Tap tap tap

My grandpa loved his typewriter. He used it to tap out notes to his children, share thoughts with his US immigration lawyer and conduct church business. Luckily for me, he preserved all his correspondence using carbon copies. Even better, he wrote in English so that his ABC granddaughter could read his letters a century after his birth.

When Grandpa fled China for the United States, he worked for a while at a printer in San Francisco setting the typeface. I knew that he and Grandma lived in Chinatown so I’ve always wondered whether Grandpa worked an English-language printing press or a Chinese typewriter. Then I found this photo on my last trip to Los Angeles.

Grandpa at the printer’s.

The Chinese typewriter

If that’s the machine where Grandpa set type, then it wasn’t a Chinese typewriter. That device was invented in 1916 by fellow MIT graduate Zhou Houkun. His device was capable of printing 2,000 Chinese characters per hour rather than the going rate of 3,000 per day written by hand. The Chinese typewriter has no keyboard but rather a metal rod to select characters.

typists would move a selector-lever over the tray to hunt for the character they needed, then press a bar, which would trigger a lever to pick up the character, ink it, type it and return it to its place.

Julie Makinen, “Before the computer, there was something almost as complex: the Chinese typewriter” in Los Angeles Times, 3 Sept 2016

As groundbreaking as this invention was for its time, the Chinese typewriter was not a convenience item. A Double Pigeon or Seagull model could cost 20 times an average monthly salary. The machines were large, cumbersome and heavy. Worst of all, even a highly skilled typist could only manage 20-30 words per minute.

Then again, what’s a little time among refugees? In addition to his work at the printing press, Grandpa joined the Free Masons and sat on the board of the Calvary Presbyterian Church. There were plenty of Chinese Christians in San Francisco at the time, perhaps some of whom would have preferred to read the liturgy in their own language.

Thomas Mullaney is an associate professor at Stanford University. He is an expert on the Chinese typewriter who came by his passion accidentally. He acquired his first Chinese typewriter

from a man who was getting rid of one once used by a Chinese American church in San Francisco.

Julie Makinen

Little Red Book

Meanwhile back in China, Mao Zedong had figured out the benefits a Chinese typewriter might deliver for the cause. Mao wanted to communicate with the masses but he could not visit every village. He needed to have his speeches transcribed and widely circulated, perhaps in the form of a pocket-sized Little Red Book.

After 1949, the Communists nationalized all the Japanese-owned typewriter manufacturers in the country. From that moment, the Chinese typewriter took off.

Crucially, the layout of the keyboard was altered to ensure that the most commonly used political vocabulary was easily produced. The four characters of She-hui-zhu-yi (socialism) were therefore grouped in close proximity, as were the three characters of Mei-di-guo (American imperialist).

Alexander Monro, “Show of character: The social and political development of printed Chinese” in the Times Literary Supplement, 1 June 2018
Image source: The History of the Chinese Typewriter

Under the Communists, operating a Chinese typewriter became easier but owning one privately was banned. Only politically reliable institutions were granted a license to possess such a dangerous item. According to typewriter collector Jackson Lu: The government controlled typewriters like they controlled guns.

Palm of the hand

I used to take notes on the palm of my hand: names, a telephone number, something I needed to do before the ink spread too far. My mom writes in her hand, too, though she doesn’t use any ink. Just the tip of her finger to trace Chinese characters. It’s her way to keep her language alive.

The HSK test is the Chinese version of a TOEFL. Both exams rate your level of fluency in respectively Mandarin and English. At HSK Level 1, you should be able to read Chinese street signs using 200 characters. For Level 2 — basic conversation and simple tasks — 350 characters is the norm. Back in the day when I thought I could still master the Chinese language, I never got past HSK Level 3 = 600 characters. You can’t reach true fluency until you master 5,000 out of a total of 50,000 characters.

That’s a lot of palm-scratching for Mom to do. Luckily for her, nowadays there are smartphones and touch pads. They use the same sort of predictive text methodology Mao wanted in his Chinese typewriter. Mom uses her fingertip to write the first few strokes of a character on the touch pad. Those of us who learned Chinese after 1949 use pinyin, a romanized version of Mandarin. The computer takes care of the rest.

Today’s Chinese netizens use a similar approach […] punching in letters and then selecting a character (or multi-character word) from a drop-down menu of predictive options.

Alexander Monro

It doesn’t quite match my romantic image of the solitary writer tap tap tapping away at a typewriter. In the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, I once saw a video of such a writer seated at a desk in front of an open window. Outside, the rain poured down in the way it can only do on a tropical island. The palm leaves shuddered, the typewriter carriage rattled, the tapping sped up. I still wonder: what was he writing?