10 things about: P. Sivabalan, the typewriter expert

Picture by Choo Choy May
Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 25 — In a digital era where computers and smartphones are the tools we use for communication and work, typewriters are so rare that only a handful of companies still use them.

And P. Sivabalan, 59, a typewriter repairman who fixes manual and electronic typewriters is just as rare.

His shop in Brickfields also sells modern computer accessories such as printers, inks and so on but he also sells refurbished typewriters that are considered antiques now.

The former professional footballer spent many years as a typewriter technician before he decided to start his own business. Balan has worked in every field with regards to typewriters, from cleaning to servicing and selling.

In his own words:

I started school in La Salle Sentul. I finished my education at an early stage when I was in Standard Six. I lost my father at an early stage. I’m the fifth and the only son. I was doing odd jobs like construction. I spent three years doing that until one day my brother-in-law introduced me to a typewriter company.

We were based in Leboh Ampang. There used to be a big bus stand there. Initially when I was working with the company, my job was to clean the machines. I had to wait until one of the boys left the company, which took a year, then they gave me a better position. It was a job to record the machines coming in and going out. Then, another technician left so I joined the service side. The service side is where we had to go to individual companies to service the typewriters. I’m sure you heard about KTM, Malayan Railways — that’s what we called them. They used to have vast typist pools, they would have 20 people sitting and typing.

Imagine 20 people typing, you can hear the whole place... we used to go service there. That took me three to four years. Then I became a senior technician. This is where we started to troubleshoot machines, cannibalise them, strip them and re-do them to good, working machines. That was for until 1980. From there we started doing electrical machines. We learned how to repair these electrical machines. In 1988, electronics was on the way already.

In 1989 I was sent for training in Japan, in Nagoya... Brother Industrial Company in Japan. So I was there for two months. That’s where we started doing electronic typewriters. Initially, we were doing Jawi typewriters. We were exporting Jawi typewriters to East Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Very few people used Jawi typewriters in West Malaysia because there were very few Jawi newspapers. Today you don’t see Jawi newspapers. In Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah they used to have some.

You can also have a Tamil typewriter or Jawi typewriter or Chinese typewriter. I don’t know if you have seen a Chinese typewriter before or not but it will take a block and hit it on the rollers.

Even when we were creating Jawi typewriters, we didn’t know Jawi... so what I’ll do is I go to the ustaz, and I will ask him what a character looks like. Because Jawi is different from Arabic. They use different styles. We write down these words and we keep.

I’ve been doing typewriters for 25 years. I started my own company about 12 years back. When the computer companies came very strongly, the directors of the company moved back to Japan. Brother International came into Malaysia by themselves. Last time, we were like the main franchisers. Now we are just resellers.

I started BBC, Brother Base Centre. I am still dealing with Brother because our main products are Brother so I rather keep the Brother and then I put “base”, everybody knows we are here and I kept the “centre” there.

My favourite typewriter is the Olympia, a German-made manual typewriter. They are beautiful, hardly get spoiled and they are almost perfect. If you see a manual typewriter you will see one character a little bit to this side, left or right but the Olympia they have 90 per cent accuracy. Usually I will keep but then somebody will buy it from us.

We actually knew at an early stage that things were becoming more advanced. So that’s why we kept ourselves advanced, preparing for the changes. We sell electronic printers, labelling machines. If we show a typewriter to anybody below 25, they would ask, “What is this?” That shows that they don’t know about typewriters. Also those days we had typing classes... up to 1990. You have heard about Goon Institute where they teach you how to type ASD. You learn it using both hands. All your eight fingers will know to touch which characters. If you go to a young person now (about 20 years old) if you ask her to type at the computer, she will probably use three or four fingers.