“City Book Room”
Tan Waln Ching
Translation of Essay in Mandarin (Below)
I love books, so it is my destiny to be in the publishing and bookshop industry.
I am from Malaysia, and came to Singapore in 2003 when I was admitted into the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore. I love the Chinese language. In my second year as an undergraduate, I chose to major in Chinese Studies. I would go to book stores like Great River Book Company, Grassroots Book Room and Shanghai Book Company to buy books that I needed for my classes. I was involved in organizing the Singapore Tertiary Literature Award in 2005 as a student. We invited Yeng Pway Ngon of Grassroots Book Room to be on the panel of judges. I was to get to know Mr Yeng well.
I worked for about a year in an art gallery after I graduated. In 2008 I joined Global Publishing, a local publisher of Chinese books. Such companies would be small enterprises. Its staff would have to multi-task—organise events and forums, do editing, correspond with colleagues overseas, keep in touch with other companies in the book industry etc. As I was also responsible for sales, I had to pay visits to the local bookshops. Thus it was that I showed up at Grassroots once again. This time, it was no longer as a customer that I approached Mr Yeng.
Mr Yeng let me know that he had just completed chemotherapy for prostate cancer. His eyesight deteriorated, and his typing speed was affected. I felt that typing was an easy job, and volunteered to enter data on the books into the computer on weekends, and email the list to libraries for their selection to purchase. Mr Yeng immediately accepted my offer. He asked me to come in once a week, starting the following week.
I am not sure how I managed to keep up going to Grassroots 3 to 4 times monthly for about three years. I did data entry, but later also helped to select titles to stock, and had conversations with Mr Yeng about the history of the local book industry, publishing, and one’s ideals. I benefited much from those years of working once a week at Grassroots.
In 2011 Mr Yeng told me that his latest novel Art Studio would be published soon. He wrote it after he was diagnosed with cancer. Its completion was thus an occasion for celebration. I proposed that he should have a book launch, and helped to organise the event. The launch was well received, and we both felt greatly encouraged. I continued to work part-time at the bookshop.
Then Mr Yeng asked if I would work full time. He was hoping that we would be able to turn Grassroots into a viable business.
I have great respect for Mr Yeng’s concept of publishing and running a bookshop. Thus even though I would suffer a salary cut of a thousand dollars a month I felt that I would benefit more than I would lose by joining him.
In order that Grassroots would interact better with readers, I helped to set up Facebook, Weibo and Sina web pages, and regularly updated news and information online. Aside from keeping the university libraries abreast on current titles, I helped Mr Yeng with typing, banking chores, sending lists of new publications to the libraries, publishing new titles and other tasks. We published the work of my former lecturer from the Chinese Studies Department, Associate Professor Lo Yuet Keung. I also organized a number of cultural activities at Grassroots.
Unfortunately book sales at Grassroots did not see any dramatic improvements.
Mr Yeng focused primarily on non-mainstream literature, history and philosophy titles. Customers told me that they would often find books at Grassroots which were not available elsewhere. A bookshop should have its own taste and style.
A year and a half later, Mr Yeng’s doctor informed him that his prostate cancer had relapsed. He felt that it was time to close Grassroots Book Room so that should he depart suddenly, his wife Goh Beng Choo and I would not find ourselves with a mess on our hands.
Soon after that Lim Jen Erh and his friend Lim Yeong Shin joined later by medical doctor Lim Wooi Tee, took over Grassroots Book Room. Mr Yeng retired on 1 August 2012. I assisted in matters of handing over to the new bosses, and left the bookshop three months later.
During my time at Grassroots, Mr Yeng would often ask me about my ideals in life. He said that a person with ideals was likely to face much hardship in life, and would have to make sacrifices. His insights were important to me. I had to ask myself what was meaningful to me about life. It was not that I do not care for the material aspects, but their pursuit surely cannot be the only thing to live for. One has to be concerned about oneself and one’s family, but also the community, the region we live in, the world. There is also the next generation to think about. If we are not satisfied with current conditions and hope for a better quality of life for the next generation, we would have to start to make it better.
People are gloomy when they talk about the situation of Chinese bookshops but in my six years of working with books, I have only been happy. Those who love books will know what I mean. At any rate, I got to taste failure, and am no longer a stranger to it. However failure should not only be based on quantifiable criteria. If we are able to persevere then we have not failed, even though the readership of Chinese language books may be declining.
I don’t think we should be unduly pessimistic about the Chinese bookshop and publishing business in Singapore. Readership is declining, but it is still possible for us to try to make it work. We need to put out high quality publications, and encourage a readership. This is still worthwhile trying to do. I had my experience to draw on, particularly shortcomings in selecting books, and in marketing.
Ultimately, the business I know best is books. In 2014 I started a publishing business at home—City Book Room.
When I was at Grassroots, Mr Yeng and I would often discuss plans for publication, but then his health failed. I took these plans to City Book Room. The first title I published was the out-of-print novel, Yeng Pway Ngon, Trivialities About Me and Myself. Next was Divining Dreams in a Dream: Essays on the Daoist Master Zhuangzi by Associate Professor Lo Yuet Keung. Most of the titles published by City Book Room received grants from the National Arts Council, which covered part of our production costs
After having published three titles, I signed a 2-year rental contract for a unit at North Bridge Road, opposite the National Library. We commenced business at the premises in April 2016. My husband, an interior designer, and his friends did the designing and renovation of the shop.
Our stock includes titles on the history of Malaya, Malaysia and Singapore; local literature; new publications from Hong Kong and Taiwan, such as literature and the humanities translated into Chinese; and out-of-print books To me, content and literary creativity are at the heart of a good book. I consult a group of friends who act as an editorial board. Our focus is on publishing literary studies and novels.
We do not carry titles on Internet literature, travel, cookery, inspiration, investment, and metaphysics.
City Book Room also runs monthly activities. We hope that by organizing book review circles, reading clubs, forums etc. we would build up a following, particularly of younger readers. With the Nanyang Technological University’s student group TrendLit, we organized a journals reading group; we collaborated with the young poet Zhou Hao, who led a session on poetry reading and appreciation.
We also want to venture into literature in translation. The Nonexistent Lover, a short story collection by Yeng Pway Ngon and translated into English by Goh Beng Choo will be published soon.
Literature nourishes the mind. This is particularly needed in our high-tech, highly stressed life.
Reading literature books is a pleasurable way to anchor us to humanity.