An Inspirational Legacy
Beneath his stern demeanour, Mr Chou Sing Chu – the founder of POPULAR – was an affable boss who inspired great respect.
Employees hate it when their bosses are especially strict about work requirements. However, they love it when their bosses correct mistakes without resorting to excoriation. The founder of POPULAR Mr Chou Sing Chu had both of these qualities. He was a strict boss, but also inspired great respect among his employees from the bottom of their hearts.
Mr Chou Sing Chu (1905-1986) was the founder of Popular Book Company and the father of Popular Holdings Limited’s Group CEO Mr Chou Cheng Ngok. He travelled from Shanghai to Singapore in 1924, establishing Cheng Hing Company, which sold Chinese New Year pictures among other products. From 1934 to 1936, he set up World Book Company and Popular Book Company on South Bridge Road and North Bridge Road respectively. While rapidly building up the bookstore business, he was also actively establishing publishing companies to publish and distribute textbooks, periodicals, and so on. He had over 40 book companies and publishing companies in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and beyond, producing over 4,000 types of publications and setting a record of having a new book published every day. The name of “Chou Sing Chu” resounded across the book industry of Southeast Asia.
The “Gaffer Checker”
Mr Chou had a unique eye for book distribution, retail, and publishing. Even though he was typically busy with external business, he never failed to give his best in managing his own bookstores and publishing companies. In fact, he would frequently do bookstore visits to check
Mr Chou was not tall, slightly plump, and had a stern demeanour. Whenever he arrived at the bookstore to do his rounds, with his excellent memory and remarkable observation skills, it was as though he was armed with a radar. He had a keen awareness of what was lacking in the bookshelves, if issues were missing for the periodicals, and whether the publications produced by his companies were displayed prominently. Despite the employees’ oversights, Mr Chou rarely reprimanded them, but would simply remind them and ask them to correct the errors.
Mr Chou never excoriated his subordinates, but every time an employee saw Mr Chou, they would still be tense and nervous. They gave him the nickname of 老查 (Laocha), a term of endearment combining two words that mean “boss” or “elder” and “one who loves to check” – a “gaffer checker”, so to speak. Outwardly, they may have regarded him as a strict boss, but in fact, they all thought of him as an elder they respected.
Notable Singaporean book collector 81-year-old Yeo Oi Sang, who was employed by World Book Company for 25 years, recalls: “In those years, everyone at World Book Company respected Mr Chou. He was not like other bosses who reprimanded or criticised others cavalierly, let alone speaking ill of others in front of them – truly an affable gentleman. He was also a trustworthy man who always kept his word. As a result, the bookstore was a picture of harmony at the time.”
Yeo joined World Book Company in 1954 as an apprentice at the age of 15. He notes that the apprentices of bookstores at the time were typically secondary school students who were 17 or 18 years old, whereas “World Book Company had several primary school students as apprentices, because the company did not base selections on academic qualifications, and would accept anyone who was willing to work and keen to learn.”
Indeed, in hiring, Mr Chou Sing Chu valued in interns and employees, the desire to improve themselves over their academic qualifications. Yeo remembers that one time, when encountering one of the apprentices reading comics during non-business hours, Mr Chou gave him a scolding, hoping to encourage the apprentice to read books that would help improve his knowledge instead. Another time, Mr Chou observed that the employees spent their rest days idly and would often claim to be bored, which sowed the seeds of establishing a public library in his mind, hoping that his employees and other members of the public would be able to spend their free time productively improving themselves. Before World War II, Mr Chou established the Popular Library using his own money. This privately-run library was set up on the second floor of Popular Bookstore, and became well-known in the Chinese community.
Mr Chou encouraged his employees to read more, and his own reading volume was astounding. Having only received three years of formal education, Mr Chou deeply understood that reading could make up for the lack of formal learning opportunities. He read every book and periodical sold in the bookstore, bringing several books home after work each day, never ceasing in his efforts to learn.
In the 1940s and the 1950s, there were about 30 to 40 employees at World Book Company and Popular Book Company. The management style emphasised improvement in an employee’s performance irrespective of existing skills. However, the taciturn Mr Chou never spoke directly to employees about their performance. Instead, when distributing the annual or performance bonuses, he would tell them: “You worked hard, but did not improve.” The improvement that he referred to was the acquiring and mastery of knowledge and wisdom. It was a line that was intended to encourage them to keep learning. This would become one of the “famous sayings of the Gaffer Checker”.
Quietly Helping Others
For a boss who had strict demands of his employees, Mr Chou was in fact a warm person who would often quietly support his subordinates in different ways. For instance, when learning that Yeo, who had left World Book Company at the time, had encountered a rough patch in his life, Mr Chou said to him: “Since you have yet to find another job, come back.” Returning to World Book Company proved to be the start of Yeo’s decades-long journey in book collection. Another example was when Mr Chou learnt that one of his employees in the wholesale department was providing haircut services in his spare time to earn some extra income, he supported the employee by frequently paying to get his hair cut too. Once, when a former employee had passed away, Mr Chou let his widow and child live in World Book Company, so as to alleviate their difficult situation. According to what Yeo would later learn, the child eventually studied in Australia and became a cardiologist.
“Mr Chou was a good boss,” Yeo declares, believing that this view would be shared by the other employees of the time. Mr Chou kept a very low profile as he went about business, and information about his contributions is limited and accounts of his deeds are rare. As such, later generations would only have a limited understanding of him.
However, from another perspective, even with such limited information, Mr Chou’s care for the staff of the bookstore and his dedication to the book industry shine through, attesting to his exemplary leadership. With POPULAR’s centenary approaching, these fragmentary stories of its founder continue to be able to inspire the tens of thousands of staff under the POPULAR banner, such that they too are in touch with his dedicated attitude in work, and the warmth emanating from the kindness he showed his employees.
Today, POPULAR has become a well-known bookstore brand all over Singapore and Malaysia, but few people have heard about the ups and downs in its history, as well as the life story of its founder Mr Chou Sing Chu. In December 2019, the year of POPULAR’s 95th anniversary, Chou Sing Chu Foundation (CSCF) and POPULAR jointly published Chou Sing Chu, Founder of POPULAR: Portrait of a Book Industry Titan, a biographical book detailing the hard work and contributions of Mr Chou Sing Chu’s journey in the book industry. In doing so, the book traces Mr Chou’s connection to the industry in an important period of its development.
CSCF was established by Popular Holdings Limited’s Group CEO Mr Chou Cheng Ngok in 2004 under his father’s name. CSCF strives to promote Chinese culture, education, and language in Singapore and, more broadly, Southeast Asia. This book was produced by CSCF’s editorial team in a bilingual edition so as to widen its reach, introducing more readers to both the history of the book industry in Singapore and also the life of Mr Chou Sing Chu. We hope all POPULAR staff can learn from Mr Chou Sing Chu’s pioneering spirit to give back to the readers who have supported POPULAR over the decades.