Wai-te-ata Press

Perched on a hill in the Victoria University of Wellington’s Kelburn Campus Library, Wai-te-ata Press is a treasure trove of neatly organised cabinets of moveable type, beautifully restored letterpress machines and a vast selection of publications in several languages. But what makes this space really come to life and sparks joy for anyone who enters, is it’s ethos of building community through creative print projects and intercultural collaboration. Particularly interesting is their cross-cultural engagement initiatives which aim to increase accessibility to people from all linguistic backgrounds by creating entirely new type collections to include unique language features such as the macronised vowels in te reo. Using 3D printing technology, they started creating type in larger sizes using plastic filament and were delighted to discover during the process that a range of patterns could be achieved in the surface texture. Experimenting with these new-found possibilities became a project in itself. Blending analogue printing methods with digitally produced fonts is embraced as part of the studio’s daily practice, producing what they call the digital hand-made.

New technology has been central in a current project to restore the only surviving Chinese heritage type in New Zealand, originally used to print the New Zealand Chinese Growers Monthly Journal, produced in Wellington and distributed to every Chinese household in the country between 1949 and 1972. Publications Assistant, Ya-Wen Ho, has been involved in the lengthy process of assessing the condition of each of the estimated 7,500 individual characters, which could potentially be a total of 380,000 in number, after taking into account the necessary duplicates and various font sizes. She has been meticulously photographing each one with an electron microscope, checking the condition and has then used a touchscreen, combined with a third party handwriting software, to invite volunteers to identify the characters by simply tracing what they see. It isn’t necessary that the volunteers know the language as the software describes the character, giving the definition in use, as well as demonstrating the order of the strokes. The aim of this interactive tool is twofold – it is a way to tackle the monumental data input required for this project while at the same time offering volunteers a fun and engaging language learning experience. Recently developed into an digital application, volunteers will now be able to be involved without having to come into the studio, and will hopefully attract more young people to volunteer.

Now that restoration is well underway, this unique heritage type collection will be used in a series of crowd translation workshops run by Ya-Wen Ho and Associate Professor Dr. Sydney Shep, as an opportunity to build a community led project to highlight Chinese print history and its New Zealand stories. This project will involve translating twenty-four poems published in the New Zealand Chinese Growers Monthly Journal, written by editor Lionel Chan, using a genre referred to as the Bamboo Branch Songs. Defined by its form, which consists of four stanzas, each comprised of four lines and seven syllables, there are also specific themes and tone in which they are expressed. This form has been around for quite a long time and was traditionally used by travellers as a kind of travelogue to capture the sights and the sounds of knew places. This particular collection of poems, which are a wonderful blend of classical Chinese, colloquial Cantonese and transcribed English, beautifully captures snippets of everyday life in Wellington during the 1950s and 60s using wit and satire to give a sense of the vitality of the times. In order to capture the nuances of these poems, one translation or one translator won’t be privileged over another. Instead, these voices will be intertwined to tell a much richer story about Chinese New Zealand life. On completion, Wai-te-ata Press envisions publishing a bilingual edition of Wellington Bamboo Branch Songs using the original metal types, together with the local Chinese community, scholars, translators and letterpress printers.

Included as part of the long-term plan for this heritage type collection is to create a Chinese Scholar Studio to house the types, host scholars and creatives in residence, as well as hold events and have an exhibition space for their archive. Ya-Wen Ho, who is also a poet and of Chinese heritage herself, believes this crowd translation project will be an opportunity for Chinese creatives, like herself, to shift into creative translation, to reimagine what these poems are saying to them in the 21st Century. 

Crowd translation workshops will be held throughout the year at Wai-te-ata Press, the first one commencing on Friday 26 February between 2pm and 4pm. If you’d like to attend simply send Ya Wen Ho an email to receive an invite and RSVP. You can also drop in and see them at the Asian Market, Shed 6, TSB Arena Wellington, on Sunday 14 February, 10am to 5pm. Visitors will be able to have a go at printing one of the stanzas using the a selection from the Heritage Type Collection using a one of Wai-te-ata’s small portable printing presses. It will also be an opportunity to try the newly developed translation application.  


Wai-te-ata Press: https://www.wgtn.ac.nz/wtapress/