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Interview with Mr Yeo San Chai ( Yeo Oi Sang) of Xinhua Cultural Enterprises (S) Pte Ltd
29 November 2015

 
Edited by Loh Miao Ping

*Abridged Translation of the Interview, Originally Conducted in Mandarin (Below)

 

Mr Yeo San Chai in front of Xinhua Cultural Enterprises

The Interior of Xinhua Cultural Enterprises – Brimming with Knowledge and Culture

 
 
s/pores: We would like to conduct an interview with you to understand the state of Chinese-language bookshops in Singapore between the 1960s and 1980s. During that period, Chinese-language bookshops were sites of knowledge exchange and cultural transmission, as well as spaces for the spiritual nourishment of readers. When, how, and why did you get involved in bookshops?

Mr Yeo: I was fortunate to be accepted as an apprentice by World Bookstore in 1954. Then, bookshops practiced an apprenticeship system, which nurtured generations of those in the bookshop business. I was fortunate to train with World Bookstore as it provided excellent training, unlike other bookshops. There was a head of department who was in charge of training all personnel, including apprentices, those in the finance department, or at the managerial level. I worked at World Bookstore for 25 years, and left only in 1981, to join the newly established International Books (S) Pte Ltd at Bras Basah Complex, where most Chinese bookshops are located. International Books is no longer around. After I left it, I set up Xinhua Cultural Enterprises (S) Pte Ltd.

 
s/pores: How long were you with International Books?

Mr Yeo: I was a shareholder of International Books, and also chairman of its Board of Directors for a number of years. I worked at the bookstore for two years. International Books had planned to import and retail books and magazines published in the PRC and Hong Kong. None of the bookshops in Singapore then were capable of doing this. It had a close relationship with Li Yuan, (利源书报) the Hong Kong books and magazines distributor. However the business expanded too quickly, and ran into financial problems. After some time, a group of about five of us left, and formed Xinhua Cultural Enterprises. International Books folded up gradually. I held shares in Xinhua and was chair of its board of directors for several years.

 
s/pores: What was life like at World Bookstore?

Mr Yeo: World Bookstore and its owner took a low profile, unlike its contemporaries Shanghai Book Company, Chung Hwa Book Company, Commercial Press or Nanyang Book Company. Shanghai Book Company in particular was left-leaning, with the Chen family siblings Mong Hock, Mong Sing, Mong Tse, another brother, and also Mong Wan. World Bookstore was more politically neutral, thus it had a wider business scope. The book trade in Hong Kong was clearly divided into the right and left-wing. On the left were Shanglian (商联书局), Heping (和平书局) bookstores; Youlian bookstore (友联书报) was on the political right. World Bookstore had dealings with all of them. It was interested only in business, not politics. Hong Kong’s World Publishing Company, a subsidiary of World Bookstore in Singapore handled copyright matters and book orders. The Hong Kong company serviced the Singapore bookstore, which mainly processed orders made by readers.

 
s/pores: Tell us about the apprenticeship system.

Mr Yeo: Apprentices usually served for a maximum of a year, though it was 8 or 9 months for some. I was an apprentice for 8 months. Newcomers were being recruited, and they took over my tasks so I was given a promotion, and moved to retail.

 
s/pores: Please give us an idea of the scale of World Bookstore’s operations.

Mr Yeo: Aside from Singapore, World Bookstore had branches in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and two in Jakarta. Later it also had dealings with bookshops in Thailand, and Ipoh, and other book companies in Singapore and Malaysia. It was a large company, not inferior to Shanghai Book Company. At the time, Commercial Press and Chung Hwa both belonged to the People’s Republic of China. I was in charge of about 30 staff. World Bookstore had a wholesale department, a shopfront sales department, and a mail order department. It also had school bookshops and a warehouse. It employed many staff.

 
s/pores: How did you get to be an apprentice?

Mr Yeo: Before I joined World Bookstore, I worked briefly as a dishwasher in a hotel, then in a confectionary shop where I also delivered bread. My father’s business was supplying foodstuff to a canteen serving western meals at a factory in Bukit Timah which produced military trucks. He also supplied the food stalls at the coffee shop for the Chinese workers on the premises. We are from Hainan. I worked there for 7 months and was paid $78 a month. It happened that a supervisor in World Bookstore had a friend at the factory who knew my father. He arranged for me to join as an apprentice. The starting pay was $30 but I took up the offer.
It is my lifelong ambition: to be involved in bookshops and publishing.

A bookshop is intimately tied to culture and knowledge. I have been working in bookshops for more than 60 years, where I had the opportunity to read, and self-study. I also had the chance to learn about the printing process. World Bookstore had planned to buy the printing factory at Alexandra road owned by the newspaper Sin Pao (新报). Three of us were to be sent to Hong Kong to learn the technique of offset printing. However one of my colleagues was born in China, and was not granted a visa. Hence, the trip did not materialize.
In the bookshop industry, you have to rely on yourself to learn, and not wait for others to teach you. If you are smart, hardworking, and love your work, you will catch the eye of your employers.

 
s/pores: 1954, when you joined World Bookstore, was a significant year with many significant events, such as the Chinese-medium schools students’ petition for the deferment of National Service, and the Fajar sedition trial. Did these events have an impact on you?

Mr Yeo: Actually the social circumstances then did not have a big impact on me. By then we had already formed a union, the Workers’ Federation (职工联合会), with the Labour Department in charge. My friends and I later left this union, and formed the Bookshop and Newspaper Workers Union. Why did I join the labour movement, first to safeguard the welfare of workers, and second, to strengthen my ability to learn. Why did I choose the publishing and bookshop trade? It was because I was only 15 when I started my apprenticeship at World Bookstore and I thought I should learn the necessary while I am still young. I was three years old when the Japanese occupied Singapore in 1942, and was enrolled in Xin Hua public school only at the age of 9. I left after 2 months. I then studied for three years at Gongli Xinmin School, which was founded in 1945. I only studied there for three years before I left.

 
s/pores: Why are you so passionate about Chinese-language bookshops?

Mr Yeo: Bookshops are the site where the transmission of culture and knowledge takes place. It is no easy matter to run a bookshop. Actually it is a fascinating place. You will be able to learn what sort of book a customer is interested in. After your first encounter with the person, you will know what books to introduce when he or she visits again. The regular customers are appreciative that we know what titles would suit their interest. That is most satisfying.

When I left World Bookshop in 1980 after 25 years, I was drawing a monthly salary of $800. However, what I valued most was that the bookshop enabled me to keep learning, to expand my mind.

Until today, I am still very passionate about Chinese-language books. Chinese-language books expanded my thoughts, perspectives and worldviews. I did not deliberately seek to acquire these learning – they were the sum of my experiences and encounters then. I did education and propaganda work in our Singapore Bookshop, Publication and Printing Press Workers’ Union (SBPPPWU) from 1959; in 1961 I was involved in its drama productions. In 1962 I was the vice-chairperson of the union and in charge of education and propaganda work. I was detained for my union activities in Operation Coldstore on 2 February 1963.

The members of the SBPPPWU were workers in bookshops, printing presses, newspapers such as Nanyang Siang Pau and Sin Chew Jit Poh. The majority of them were intellectuals. Other than our usual union activities, our members also put on a musical performance jointly with four other labour organisations. The song and dance items were well received. We were preparing to stage a play with the construction workers’ union and the painters’ union in June 1963. Our union members worked hard at the rehearsals, but a good number of them were no longer around by then, on account of Operation Coldstore on 2 February. We had wanted to introduce our members, who did not have much of an education, to such cultural activities.

 
s/pores: Did you work with the Equatorial Musical Society?

Mr Yeo: We worked with both Equatorial and with Kang Le. The latter had groomed a number of drama directors, and they assisted us with our plays, dance and musical productions. As for Equatorial, we knew many of their members. In 1966 one of them Koeh Sia Yong the social realist Nanyang artist painted a portrait of me, and also of my two friends. One was Boh Chit Hee, composer of the popular anti-colonial song, ‘The rubber plantation: Our mother’ (胶林,我们的母亲). Boh Chit Hee was also a respected practitioner of bonsai art. In 2002 he donated his entire collection of 51 pots of bonsai which he had spent 50 years cultivating, to the Botanic Gardens in Shanghai after the Singapore Botanic Gardens turned them down. The other is Chin Kah Chong who became a Lianhe Zaobao journalist. The portraits are large oil paintings. I can still recall clearly the cultural activities of those days.

Portrait of Boh Chit Hee drawn by Mr Koeh Sia Yong

s/pores: How many Chinese bookshops were there in Singapore in the 1980s? Was it the beginning of their decline?

Mr Yeo: The decline was well under way by the 1980s. With the restructuring and subsequent closing down of Nanyang University, it was difficult to resurrect the already dying bookshop trade. Between 1965 and 1980, the government effectively caused the decline of the Chinese language.The situation has changed so much in the 30 years since I started Xinhua. If not for the fact that I own this shop, we would have closed down long ago. Shanghai Book Company, Commercial Press, Chung Hwa, Nanyang, even International—these bookstores are no longer around. I once made a list: this district had 12 bookshops at one time. None of them remain.

 
s/pores: You started your bookshop in the period of decline?

Mr. Yeo: When I left World Book Company and joined International Books Chong Kek Yuen, one of its founders said that the bookshop would do well if it was run properly. Unfortunately it was not. The expansion was too fast and capital was insufficient. Hong Kong and Taiwan refused to give them a line of credit. When its business folded, others took it place, including Xinhua, but the readership for Chinese books and magazines was already declining.

 
s/pores: What changes have you observed in the bookshop business, from the 1950s to the present?

Mr. Yeo: The changes have been simply enormous. In the 1950s and 1960s there were Chinese-medium schools and Nanyang University. With their disappearance, readership declined.

When I was at World Bookstore, I collected publications from the 1950s to the 1970s. In 1958, 53 bookshops which stocked mostly from Hong Kong and PRC and Malayan newspapers were shut down, and those publications were not allowed in. Most of the Chinese publications were distributed by Xinhua; these could no longer be sold. These include classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Dream of the Red Chamber.

In Singapore of those days, five thousand, ten thousand copies of a title could be sold, whether they were literary works or self-improvement books. These days, not even five. They were priced cheaply and bought by many. The main reason was that the left-wing unions then were very active and effective in providing education for workers, and they became our customers. Also, with the May 13 1954 incident, students in middle schools like Chinese High, Chung Cheng and Nan Chiao started offering bursaries to needy classmates so that they could pursue education in spite of their family circumstances. Students also bought books for their classmates who could not afford them. The bookshops met the demands of society, the needs of schools and the labour unions. We would set up book stalls at PAP events in the days before the Party turned against its own left-wing.

 
s/pores: You mentioned that bookshops in Singapore were linked to the region. Were there anti-left and anti-Chinese movements in those regions then?

Mr Yeo: Yes. Because bookshops in Singapore were influential not only in Malaya but also in other neighbouring regions. In the early years, Chinese-language books sales were the highest in Indonesia, which has a huge population. When China was liberated, the demand for books from the PRC was high. The PRC government sent books to Indonesia gratis. Hence we could also obtain many books in Indonesia as well. The Chinese book trade there was more developed than in Singapore. This fact has rarely been recorded.

There were many checkpoints in Indonesia then but the Singapore authorities were not very strict. We obtained books through sailors and ferries from Indonesia. That’s how we got copies of the Collected Works of Mao Zedong, which was banned in Singapore then. Singapore also published textbooks in Chinese for Thailand and the Philippines, later also Brunei.

 
s/pores: Was Xinhua Cultural Enterprise set up by those who left International Books?

Mr Yeo: My staff in Xinhua came from there. There were about five of us who were from International Books. I did not leave immediately with them. International Books asked me to stay on. In the 1980s, we also set up bookshops in the housing estates to expand there. Xin Yu bookshop (新育书店) in Ghim Moh was one. We also published more than a hundred Chinese children’s story book titles. Later, I set up Yu Cai bookshop (育才书店) which sold textbooks and stationery items. We also published books. These two bookshops were closed subsequently. The The covers of the children books published by Xin Yu and Yu Cai were all designed by the artist Koeh Sia Yong. He designed our posters, leaflets and newsletters for giving away to the public, and book covers. We knew each other since we were young – we weren’t classmates but we got to know each other. He is an approachable and easy-going person.

Nowadays we have a very small print run for the titles we publish. We don’t have the capital, or the marketing ability to do any better. Also, authors pay for the cost of production. They do their own design, printing; we do not charge them for selling their books or impose any conditions on them. We help them apply for IBSN numbers, and with the promotion of their books.

My target readership remains the laboring masses.

 

Renowned Nanyang artist Mr Keoh Sia Yong and the over 40 children books in Mr Yang’s collection. Mr Keoh designed and drew the covers, drawing inspiration from the contents of the book.

“The Ungrateful Crocodile”

 

Books for children and students. Their stories usually had themes of moral values.

 
 

Back-covers of two children’s books showing the logos of Yu Cai and Xin Yu bookshops. The dominant motif of three leaves represent the freshness of youth.

 
s/pores: Has the changing customer profile led you to change the types of books you stock?

Mr Yeo: Indeed, the situation today is very different from the past. To give you an example: Three years ago, when the university term started, I would be able to sell some tens of titles like Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The History of Chinese Literature, which are required course readings. This year (2015), I did not sell a single copy. The lecturer told me that students go online to read these books, though he had told them not to do that.

Three years ago, three students came to look for the Kangxi Dictionary. They couldn’t decide if they should buy a copy each. I told them that they should be happy that they have found copies. They explained that they were hesitant as they wouldn’t have any use for the dictionary once the examinations were over. They made phone calls to their juniors to see if they would buy the dictionaries off them subsequently. Dictionaries are life-long companions, but nowadays they are seen as useless.

 
s/pores: The electronic dictionary is really handy.

Mr Yeo: Instead of buying books, students also circulate photocopies among themselves. If they need to read on the history of the literature of the Tang Dynasty, they will photocopy that part of The History of Chinese Literature.

 
s/pores: You have said that the worst is in sight, but it’s not totally hopeless?

Mr Yeo: When I said the worst is in sight, I was referring to the complete elimination of the Chinese-language and Chinese-language books. We have not reached this stage but the situation is dire. I will tell you, if there is anyone who wants to take over Xinhua, I will let them have it. We are making losses, but not as much as the other bookshops that have to pay for rental. I am also getting along in years. There is no way I can keep going on.

 
s/pores: Please tell us about your book collection and donation to various libraries.

Mr Yeo: I have been a collector of books for a long time. I love books, and would hold them in my hands and smell them. I love the smell. Books published in those days have become collectors’ items, and fetch quite a sum. I do not have the means to buy them. Fortunately, I have kept some titles which today have become rare books. I have donated school textbooks, from the earliest published in 1920, to 1980 to the National Library. Sometime ago, individuals from Hong Kong and Shanghai asked if they could buy them from me. I asked them how they found out about my collections and I do not let it be known that I have a trove of books. They did not tell me how they got wind of it.

Later, the Chinese Heritage Centre held an exhibition on Chinese school textbooks which featured the collection of about 100 titles donated to the Centre. It belonged to a Japanese who studied in Indonesia. The director of the Centre then, Prof. Ng Chin Keong, asked me if I had any materials published by Shanghai Book Company and World Book Company. I told him I did not.

 
s/pores: Why?

Mr Yeo: I was not ready to let it be known that I had a collection. I was worried that once the books were loaned out, they might not be returned. This was until 2005 when the new NLB building was opened. The departmental head at the National Library Lai Yeem Pong approached me to help in the publication of an edited volume of significant sections of school textbooks in the Chinese Heritage Centre library, National Library, Ministry of Education, and also the textbook covers. We had planned to publish it in 2016, but there have been delays. We also invited the scholar Chew Wee Kai to pen an introduction on the historical background of these textbooks. It will be a landmark publication, a first in Southeast Asia and China. It will be the basis of further research on the subject.

 
s/pores: You changed your mind on keeping your collection of materials under wraps on account of Mr Lai?

Mr Yeo: That is correct. Mr Lai is a graduate from the University of Malaya, and worked at the National Library for 40 years. We used to meet often. I donated my collection of school textbooks to the National Library. I have also given books to the National University of Singapore, the University of Malaya, and Nanfang College, but not a large number. It was a trial to see how the books would be treated. What the libraries wanted was the textbooks, in particular those published locally. Do they know the value of the materials? This is a constant problem. I have also given magazines, journals and posters to them, but kept some back. As their collections grew, the libraries began to not want some of my materials.

I subsequently got in touch with the deputy director of the library of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Their Director is British, the deputy director is Chinese. When the latter was in Singapore, the noted Hong Kong essayist, educator and scholar Lu Wei-luan(卢玮銮;pen-name Xiaosi 小思) donated her collection of 38000 books to the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This was her entire collection. I told him that I had books published 50 to 60 years ago, including publications by Hong Kong Children’s Book Publishers (香港儿童报社) which I was willing to donate to the Chinese University of Hong Kong. These were books that were highly regarded in Hong Kong and Hong Kong did not even have a set. Even the author himself, now living in Canada, did not possess a set.

The deputy director looked through the some 30 titles in my collection, and happily informed their author. He subsequently brought the books back to Chinese University of Hong Kong. Subsequently, I established a condition: tell me what you are looking for, and if I have them, I will let you know. Later on, libraries in Singapore, which had turned down my collection of books published by Shanghai Bookstore and World Bookstore earlier, decided that they wanted them after all. But it was too late.

I also agreed to the Chinese University of Hong Kong digitalizing the materials and making them available online. Taipei City University of Science and Technology, Chi’nan University, Lingnan University and a college in Zhuhai all contacted me for donation of materials. I pointed them to the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

 
s/pores: Are there ‘yellow’ books in the collection that you donated to Chinese University of Hong Kong?

Mr Yeo: There should be some in Hong Kong. Hong Kong publishers such as World Book Company put out heaps of those sleazy love stories. They sold very well. In Singapore and Malaya alone, a new title would easily sell 5000 to 6000 copies the moment it’s released. They were cheap—HK $1.40 to $1.60 for a thick book. The boss made a lot of money. When he retired and migrated to Canada, he donated his books to the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The University wanted to know if I could let them have some more of these ‘yellow’ titles.
Actually these ‘yellow’ books have value for research. They reflected the social context of a specific period. The bulk of them would have landed in brothels, hairdressing salons, and were popular entertainment, and sold extremely well. Down and out writers depended on them for a living. A former head of the Chinese Studies Department, NUS once approached me to lend him some of these books. They sold really well. Many literary persons who had fallen on bad times survived on publishing these.

As for Children’s Paradise (儿童乐园) I gave a Hong Kong lecturer two titles in the series, there were two other titles that could not be found. He looked for them in Malaysia and Hong Kong. I subsequently found one of them, and gave him a scanned copy of its contents. In the end, he managed to assemble a complete set.

 
s/pores: In those days, what type of books were most in demand?

Mr Yeo:
Reference books. Those published in Malaya/Malaysia could easily reach sales of 300 to 400 copies. The elderly no longer read very much these days. However, the sale of the Chinese translation of Teo Soh Lung’s Beyond the Blue Gate sold rather well.

 
s/pores: Are the book donations you made made in your name?

Mr. Yeo: Yes. Altogether I have donated about 30,000 titles to the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The library has designated a section for the books I gave them that were published by Commercial Press. Libraries in Shanghai and Hong Kong were surprised that there are so many of such books still in existence. I told them that I have kept them for all these years.

I am getting on in years. It is time for me to donate them. However, I still have some with me. I have to select carefully where they should go to. There are irresponsible people who might promise to treasure them, but end up doing the opposite.

 
s/pores: On what basis did you select the titles that you have collected?

Mr Yeo: As booksellers, we have to decide what titles would be able to find a market at any given time. I will have a sense of this looking at the contents and introduction. I used to travel to Hong Kong and Taiwan to select titles to bring to Singapore. They need to be saleable.

 
s/pores: We hear that on Saturdays, a group of friends meet up at Xinhua. Are they your customers?

Mr Yeo: They are not customers. They used to meet at the food court one floor down. I told them that they could meet at Xinhua instead. I have a table they can use, but no chairs. One of them arranged for 20 chairs to be delivered here. Initially 6 to 7 of them would meet up for chats. Now there are 12 to 14 of them, though not all would turn up every week. Most of them are retired journalists from Lianhe Zaobao. There are also people from the literature and film circles, also retired bankers. I enjoy talking to them about history.

 
s/pores: We hope that your books will remain in Singapore.

Mr Yeo: Actually, there are a number of people who would be willing to donate their collection of books, but the potential recipient must be trustworthy and responsible. I am impressed by the way the Chinese University of Hong Kong has handled my donations. Just last week I sent them 16 cartons of books. They will acknowledge receipt, and compile a list of the titles. Institutions in Singapore are tardy; the ones in Malaysia are worse. I have been told of instances where those responsible for receiving the donated collections have privately sold those titles which can fetch a good price.

 
s/pores: You are disheartened.

Mr Yeo: When I made a donation of the textbooks, the Channel 8 current affairs programme Focus interviewed me. I told them that the Chinese educated in Singapore have been sidelined. I don’t know if this will change in the future. I hope that the publications which I have collected will be recognized as significant historical material. When I first started out, I had to hide them in a pig sty. Today, they are deposited in the National Library. You can imagine just how much this means to me.

 
s/pores: Have you spoken publicly before about what you have told us before? Is it alright if we published your interview?

Mr Yeo: I have no objections. These days my past activities can be seen as honourable.

 
s/pores: How many members of your union were arrested with you?

Mr Yeo: Eight altogether. I was the vice chairperson. The chair was repatriated to Xiamen.

 
s/pores: We do apologise for the inconvenience if as a result of this interview, even more parties will want to contact you regarding your collection of historical materials. Thank you, Mr Yeo.

Mr Yeo: Thank you.

 

Cultural Partners, Lifelong Friends – Mr Yeo San Chai and Mr Keoh Sia Yong

 

Portrait of Mr Yang San Chai drawn by Mr Koeh Sia Yong

 
 
与新华文化事业(新)有限公司老板杨善才 ( 杨维华)
先生访谈记录

 
2015年11月29日
校对 :卢妙萍

 
s/pores: 我们想与您做一个简单的访谈,以了解六七十年代,甚至八十年代,本地华文书局的情况。华文书局是一个文化与智识交流站,也是为读者提供精神粮食的场所。我们想了解,您是在什么时期开始搞书局的,您搞书局的概念是从哪里来的?您进口的书籍,是您自己喜欢的,还是您觉得这是读者们需要的书?这些都是我们想了解的。

杨先生:我在1954年就到书局当个学徒,当时书局有制定一个学徒制,一直到现在这个制度培养了不少人。主要是因为这个制度提供我们一个比较合乎我们学习的场所。所以我很幸运地来到世界书局学习,这使我有机会学到很多东西。主要的原因是其他书店没有这么好的条件和环境让我有机会学习。世界书局的员工是由一个部门主任来领导。不管你是学徒,还是营业员,或是主任级也好,都是由一个经理来引导你在书店进行工作,吸引人的就是这一点。我一共在世界书局工作了25年,一直到80年为止,81年我就离开了, 81年在书城里有一间国际图书(新)公司。国际图书公司现在已经关门了。 我离开国际图书后,就创立新华文化事业(私人)有限公司,这是我的一个简短的经历。

 
s/pores: 您在国际图书那里呆了多久?

杨先生:我是国际图书的股东,还当了两年的董事主席,我在那儿呆了两年。当时国际图书有个计划,想进口中国和香港出版的图书,杂志等等,在国际图书里出售。因为当时新加坡没有一间书店能胜任这项工作,所以他们希望国际图书能搞好这项工作。我们在香港与利源书报社,有密切的联系。由于国际图书经营不得法,发展得太快,资金不足,造成出版商不给他们发货,赊账。业务开始衰退。
后来我们有一组人,大概是五个人吧,从国际图书退了出来,组织了新华文化事业(私人)有限公司,那个国际图书也就慢慢地瓦解了。我是新华文化事业有限公司的股东,也当了数年的董事主席呢。

 
s/pores: 可以谈谈您当时在世界书局学习的经历吗?你们有举办交流会,或讲座吗?

杨先生:都没有。世界书局当时算是非常低调的,世界书局老板一向非常低调,他们不像上海书局、中华、商务,或者是南洋书局那么活跃。上海书局是比较左倾的,因为蒙鹤、蒙星、蒙志,还有他们的弟弟,还有蒙婉,他们的家庭背景是比较左倾的。世界书局算是比较中立的,不偏左也不偏右。所以他们做生意手法是比一般的生意人有更多的机会。因为在香港的书店是分得很清楚的,左右派划分的很清楚。左派是三联、和平书局,右派是友联书报社,甚至还有跟政治没有挂钩的右派,出版些环球,皇冠的书籍。这些人世界书局基本上都跟他们保持一点的联系,因为他们的目的是与对方做生意,不谈政治,所以他们向来跟香港的书局关系非常好。香港有个出版社叫做世界出版社,是本地世界书局的子公司。所以世界书局在香港买版权,订货,就走这些关系。新加坡需要什么,香港就会接办这些工作。所以工作由香港来做,新加坡只是接办一些读者需要的书籍。

 
s/pores: 您说的这个学徒制据我所知好像通常是……?

杨先生:学徒制规定学徒学习期限一般上是一年,有些是半年,有些是九个月。我是做了八个月,主要是因为有新的人来了,代替了我的工作,所以我无形中就升上了一级,调去负责零售工作。

 
s/pores: 您可以形容一下那时候世界书局的规模吗?

杨先生:当时世界书局的规模可算是相当大。因为他不只在新加坡,还有吉隆坡、槟城、椰加达都有联锁分局。椰加达有两间,一间是大成书局,一间是在四水的中国书局。后来他们也有跟泰国一些商家建立一些关系,还有新加坡、马来亚、怡保等等地方都有一些商业上联系的书局。他们的规模是相当的大,不比上海书局逊色。当时商务和中华是属于(中国)国家的,员工在我负责期间大概有三十位。我们有批发部、门市部、邮购部、有栈房、还有学校贩卖部等。员工是相当多的。

 
s/pores: 您是怎样成为学徒的?

杨先生:因为我以前还没有到世界书局学习的时候,我做过旅馆的洗碗工,那是非常短的时期。我也做过一些蛋糕店、面包店、送面包之类的工作。我是在一个偶然的机会成为一个学徒。在武吉知马(Bukit Timah)有一间汽车厂,他们出产那种大型的军用啰喱车。那时候我父亲就在那儿一间餐厅工作,在那里还有一间由洋人开设的食堂,专门为英国人服务,如准备英国人吃的食物等。那儿也另有一间咖啡店,店内有食物摊,供应车厂华族员工食物。我是海南人,当时我也在那儿工作。早上泡茶,送早餐,中午准备晚餐,我在那儿做了七个月。在一个偶然的机会,世界书局一位主任级的人,他恰好认识在我父亲工作地点的一位朋友,他就介绍我到世界书局实习。当时我在那边的薪水是78元,来世界书局实习只有30元。但是我不介意,因为我一生的工作目标只有两个,一个是书局,一个是印务馆。书局是一个与文化、智识有紧密联系的场所,在那里你可以自己自学啦,阅读啦,只要你勤劳就可以学到很多东西。如果我有机会在那儿工作,最终我的目的就达到了。因此我在书局坚持工作了60多年。我也到印务馆去学习印刷技术。当时新报在亚历山大 (Alexandra) 有一间厂房,世界书局有意要买下这间厂房。因为当时世界书局计划开设一间橡皮彩色印刷厂,想派我和另一个人去香港学习橡皮印刷术,学成回来后就在新加坡的印刷厂工作。后来因为另外那个人,去香港的准证不被批准,因为他是中国出生的,因此我们学习橡皮印刷术的计划就拉到了。
在这种情况下到书局工作,最重要的是靠你自己,不是靠别人的帮助,或是别人的提升。你自己要精明一点,努力做好自己喜欢的工作,人家自然会另眼看待你。

 
s/pores: 您是1954年入行的是吗?1954年有很多事情发生,如“华惹煽动案”、“五一三,华校中学生反抽兵运动”。这是一个很重要的年份。我是想问您当时的社会背景对您有什么影响?

杨先生:其实社会背景对我的影响不大,主要是因为我们当时已经组织了一个工会,职工联合会。我们都是会员,工会是劳工部管的。后来,我们和另外一些在书局工作的朋友,组织了书业职工联合会,我们就离开了那个集团。当时我参加工会主要的目的是:第一是要保障工人的利益,第二是加强自己学习的能力。为什么要选印务馆和书局呢?是因为我在世界书局学习的时候我才15岁,我想应该趁年轻时好好地学习一些我需要的东西。我出生在日本统治新加坡的时期。1942年我才三岁,我到九岁才进了第一间学校,新华公学,读了两个月而已,就离开了。那边还有另一间学校在南顺别墅的山上,叫公立新民学校,成立于1945年。我在那儿只读了三年之后也就离开了。

 
s/pores: 那您为什么这么热衷搞华文书局呢?

杨先生:书局,是一个传播文化与智识的场所,要经营一间书局不是一件容易的事。其实书局是一个很有趣的地方,当你在里面游览一段时间之后,你所做的,观察到的,每一样都是你毕生难忘的,都会给你带来无限满足感。比如在书局里我们知道了来书局的顾客要买什么书,我们就获得了第一个印象。当对方第二次来的时候,我们就可以准备好东西,让他选择。之后第三次,第四次,很多次之后他就会感受到这个服务员对他有多大的帮助。第二是他会觉得我们知道他要什么,不会浪费他的时间。

我当时到书局工作的目的是想利用这个场所好好学习,去掌握一门技能。这技能掌握了以后是我自己的,不是别人的。我离开世界书局25年后,我的薪水,在80年代,涨到了800元。我学到的东西我就回归于社会。我在世界书局工作,我没有考虑到我的薪水和工作环境,但是我很满意我在那个环境里学习到了很多外面学不到的东西。这是我在书局工作所获得的一个最大的满足感。

到现在为止,我还是一个很热衷于搞华文书籍的人。华文书籍开拓了我的思想,人生观和世界观。很多东西都是在这种情况底下慢慢地累积起来的,不是刻意地去学习的。我在工会只是负责一些工作,到1963年,就是在那次的冷藏行动,我被人拉了进去(被逮捕)。当时我在工会的职务是负责宣教,我从1959就开始负责宣教,一直到60年。61年搞了几个演出,从62到63年2月2日冷藏行动,被人拉了进去之前,我是书报印务业职工联合会的副主席,也同时负责宣教的工作。

工会的会员,都是来自书店的员工,印务馆的工友,报馆如,星洲日报,南洋商报的职工,大部份是知识份子,他们都加入我们的工会。当时在工会,除了搞工会日常活动外,我们还联合了四个工团,举办了一个工人搞音乐的演出,节目包括歌咏、舞蹈等,演出很成功,也获得了很多社会人士的好评。接下来我们又联合了另外二间工会,一间是建筑工友联合会,一间是木漆工友联合会,和我们书报业一起搞话剧。我们三间工会的负责人积极的排练。我们本来计划在63年6月演出,但是还没有到六月,很多人已经不见了(在冷藏行动中被逮捕了)。我们搞这些演出,主要的目的是把这些活动作为我们工会正常的活动。因为这些工友虽然有的受教育不多,但是他们有机会接触这些活动,那是好事。

 
s/pores: 那您们有没有跟赤道音乐会合作过呢?

杨先生:其实赤道,康乐我们都有和他们合作过的。因为康乐培养了很多导演,所以他们的导演一般上都会协助我们,排练一些戏剧,舞蹈,歌唱等等节目。赤道呢我们认识的人更多,如许锡勇,郑文彬,好几个人我们都认识。1966年,许锡勇还为我画了一幅画呢。也为其他三人各画了一幅画。一位是莫泽熙,你知道吗?莫泽熙是新加坡培植盆栽的专家,他后来把他培植的盆栽送给了上海,他也谱写了一首歌曲,那就是大家耳熟能详的:《胶林,我们的母亲》。另外一位是陈昌明,他是联合早报的记者。许锡勇只为我们三人各画了一幅画,那是很大很大的油画。对当时这些艺术、文娱团体的活动,到现在我都还记得很清楚。

 
s/pores: 在八十年代,那时候大约有多少间华文书局?有没有开始没落?

杨先生:
八十年代啊,不是开始没落,是已经没落了。从南大被改制开始,就已经死亡的书店再重生就难了。所以那时候我们的执政者从1965年到1980年已经被定位在消灭华文了。无可否认的我们的华文也已不成型了。现在回头看看书店,我经营这间书店,从82年开始,我们的营业量跟现在30多年后相比,差得远了。我们几乎是不能维持下去。要不是这间店面是我早期买下来的,我们的书店现在已经不存在了。你看上海,中华,商务,南洋,甚至国际图书,我曾列了一张表,这一区有12间华文书店,已经完全关门了。

 
s/pores: 您在那个没落的时期,才开始开办书店,是吗?

杨先生:当我一个人离开世界书局,刚加入国际图书时,张克润曾跟我说,如果国际图书好好地做下来,基本上业务不会出问题。因为他们供应新加坡的大小书店和书摊书籍。可是他们做得不好,因为扩展得太快了,资金不足。所以造成香港,台湾很多商家不愿意给他们赊账,不给他们发货。所以他们的生意就完全地失去了。

 
s/pores: 您在书局这个行业这么久,从书店到售卖的书籍,从五十年代到现在,有什么改变?

杨先生:改变太大了,改变太大了。因为五,六十年代华校生多,在南大的后期还有一批华校生。南大被关闭之后就越来越少了,华校生没有了,加上南大生也没有了,大家都不看华文书了。所以我这个从八十年代开始走到现在为止,快要见底了。不过还不至于这样。你想,五六十年代,我在世界书局的时候,我还收藏了一批五十年代,六十年代,七十年代的书。当时在那个时期,新加坡政府在1958年禁止了53家书店,这53家书店销售香港、大陆的书籍,包括马来亚的报纸。大陆主要是新华书局发行的,一律不可以卖。包括《三国演义》,《红楼梦》都不可以卖,因为是新华书店出版的。

后来还有几间香港书局,自立门户,还有一些出版社比如自学,集文出版社,有关他们的处境,请参阅怡和世纪(27—30),我曾给怡和世纪编委提供了一些有关书籍被禁的信息。当时那些书的销量非常惊人,每一本书在新加坡,现在是五本都卖不出,当时是五千,一万本。不管是什么书,励智小说,还是修养书,每本书定价便宜,买的人多。主要的原因是因为当时左翼的职工会的活动范围很广,在思想教育工作上做得很够,所以我们这些书能销售到职工会活动的工友们。第二个是五十年代,发生了五一三的事件,很多华校,如中正,华中,南桥等,都设立了助学会,分发助学金,帮忙那些贫困的儿童,家庭贫困,还是有机会读书。当时有些学生就发起,买这些书去卖给学生,有能力的就当做资助。所以当时书的销量是很惊人的,后来的人是不知道这段历史的。其实当时我们做书店的,配合社会需要,如学校,职工会,1959年,连人民行动党,未变质前,我们也到那里活动推销我们的书。当时要不是我们出钱出力,来搞书店,书店早就没有了立足的遗地了。

 
s/pores: 刚才您也谈到新加坡的华文书局也跟其它区域有关,那些区域在同一个时期也有反左,反华吗?”

杨先生:有。因为新加坡的书店不但影响了马来亚,也影响了其他临近的区域。早期,华文书籍在印尼的销售是最蓬勃的。很多华文书在印尼卖得很好。当时中国解放不久,印尼大力支持大陆的书,中共就免费送给他们。所以我们当时到印尼也能拿到了很多书籍,他们比我们发展得还好。这个是很少有文字记载的。其实印尼在那个时期也的确做得很好。

 
s/pores: 可不可以谈一下从印尼运书过来?有没有人想到这点。

杨先生:印尼设有很多关口,那个时期新加坡还不是很严格的时期,我们都是通过一些印尼的海员和轮船,来新加坡载货的时候从印尼运书过来。当时在新加坡《毛泽东选集》还不可以卖,我们就从印尼把书运过来。
缅甸,泰国跟菲律宾主要是要新加坡的书店帮他们出版教科书,我们这边出版,卖到那边去,还卖到文莱。

 
s/pores: 你们后来开设新的书店,基本上是从国际图书出来的那一批人吗?”

杨先生:我新华文化事业(私人)有限公司的员工是从那边出来的。我们差不多有五个人,来自国际图书的。我没有离开,当时他们不让我离开。

其实,除了新华书店,我还有开过另外两间书店,一间在锦茂的新育书店,当时我开这间书店的目的主要是因为八十年代,我们要把书店扩展到政府组屋区。当时我们还总共出版了一百多种儿童故事书。接着又开了育才书店,卖教科书和文具,我们自己也搞出版。这两间书店后来都收掉了。育才书店和新育书店的儿童书,封面都是许锡勇设计的。

许锡勇做了很多设计的工作,比如海报啊,街报啊,图书的封面啊,都是他设计的。我们从小就认识,他为人随和,容易接近。我们不是同学,是偶然在一起的。

 
s/pores: 您可能因为过去策划了一些工会的活动,这会不会影响您后来选择出版的一些书的数量?”

杨先生:那是有关系的。因为后期出版书,数量太大我们没有能力办到,因为现在书的销量是个问题。一来我们没有这个能力,二来我们负担不起。但后来出版书的经费是作者本身愿意自己负担,他们自己设计、印刷,用我们的出版社去推广。我们不收费也不定条件,我们帮他申请统一书号和推销工作。

 
s/pores: 在五六十年代,书籍有很多地方可以销售,包括学校、工会等等。到八十年代还有书店吗?”

杨先生: 少的多了。到八十年代,都没有了。学校也不愿意推销你的书,工会都被封了。当然有些工会他不喜欢你卖的书。校友会还有一些,但是他们也不大愿意卖了。只是偶尔还有几间在卖,卖的数量也不惊人。

 
s/pores: 您们主要的顾客群是?

杨先生:都是劳苦大众。

 
s/pores: 顾客群有没有改变您卖的书的类型?

杨先生:有,现在已经改变得很厉害了。我拿一个简单的例子和你说。在三年前我们的书店,在大学开学的第一天,学校有规定,《红楼梦》,《三国演义》,《中国文学史》,这类书起码可以卖几十本。到现在为止,2015年,一本都没有卖掉。

 
s/pores:全部可以在手机看。

杨先生:您说对了。我问过他们的讲师,他们允许学生这样做吗?他们说他们也不允许,可是学生们要这样做,也没办法。现在我讲个故事,在三年前有三个学生来我店里买《康熙字典》。我就问他们为什么要买这本字典,他们说他们上课要用,考试的时候会带字典去。他们在我们店里犹豫了一阵子,三个人要不要买三本字典?我就问他们为什么犹豫,买到了不是好事吗?他们说,你不知道,我们买了这本字典课考完了,以后就没有用了。所以我们现在打电话问第二年级的学生要不要,要的话我们就转让给他们。等他们确定了要这三本字典的时候我们才买下来。你看这个是不是笑话?字典买下来是对你终生有用的,但是他们现在没有用了。

 
s/pores: 现在有数码字典,很好用。

杨先生:我曾问教授,你们出的题目,作业做不出学生怎么办呢?他说他们会有办法的,把需要参考的资料复印下来,传来传去就行了,不需要买书。就是那本《中国文学史》,我们读到唐代的历史,只要把有关唐代的那部份印出来传给大家就行了。

 
s/pores:您刚说到虽然见底了,但是还不至于完蛋是吗?”

杨先生:所谓见底,好像华文已经被消灭了,连华文书都没有了。我们还没有差到那种地步。前景是不乐观的,我现在告诉你,我这间店若是有适当的人要,我就要转让了,要关了。根本没办法维持下去了。

 
s/pores:我们和草根书室的英培安聊天,他说他搞了几十年的书店,基本上都是亏钱的。

杨先生:我们也是亏钱的,只不过我们亏的不多。他们书店的租金亏得多了。现在年纪也大了,我也不想再做了。

 
s/pores:可以请您谈一下关于收藏图书和捐书给图书馆的故事吗?

杨先生:我收藏图书大概有几十年的历史了。因为我很喜欢书本,也喜欢把书本拿来闻,它有一股香味。在我那个时代出版的书,好多都有收藏价值的。但可惜我没有经济能力买。不过幸运的是,我收藏到一些很珍贵的书,是我从各个角落,不同的人那里搜罗来的。我收藏的书一般上是很少人读过的。就像我捐给国家图书馆的教科书(textbooks), 最早是从1920年出版的,一直到1980年结束。当时香港有人托人问我能不能把这些书卖给他,上海也有人问。我当时告诉他们,我收藏书籍的事,是不想让别人知道的,并问他们是怎么知道的。他们说这个很难讲的,不知道。

后来,华裔馆举办过一个展览。是一个日本人在印尼读书时的课本,大概有一百多本。他离开印尼的时候把这批书留给了华裔馆。当时华裔馆的馆长吴振强,他来找我,问我有世界书局或上海书局出版的教科书吗?我说没有。

 
s/pores:为什么?

杨先生:因为当时我不想让他们知道。担心书本借给了他们之后不知道能不能拿回。我一直把书本保留到2005年这座国家图书馆大厦落成,处长赖燕鸿先生来找我,要我把教科书有趣的内容,封面都扫描一遍再编成书本出版。计划2016年这本书就可以出版了。我们还邀请周维介为这本书写相关的历史背景。这点很重要。我们很认真编写这本书,因为这本书的出版是一个很重要的旅程碑。为什么呢?因为整个东南亚包括大陆,都没有出版过这一类的书。这本书将成为一个导论,成为今后编写教科书的人唯一的参考资料。

 
s/pores: 令您改变主意的是赖先生,否则您也不会同意曝光您的藏书吧,对吗?

杨先生: 对,不会。赖先生是马来亚大学毕业生。他在马来亚出生,受聘来新加坡管理新加坡图书馆,他做了40年,现在离开了。我们常常在一起吃饭、聊天,谈些问题。那批书我主要是捐给新加坡图书馆。新加坡国立大学,马来亚大学和南方学院我也捐了一些,但是不多。因为当时这只是试探性的。有些人给他书他会接受,还认为是他在帮你。他不知道这些书的价值在哪里?。图书馆要的是教科书,尤其是本地出版的。我捐了很多杂志和海报,有些他们要的我没给。后来书本多了,有些他们也就不要了。

这个问题挺让人头痛的。后来我想到了香港中文大学,我联络了他们图书馆的副馆长。他们的正馆长是英国人,副馆长是华人。这位副馆长来新加坡的时候,卢玮銮,捐了三万八千本书给香港中文大学,这是他一生的藏书。后来我告诉副馆长,我有一批书,他要我就给他。这一批书大概是五六十年前的,香港儿童报社出版的书,那批书在香港属于评价很高的书,香港居然没有这一批书,连作者本人也没有。

那天他来我书店看到三十多本,他高兴得赶紧联系了住在加拿大的原作者,告诉他,他的书找到了,于是他就把书带回了香港。后来我定了一个条件:你告诉我,你要什么书。你要的书如果我有我就告诉你。所以香港出版的,新加坡不要了,但后来他们又要了,连国立大学也要了,都来找我了。他叫我不要再捐书给香港了,我们这边也很缺乏。我问他们到底是要还是不要。他们常说不要了啦?我捐给了香港中文大学,那几千本上海书局和世界书局出版的书籍,他们都不要嘛?现在说他们要了。上个月他们来找我,说他们要关于东南亚历史的书,尤其是香港出版的。我告诉他们太迟了。

我也同意香港中文大学,把书本数码化,然后上网,读者可随时上网查阅。城市科技大学还有香港岭南大学和另一间珠海学院,他们也说要,我告诉他们,书我已赠送给香港中文大学,他们得向这几间大学询问。最近真的很厉害,曝光率很可怕。我在捐赠书籍给香港中文大学后,台湾的一位学者,他在研究东南亚历史。他才发现有些资料是台湾没有的,新加坡就更少。只有香港中文大学有。他就问我为什么我的书这么多,他们都没有看过。他们联络我,问我能不能捐赠一些给他们。我告诉他们以后这些问题要跟香港中文大学磋商。

 
s/pores: 你捐给香港中文大学的藏书有没有黄色图书?

杨先生:有一些在香港。香港那些出版公司,如环球图书公司。出版过很多言情小说。当时言情小说是很顺应时代潮流的,销量很大。不说别的地方,就是我们新加坡和马来亚,书一推出,就可以马上卖出五六千本。当时盗版书还不猖獗。书的价钱不贵,厚厚的一本书,港币大概一元四角到一元六角。这间环球图书公司赚了很多钱。后来他的老板移民到加拿大去了,他把他所有的存书都捐赠给了香港中文大学。香港中文大学还是需要更多的书籍,后来再问我能不能再捐赠给他们。

这些书其实是很珍贵的。它们代表了那个时代的产物,也反映了那时代的社会背景。他们没有想到这些书当时流落到哪些地方。其实大部份都是流落到妓院、理发店,一般都是消遣时间看的。

以前国立大学中文系的主任有来找过我,希望我能借给他环球图书公司和海滨图书公司出版的小说丛书。那些书的销量真的很好。很多当时落泊的文人就靠出版这些书维持生计。

香港一个教授来找我的时候我送给了他两本儿童乐园。剩下的两本买不到了,他就在香港和马来亚找。后来我又找到多一本就把内容扫描后传真给他了。他最后也把书找全了。

 
s/pores:那么现在您认为销量最好的是那些书呢?

杨先生:以前是工具书。马来西亚出版的那些书我们还可以卖三四百本,现在少了很多。年纪大的人能力有限,很多书都看不了。那本《在蓝色栅门的后面》的书销量还不错。

 
s/pores:您捐赠书本时是用您的名字吗?

杨先生:对。我前前后后捐给香港中文大学的书大概有三万本吧。香港在新的图书馆为我设一专栏,陈列我捐送给他们全部的书籍。上海那边正在寻找一个地方建博物馆,陈列热心人士捐献的书籍。上海和香港那边都没有想到还会有这么多旧书。我告诉他们是我收藏了很久的。

 
s/pores:那您是怎么舍得放手的呢?

杨先生::我年纪大了嘛,就想把这些书都捐出去。不过我还保留了一部份书,想再寻找一位热爱书的人士送给他。因为怕有些人不负责任,今天喜欢,明天又丢掉了。

 
s/pores:那您当时是怎么选书的呢?

杨先生:其实我们做书店的,自己会思考在什么时候应该卖什么书。当我看书的目录和简介时,我就会知道这本书是不适合买。我以前还亲自去台湾和香港选择该进口的书。一定是要进销量不错的书嘛。

 
s/pores:那么每个星期六来您店里聊天的那班朋友,也是您的顾客吗?

杨先生:也不算是顾客吧。他们本来是在楼下的。一天我对他们说,不妨上来我的书店吧,我有桌子,但是没有椅子。后来有个人就买了大概20张椅子送上来。一开始大概六七个人会聚在一起聊天。现在如果来齐了,大概有十二到十四个人。他们大部分都是联合早报退休的员工,也有从事文学工作的、搞电影的,或退休的银行职员,这些人都是有一定的文化水平,因为如果没有的话也没办法和他人交流嘛。我是喜欢和他们谈一些简单的历史。

 
s/pores:希望您能继续把书保留在新加坡。

杨先生:其实有很多人愿意把书捐出来的,但他们首先要看你的背景。我觉得香港那边做的很好,我上个礼拜寄了16箱书给他们。他们收到后就立刻寄信给我,并提出要列出书单。他们很负责任,不像新加坡这边就很怠慢了,马来亚就更甚。我不太相信他们,我听说有些图书馆负责人在收到捐赠的书后,就会自己先挑一些高价卖出去。

 
s/pores:所以您有点心灰意冷。

杨先生:我捐赠教科书的时候,第八波频道的焦点节目为我做了一次访谈。我告诉他们过去我们受华文教育的人都是靠边站的。以后的华文书会不会靠边站我就不知道,但我希望我捐赠的这批书能得到重视。我一开始是在一个猪寮里把书藏起来,到现在把书摆在国家图书馆,你想想我对这些书的感情是怎么样的。

 
s/pores:
您以前有和别人谈过我们今天谈话的内容吗?那您介意我们刊登所有访谈的内容吗?

杨先生:没有。我不介意。现在看起来我的过去挺光荣的。

 
s/pores:您的工会有几个人被捕?

杨先生:八个人。我当时是工会的副主席。我们的主席已经回厦门了。

 
s/pores:如果在我们的宣传后有更多的人来打扰您,那就请见谅啦,谢谢。

杨先生:谢谢。


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