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This is the story of Chou Sing Chu, the founder of Popular Book Company (POPULAR). This is also the story of POPULAR and the book trade of Singapore.

Though POPULAR is a household name in Singapore and Malaysia, not many know its full story, as well as the life and achievements of its founder, Chou Sing Chu (1905-1986). This book aims to tell Chou Sing Chu’s story, one that juxtaposes his six-decade-plus career against the century-old history of Singapore book industry. Though our narrative is hampered by a lack of information as Chou Sing Chu was well-known for keeping a low profile in public, we seek to document his contributions to the developments of the region’s book trade and outline the close relationship between Chou Sing Chu and the Singapore book industry.

This book is divided into four chapters:

  1. Beginnings: We catch a glimpse of the early book industry in Singapore through the setting up of Chou Sing Chu’s first company;
  1. Publishing: We look at Chou Sing Chu’s key contributions to the development of Chinese education, and the Chinese bookstore industry through the three aspects of industry, issues and people:
  • Chou Sing Chu set up of publishing houses in Hong Kong as book bans hit Singapore, resulting in a mutually beneficial arrangement that alleviated the shortage of quality reading materials in Singapore and elevated Hong Kong to become the publishing and export hub to Southeast Asia. His approach became a model emulated by his peers;
  • Chou Sing Chu spearheaded the localisation of Chinese books in Singapore and Malaya, which included some 4,000 titles across genres such as textbooks, periodicals, dictionaries and picture books, to spread local awareness to the migrants through the promotion of local culture;
  • Chou Sing Chu recruited staff base on merits and spared no effort in staff development. Known as the talent training centre of the book industry, former staff of his bookstore went on to set up close to 40 bookstores and publishing companies;
  1. Continuations: We look at the roles that Chou Sing Chu’s three sons played in his businesses;
  1. Legacy: We look at how the youngest son of Chou Sing Chu, Chou Cheng Ngok, who – like his father – have spent almost six decades growing his father’s businesses through the Chinese book industry’s peaks and troughs and the challenges from the changing times.

Chou Sing Chu Foundation (CSCF) was set by Chou Cheng Ngok in his father’s name. In 2016, CSCF published Passage of Time: Singapore Bookstore Stories 1881-2016, which tells the stories of 50 bookstores against the book trade’s developments in Singapore. Through our research for Passage of Time, we came across some information about Chou Sing Chu, and undertook further research in both Singapore and overseas over the next few years. Collating information about the low-key Chou Sing Chu was a huge challenge, but through first-hand interviews and meticulous searches through the archives, we managed to shed light on the life of Chou Sing Chu.

This book is organised into essays that provided a unique perspective of Chou Sing Chu individually. Taken together, they present a more complete picture of Chou Sing Chu and his achievements. We hope that this book can serve to inspire further research into these pioneers of the book trade in Southeast Asia, and to bring their stories to the younger generation.

We would like to express our utmost gratitude to the three advisors of this book, Professor Eddie Kuo Chen-Yu, Mr Kua Bak Lim and Associate Professor Lee Chee Hiang, for their invaluable guidance. We would also like to thank Mr Lee Ching Seng for his contribution to the content, as well as Professor Wang Gungwu, Dr Yang Quee Yee, Mr Yeo Oi Sang, Mr Ng Chun Wah and Mr Zhou Zeng Yue for their time for the interviews.

The publication of this book in 2019 coincides with many significant events, like the Singapore Bicentennial and Popular Holdings Limited’s 95th anniversary, as well as CSCF’s 15th anniversary. Published in Chinese and English, we hope this book can serve as a historical record that can also pass on the noble ideals of the pioneers of Singapore’s Chinese book trade, including that of Chou Sing Chu, through the generations to more readers.

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