While the city of Hong Kong sleeps, the presses at the South China Morning Post’s Tai Po factory are in full gear.
A day here begins at 3 p.m., when the factory starts receiving proofs of the next day’s paper. Every hour, each of the facility’s 18 presses churns out 50,000 to 60,000 copies. They don’t stop until 6 a.m. the next day.
“Even in the worst typhoons, we have to go to work,” says Clare Chu, the plant’s operations director.
This is the life that the factory’s 95 workers have chosen. Some employees came with a curiosity for print; others landed on the job after working similarly nocturnal occupations such as fishmongering and waiting tables.
For Chu, it was the thrill of working with ink and paper.
“Our paper—newsprint—is thin, but we can’t let the ink spread, we can’t let it bleed through,” Chu says. “How can you not call that an art?”
The presses have been operating at Tai Po in the outskirts of Hong Kong since 1996. Before, they were at Quarry Bay, closer to downtown, and the entire production process was manual. That meant a designated team of workers had to set the physical type.
Now, everything is done digitally.
“There’s nothing I miss about the manual process,” Chu says. “It was slow and labor-intensive. This was the biggest improvement with going digital.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t hiccups. One night, according to Chu, all the machines printing next day’s paper stopped running at once. It was especially peculiar because each unit was controlled individually, which meant all of them stopping simultaneously had to be an act of God—or a ghost.
“We didn’t get the paper out until 8 a.m.,” Chu says. “We never figured out the reason behind it, so the next day, we all held a seance. Even our chairman and editors attended.”
Still, Chu’s most memorable night of her 25-year career remains Sept. 11, 2001. The next day’s paper had already been closed when planes struck the World Trade Center in New York.
“We were playing mahjong after work when we saw on television that planes had hit the World Trade Center,” Chu says. “Our phones started ringing, and we all left the game and went back to work.”
In Chu’s eyes, she and others at the facility are stewards of a dying art form. There are only six factories left mass-producing newspapers in Hong Kong, according to Chu. The rest have already packed up to the mainland, where production is cheaper.
“Printing is an art,” Chu says. “I still want to produce a high-quality paper. I’m not going to slack off just because no one’s reading newspapers, and our team won’t either.”
In the past few years, output has declined as more readers move online. But Chu believes there will still be demand for print for at least another few years.
“We still hire new people and train them,” Chu says. “We need people to carry this on.”