At first glance, it seemed like a run-of-the-mill press conference. The backdrop on stage announced the press conference that was to take place that afternoon; four chairs and bottles of water were set to receive the panel of guests; the emcee was in position and running through his notes one last time. Below the stage, over 20 restless journalists were seated with their notebooks and lists of questions, waiting for the start of the press conference. But hold on a minute, these aren’t the usual harried journalists we see at press conferences—the ‘media’ that had gathered today were made up of eager Secondary Two and Three students of Nan Chiau High School who were there to take part in the first Junior Press Conference.
As part of the Singapore Memory Project- irememberbookstores campaign, Chou Sing Chu Foundation (CSCF) and Nan Chiau High School (NCHS) jointly organised the Junior Press Conference@NCHS where students would get a taste of what it was like to be a news journalist as part of a press conference. Just like seasoned journalists, students were encouraged to ‘interview’ the guests and come up with a one- page newspaper article based on the information they had collected. All the junior journalists present that day would be vying for the ‘Most Creative SMP-JPC Journalist’ award where the junior journalist who could create the most outstanding newspage would be presented with book vouchers.
The three distinguished guest panelists—Mr Rudolf Phua, formally from Times and later Pansing, Mr Kenny Chan, Books Kinokuniya’s Store and Merchandising Director, and Mr Chou Cheng Ngok, Group CEO of Popular Holdings, enthusiastically shared their journeys and experiences with the young journalists who hung on to every word and busily scribbled in their notebooks.
The one who got Harry
Mr Phua shared how publishing was about luck as well. Pansing will always be remembered as ‘the one who brought Harry Potter to Singapore‘ and it all started when Bloomsbury, a small struggling publisher in UK approached Mr Phua, the managing director of Pansing at that time, to help distribute Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It may be difficult to believe today, but back then, no publisher saw the potential in Harry Potter and none was willing to pick it up. Mr Phua remembered himself being unimpressed by the book too. “The title was too long!” he said with a laugh. Mr Phua managed to sell about 200 copies. Gradually, interest caught on and by the fourth installment, sales rocketed. Today, the Harry Potter series is selling phenomenally well. Mr Phua said humbly, “It was no business skill on my part. Someone I knew asked for a favour and I did what I could. It was pure luck!”
The Times Bookstore that we see today also owes its success to Mr Rudolf Phua who built up Times Bookshops from scratch. But Mr Phua said that setting up a bookshop is not an easy task and there are many factors to consider. He added that the book industry is one of the most wasteful and the biggest challenge booksellers must face is how to match their stock with consumer demand.
Playing it cool
“I started out with comics!” confessed Mr Kenny Chan when asked how his love for books was cultivated. He shared that his passion for books arose when he managed to find a compilation of MAD magazine from MPH Stamford. “I told myself that one day I wanted to be the store manager of such a store.” Mr Chan did eventually become the store manager of MPH in 1987.
Mr Kenny Chan shared that one of the core values of Books Kinokuniya was to spread local culture. For example, the store in Dubai carried the best range of Arabic books and the store in Thailand stocked many Thai titles. He shared how Kinokuniya focuses on catering to customers’ tastes, both young and old. Mr Chan himself is also aware of the trends in the market, effortlessly rattling off some of the biggest names in pop culture, including Pokemon, Naruto, One Piece and Crayon Pop. “A bookstore is not just a bookstore,” he explained. “It is a community hub. People go there not just for the books but also for the atmosphere. It is important to interact with customers in a human way.” So Kinokuniya spares no effort in the display of the merchandise and also often holds author meetups for its customers. “A bookstore’s role in ensuring an enjoyable experience for customers is very important,“ said Mr Chan.
The Popular Man
Mr Chou Cheng Ngok explained how he came to be the CEO of the household brand POPULAR after taking over the reins of the company from his father and the founder of POPULAR, Mr Chou Sing Chu. Interestingly, Mr Chou revealed that he was somewhat of an unwilling participant when taking over the business, but he continued to work hard and with his dedication and hard work, POPULAR quickly rose up during the late 1980s. Mr Chou also spoke briefly about Chou Sing Chu Foundation, a non-profit organisation to promote Chinese culture, education and language in Singapore. “My father was all for Chinese culture, education and language. That is why I set up Chou Sing Chu Foundation in memory of my father.”
The Future of Bookstores
These bookstore veterans were resolute in affirming the value of books. Mr Rudolf Phua shared that books help us to enhance thinking skills and are a very important developmental tool for young readers. “Where can you experience so much of the world if not through books?” Mr Kenny Chan piped up. He also feels that books help one to hone their ability to discern. “Through reading, you fine-tune your ability to do a lot of things.”
All three were also positive that technology would not pose that much of a threat to physical books. “Even as technology advances, certain things remain the same. Books will still be relevant as long as booksellers can still connect with the customers. It is how booksellers can use technology to connect with booklovers,” said Mr Chan.
Event Venue: Nan Chiau High School
Event Date: 20 August 2014
Event Time: 2.00PM – 4.00PM