In the deepest, darkest recesses of Hong Kong, there is a place where old manual typewriters go to spend their last days. These mechanical relics of a bygone era are neatly stacked in dusty shelves awaiting the occasional intrepid wordsmith who believes that the printed word is most elegant coming from a clunky clattering contraption that is immune to digital viruses or tea spills.
The manual typewriter symbolizes the literary essence of Studio Kotokoto: an exquisite design reaching back through the ages whose creative output comes out one page at a time. This past summer, one of Studio Kotokoto’s global network of family and friends who was visiting steamy Hong Kong went in search for one of these vintage writing machines.
Considerable detective work was needed to find the typewriter graveyard in a consumer mecca that worships the latest and most chic. Past the designer label shops and Dim Sum restaurants and onwards into the heart of darkness that is located in Sham Shui Po on the Kowloon Peninsula. On the bustling crowded streets of this working-class trading district, there is a collection of backstreets known as Apliu Street Flea Market where all sorts of second and third-hand electronics devices, components, and office equipment can be found for sale.
Within this labyrinth of tightly packed anonymous shops and haggling shoppers, there were only one or two outlets that sold typewriters. As these metallic monsters were as popular as fur coats for sale in the searing heat of a Hong Kong summer, they were nowhere on display.
It took several hours of wandering around to finally locate the typewriters. Some shopkeepers questioned the sanity of the Studio Kotokoto representative and others pointed out that this was the 21st Century. But eventually one especially chaotic shop that sold everything from battery-operated dogs to shrink-wrapped guitars had a handful of plastic-wrapped typewriters that had seen better days tucked away on an obscure shelf.
The machines were made by Olympia, a German company that was one of the world’s leading typewriter manufacturers during the 20th Century but had ceased making them in the early 1990s as demand dwindled. Indeed, it appears that hardly any manual typewriters are produced anymore. The last major mechanical typewriter factory shuttered its doors in India in 2011, although electric devices are still in production because of demand from prisons, police forces, and governments around the world.
While the machines on sale in Hong Kong had plenty of wear and tear, they were still in good condition and only required a little tender loving care and some elbow grease to return them to their former glory. And they were a bargain at only US$35 compared to refurbished versions being advertised online for upwards of $600.
These manual machines are also quaintly described as portable devices and come in carrying cases with handles. They are as portable though as carrying the hardbound edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but can take the place of dumbbells if you are traveling and do not have access to a gym.
Now returned to working life, the Studio Kotokoto typewriter is used to type messages requested by customers sending KotoKoto items as gifts. We are also waiting for the inevitable power outages that California endures to allow this no-nonsense workhorse of the pre-electric age to take center-stage once again, one pounded key at a time.