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Recollecting the Three Pioneers of the Singapore Book Industry (Part 1)

By Chou Sing Chu Foundation

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(From left) Shanghai Book Company’s Mr Chen Yoh Shoo (1900 – 1971), World Book Company’s Mr Chou Sing Chu (1905 – 1986), Nanyang Book Company’s Mr Tan Yeok Seong (1902 – 1984)

Out of the five major Chinese bookstores in early Singapore, three were local: Chen Yoh Shoo’s Shanghai Book Company, Chou Sing Chu’s World Book Company and Tan Yeok Seong’s Nanyang Book Company. These founders’ contributions to the region’s cultural development had such far-reaching influence that they were known as the three pioneers of the Singapore book industry. To reminisce these pioneers’ perseverance and contributions, Chou Sing Chu Foundation (CSCF) presented an event on 9 November 2017 at the Arts House that was hosted by writer Teoh Hee La.

Chen Yoh Shoo: A Bookstore Arises from the New Culture

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(From left) Mr Yeo Oi Sang (Renowned book collector, owner of Xinhua Culture Enterprises), Mr Chou Cheng Ngok (Son of Chou Sing Chu), Mr Chen Mong Tse (Son of Chen Yoh Shoo), Mr Alex Tan Tiong Hee (Son of Tan Yeok Seong), Mr Kua Bak Lim (Historian), Ms Teoh Hee La (Writer)

“Born in Zhejiang Province’s Jinxiang town, Chen Yoh Shoo’s lack of formal education meant he could only join Sean You Zoo & Company because of his brother-in-law, Wang Shu Yang,” recalled Chen Mong Tse, the son of Chen Yoh Shoo (1900 – 1971). Back then, apprentices lived in the staff hostel and underwent training in letter writing, book-keeping, and abacus. They would only be accepted as staff after passing all the tests.

Chen’s good performance earned him a posting to oversee the Singapore branch. “To alleviate loneliness during the journey, Chen Yoh Shoo brought along many Standard Chinese publications.” The New Culture Movement took root after the May Fourth Movement, but these new books and periodicals were in short supply in Southeast Asia. The huge market potential prompted Chen and Wang to establish Shanghai Book Company in 1925.

Why was the Singapore-based bookstore named “Shanghai”? “Shanghai was where the majority of its books came from, and the centre of China’s New Culture Movement,” Chen Mong Tse explained.

Tan Yeok Seong: A Bookstore to Write the Diaspora’s History

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Mr Alex Tan Tiong Hee (right, son of Nanyang Book Company’s founder Tan Yeok Seong) detailed how each of the three persons had influenced his multi-talented father; concurrent translation by Mr Shawn Pang (Editor of Chou Sing Chu Foundation)

“The three important persons in my father’s life were his mother, Dr Lim Boon Keng, and Mr Tan Kah Kee,” said Alex Tan Tiong Hee, the son of Nanyang Books Company’s founder Tan Yeok Seong. He detailed how each of the three had influenced his multi-talented father who was a bookseller, book collector, scholar, and educator:  Confucianism from his mother, his attitude towards life from Dr Lim Boon Keng, and selfless devotion to the society from Tan Kah Kee. His father’s passion for Chinese language education eventually led to the founding of his bookstore.

Tan was born in Penang, after completing his secondary school education locally, he enrolled into Xiamen University where Dr Lim was the principal. After which, he joined Tan Kah Kee’s company and later, became the Inspector of Chinese Schools of the Straits Settlements. In 1937, Tan founded Nanyang Book Company and started publishing textbooks and Nanyang-related research publications. Tan’s contributions to local textbooks in Malaya had no equal.

Renowned historian Kua Bak Lim quoted Tan’s poem: “Who pens the history of overseas Chinese” while lamenting the uncertainty of succession. In this context, it is easy to understand the respect that Tan had for the Chinese pioneer Chow Ah Chey (1782 – 1831), diligently paying respect to the latter on the second day of every Chinese New Year. In 1973, Historical Sites of Singapore was published by Kua and his fellow authors, Tan wrote the foreword, signalling the passing of the baton.

(Translated by Shawn Pang)

Please look out for Recollecting the Three Pioneers of the Singapore Book Industry (Part 2)

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