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New Yorkers rally to keep traditional Chinatown print shop running

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Photo by Max Parrott

A binder of old business cards in Desmond Yeoh’s basement print shop brims with New York’s past. The cards’ elegant designs advertise a Chinatown aquarium shop named Sammy, a muscle-bound bodyguard and black belt for hire, a Midtown emporium of imported video games and anime and even an old Bowery strip joint.

It’s one of a sprawling number of artifacts that Yeoh has held onto over the 25 years that he and his wife have run Y.H. Printing Inc., a shop in Chinatown, which represents one of the last of its era. 

Keeping the Y.H. Printing presses running through the pandemic hasn’t been easy. Financial woes ranging from accountant fees to rent and repairs, in combination with other Covid-related business pressures, have threatened to close Yeoh’s shop. 

Photo courtesy of Y.H. Printing

Luckily for Yeoh, Elise Wilken, a young neighbor who befriended him and his wife, created a GoFundMe this week that raised over $30,000 to alleviate financial pressures and keep the shop functioning for the time being. 

Yeoh says that his fight isn’t over. To continue operating in the long-term as one of the last letterpress printing shops in the city, he’s going to have to attract more clients. But he’s motivated to do what it takes out of a devotion to his craft.

He said he wants “to make sure that the youngsters get a chance to learn this printing and keep on doing it.”

Yeoh’s skillset involves operating a set of analog print machines – some of which are around 80 years old. The presses that he’s collected over the years allow him to produce event invitations, calendars, business cards and paper menus with a unique, old-fashioned touch. His specialties include adding a layer of glittering gold foil and using letterpress printing to give each inked letter a tactile relief from the page.

A substantial portion of Yeoh’s clientele are Chinese restaurants, which order two-and-three tone disposable paper menus. And not just in New York City either. Helen, who handles the shop’s Chinese-speaking market, has established contracts for restaurants as far as Ohio and Indiana. But the number of commissions took a hit during the pandemic as businesses that the shop previously worked with had to close.

Yeoh feared that the new pressures of Covid might be the final straw after tightening his belt for years to cope with the rising cost of Chinatown real estate.

Photo by Max Parrott

Yeoh was born in Malaysia, where he attended a Catholic trade school that taught him the art of printmaking. He married Helen as a teenager, and the couple moved to New York in 1989 with the dream of a better life.

After working at various printing companies for several years, the Yeohs set up their own business in 1996 and were eventually able to open a storefront shop at 2 Orchard Street, in addition to two other shop locations, including the basement he now operates out of. 

But in the 2010s Yeoh’s Orchard Street rent shot up from the original $700 lease, first to $4,000 and then to $9,000, Helen said. In response, Yeoh had to downsize the business to his current basement workshop on 23 Essex Street. His original shop eventually turned into the popular restaurant, Kiki’s, which compensated him for having to leave, and still displays his sign on the exterior of the building.

With downscaling, the hours have increased. At the business’s height, Yeoh had seven employees. In its present incarnation, Yeoh and his wife take on all the responsibilities of running the shop. Often he’ll be working round the clock from the morning until 2 or 3 a.m. to finish an order.

In response to the GoFundMe support, Yeoh expressed that he was humbled and grateful for all those who donated, and to Wilken, whom he and Helen referred to as their surrogate daughter.

“I help people, people help in return, you know? You never know where it [will] come from,” Yeoh said.

To visit the GoFundMe, click bit.ly/3AHfL5V.

Photo by Max Parrott

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