About this article

Passage of Time Events Series 2 – To the Bookstores of an Era

By Chou Sing Chu Foundation



There were over 150 attendees at the event, including (front row, from left), Ms Lynn Lee (Director of Communication & Development Marketing Department, CSCF), Ms Ruth Cao (Executive Director, CSCF), Ms Woo Mun Ngan (Chief Editor of zbNOW, Lianhe Zaobao), Mr Chia Joo Ming (Editor of zbNOW, Lianhe Zaobao), Mr Kua Bak Lim (Singaporean Chinese historian), Mr Choo Thiam Siew (Member of CSCF), Prof and Mrs Wang Gungwu, Dr Lee Peng Shu (Member of CSCF), and Dr Ho Soo Guang (Member of CSCF).

Is it possible to summarise the 135 years of the Singapore bookstore industry within an hour? This was the challenge we faced a year after completing Passage of Time: Singapore Bookstore Stories 1881-2016.

On 13 May 2017, Chou Sing Chu Foundation (CSCF) and Lianhe Zaobao presented the second instalment in the Passage of Time Events Series at National Library’s The Pod. Titled “To the Bookstores of an Era: Excavating the History of Singapore’s Century-Old Bookstore Industry”, Lim Jen Erh – co-owner of Grassroots Book Room and one of the judges for Lianhe Zaobao’s “Books of 2016” – engaged the editors in sharing their experiences in producing Passage of Time. The five editors took readers on a journey of the local book industry’s century of change through the five areas of conceptualisation, editing, interviews, writing, and translation.


Returning to the Era of Bookstores


(From left) Grassroots Book Room co-owner Mr Lim Jen Erh, alongside the Chou Sing Chu Foundation team of editors, Kiew Li Lian, Quek See Ling, Sing Song Chin, Daryl Li, Shawn Pang, and the emcee for the evening, Tan Yu Xin (Correspondent of zbNOW, Lianhe Zaobao) discussed the past and present of the Singapore bookstore industry

The Passage of Time project began life in CSCF’s “I Remember Gallery” exhibition at BookFest@Singapore in December 2014. Held in conjunction with the “Singapore Memory Project” – a nationwide movement commemorating Singapore’s 50 years of nation-building – the exhibition focused on the bookstores in and around Bras Basah Complex. At the time, CSCF also published The Bras Basah Bookstore Journey, a newsprint publication. Subsequently, the CSCF team took on the challenge of presenting these various elements in a single publication.

As our editors are all too young to bear witness to the era of the bookstores, we had to “travel back in time” to unearth this history. To present an objective overview, we decided to move away from just focusing on the areas south and north of the Singapore River, popularly known as “Da Po” and “Xiao Po” respectively. Instead, we expanded the scope to all corners of the island, providing a detailed analysis of the bookstores from region to region.


Sketching the Shape of an Era


Located at the back of the venue, this small exhibition about Passage of Time drew the attention of many attendees

As the region’s business and cultural centre then, Singapore had its fair share of major bookstores spread across the island, but there were numerous independent bookstores too. How could we objectively render the details of this era through the stories of all these bookstores? Further, Chinese bookstores were the mainstay of the early Singapore book industry, and translating the underlying Chinese cultural heritage for English readers proved to be a huge challenge.

Indeed, every unique story of the 50 bookstores featured in Passage of Time showcases the distinct style of the individual bookstore, yet is representative of the 135-year history of the Singapore book industry that encompasses nearly 500 bookstores. The presentation of the local bookstore culture was divided into four periods: the Pioneer Era (1881-1920), the Era of Localism (1921-1950), the Golden Era (1951-1970), and the Modern Era (1971-2010).

Many bookstores have moved away from their roots with the changing times, but they remain in the collective memory of the readers. Though fragmented, they are not forgotten – this is the reason for producing Passage of Time. With a deep appreciation of a beautiful era of bookstores already past, these memories constitute this book. We hope that this era of shared love between readers and bookstores will not only persist in our memories, but will continue to be expressed in concrete action into the future.


(Translated by Daryl Li)

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s). Reproduction of content will require full and clear credit to the author(s) and CSCF.