, Chinese characters, Arabic and Tamil scripts. This unique polyglot collection reflects the multicultural community that The Royal Press has served throughout the years.
The Royal Press houses printed materials dating back eight decades, and we continue printing today. The Royal Press has printed a wide range of materials including medicine boxes, wine labels, newspapers, and more. Printed memorabilia from liquor labels to old bus tickets to 1950s Peranakan calendars tell a timeless story of the history of Malacca through its forgotten everyday treasures.
A range of printing machines remains at The Royal Press, and many are still functioning today. Among these is an original Glockner-Mercedes dating back to 1956. We also have a Linotype Model 78 made in 1961, an intricate line-casting machine that makes casted rows of letter types by melting lead metal.
The Royal Press is very grateful to have found partners in both Yayasan Sime Darby and CIMB Foundation, who have generously funded our restoration works and are passionate about preserving the diverse heritage and rich culture in The Royal Press. Besides our funders, we have also found support in Professor Phil Cleaver, one of England’s most eminent designers, who has helped us with research and archival work.
We hold occasional workshops and sell products to highlight the craft of letterpress and share our story. All proceeds go towards making The Royal Press sustainable.
Support our work and own a piece of The Royal Press by visiting our online store here.