Tin Shack Printing Factory in Taiwan Bags the Biggest Advertising Account from Japan
Sep 15, 2019

There’s a corner of Taichung City’s southern district that’s cramped with factories operating out of sheet metal buildings. One of these factories is LongShun Special Printing Plant (隆順燙金印刷行). Inside, the printing machines kick up quite a racket even as giant industrial fans work overtime to keep the air flowing. Stacked neatly on one side are finished products—beautiful paper boxes used for packaging gifts.

At the approach of the reporter from CommonWealth, owner Hsu Ming Chih (徐明智) wipes the sweat from his brow and puts aside his work to give this reporter a proper welcome. Hsu is 41 years of age and has been a master of the hot stamping technique for over 20 years. After completing his mandatory military service, he set up shop to print wedding invitations and paper boxes used to package gifts.

However, today he is proudly showing us two baskets brimming with exquisitely designed and expertly printed business cards and greeting cards. As he explains, it becomes apparent that the names on the cards are Japanese. It’s not a fluke—Hsu once printed publications for Dentsu Inc., the biggest advertising agency in Japan. The material they asked him to print represented the corporate image Dentsu wanted to promote for that year—very important stuff!

A Taiwanese Printer in Tokyo

How did business from Japan find its way to this corner of Taichung? There’s a matchmaker at work here, no doubt. It’s a design company established by Taiwanese designers in Japan—Beyond Experience Group (BXG), and their special brand of service called “EP Printing Service in Taiwan” (台灣EP印刷服務).

We meet the 32-year-old visual designer Weijhe Lin (林唯哲) in a café near the famous Min-sheng Community in Taipei. Sporting black-rimmed glasses and a head of lanky locks, he is the co-founder of BXG, and he is the driving force behind the “designed in Japan, made in Taiwan” business model.

Hsu is one such brave printer. More than a decade ago, when Lin was still an undergraduate in the Department of Industrial Design at Tunghai University, he started to work with Hsu. Even after moving to Japan to study and work, Lin still sent a lot of orders back home to his trusty partner in Taichung.

Take hot stamping for example. This technique is widely used in Taiwan, so the finished products are of the highest quality. A similar order in Japan may cost three times what LongShun asks for in Taiwan.

The second reason Lin advocates the “EP Printing Service in Taiwan” is because he’s heard about the declining state of things back home. In a desperate attempt to stay afloat, Taiwanese printing companies are undercutting each other’s prices in a mutually destructive race to the bottom. Hsu uses himself as an example: when he first got into the business, he could expect an order for something like 200 or 300 hot-stamped wedding invitations in a day. Now the orders are a tenth of what they used to be, and the profit margin went from fifty to twenty percent.

Lin’s team keeps a close eye on quality: “I’ve received more than a hundred orders from Weijhe, but we’ve only had to redo products once or twice to make up for suboptimal quality.”

“EP Printing Service in Taiwan” has completed about 250 projects since opening for business earlier this year. Lin connects Japanese customers with Taiwanese printing factories best suited to their needs; he currently works with some twenty Taiwanese companies.

The First Japanese Guide to Taiwanese Design

Lin’s philosophy is to export Taiwan’s industry-leading technology to the world, and to present Taiwan’s design skills on the global stage.

Lin was born in Kaohsiung. After graduating from Tunghai University, he went on to pursue a master’s degree at the Tokyo University of the Arts. In the university’s seventy years of history, he was only the second Taiwanese student to get a master’s degree in its Department of Design.

Studying at the design mecca of his dreams also taught Lin why Japanese design needed Taiwan. He shared Taiwanese-designed books and album cases during classes and conferences in Japan. His presentations attracted the attention of famed designer Keiichiro Fujisaki, who was an associate professor at the university. “He told me Japan lacked such content; these are things which could stimulate the Japanese design market.”

Lin found that due to Japanese books’ and albums’ plummeting sales, the budget for designing their packaging also dropped like a stone. While Taiwan was facing the same problem, Taiwanese designers were able to boldly innovate despite a desperate lack of resources. Professor Fujisaki decided to write a book introducing Taiwanese design. He was the chief editor, and he brought on Lin to write the story about Taiwanese designers.

At the time, Lin had already graduated and had a job with the renowned GK Design Group. He worked in the morning and compiled interview notes in the evening. After a year of hard work, the book “T5” (T5:台灣書籍設計最前線) was published. It talked about five famous Taiwanese graphic designers, such as Aaron Nieh (聶永真). The book flew off the shelves and second-hand copies sold for three times the original price on the internet.

“We found that in some ways, Taiwanese design is needed after all,” says Lin. He also realized he had to leave his day job to better facilitate the exchange of ideas between Taiwanese and Japanese designers. He left the comfortable trappings of the big design company, and started BXG with Shousei Li (李章聖), whom he met in Japanese language school.

In 2016, they found near the Tokyo Tower an abandoned auto parts warehouse that was scheduled for demolition in four years. They made plans to open an art gallery villa, and they partitioned the space into accommodations, office space, and display area.

Inside the repurposed warehouse, the drywall had been removed from the upper halves of some of the walls, showing the naked concrete below. It gave the illusion of a house divided in half. They placed Taiwanese art pieces inside the rooms for artists to visit and view for free.

“In four years, all this will be dust. We exist in a limbo between existence and annihilation. But we will show off Taiwanese design and art in what time we have left.” They named the villa “Nibunno,” which is Japanese for “one half.”

The Taiwanese Album Exhibit that Attracted KinKi Kids

Limited by Japanese law, Nibunno could only offer two rooms for guests. Even if the rooms were occupied seventy percent of the time during the off season, and ninety percent of the time during the busy season, there was still no way to make their money back in four years. But the goal was to stimulate an exchange of ideas between Taiwanese and Japanese designers, and to that end Nibunno served an invaluable purpose. “In the basement, I exhibit pieces of Taiwanese art or design that I think surpass their Japanese counterparts.”

Among the numerous exhibits, the most popular and critically acclaimed is the exhibit of Taiwanese albums. Even Tsuyoshi Domoto of the J-pop duo KinKi Kids brought his team to come see the exhibit, and then wrote about his experience in his column. Recently, the display piece was invited to exhibit at London Design Week—the holy grail of design aficionados.

Vincenzo Natali, director of the acclaimed science fiction horror film “Cube,” also stayed at Nibunno. He left a note before he checked out. He found the exchange of ideas between Taiwanese and Japanese designers to be very interesting and wanted to team to keep fighting for what they believed in.

“EP Printing Service in Taiwan,” which just began providing their services this year, doesn’t print in large quantities. Around one to three hundred pieces per project is the norm. Lin believes if they build a reputation and convince the Japanese to trust in Taiwanese printing techniques, larger orders will come in.

Though he’s been working in Japan for eight years and counting, Lin never forgets why he’s here: to show the world the energy of Taiwanese design.

By Meng-Hsuan Yang
Translated by Jack C.
Edited by Sharon Tseng