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Interview with Yeng Pway Ngon 英培安, formerly of Grassroots Book Room, November 2015.

 

* This interview with Mr Yeng, conducted in November 2015, is presently featured as a special highlight in view of Mr Yeng’s upcoming event at the Singapore Writers Festival 2018 (Yeng Pway Ngon at Singapore Writers Festival 2018). After the end of the Festival, the interview will be moved to s/pores issue no.15 on bookshops).

*The interview was originally conducted in Mandarin, and then translated into English. The original Mandarin text follows the translated text below. Translator: Teng Siao See

* s/pores is also deeply grateful to Tan Waln Ching of the City Book Room for her invaluable assistance with preparing the interview transcript. 我们也对感谢 陈婉菁 (城市书房), 对她在准备访问记录副本中给与我们的重要协助感激万分。Check out her essay on City Book Room here: (City Book Room by Tan Waln Ching)

 

 

Mr Yeng Pway Ngon in Grassroots Book Room. Image courtesy of Tan Waln Ching

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

s/pores: We would like to discuss Chinese language bookshops in Singapore of the 1960s and 1970s as places we would go to for sources of knowledge and information, and where we could make friends. When I think about how we obtained knowledge in those days, doubtlessly it was from books.

So did bookshop owners decide on the titles to bring in, or did readers make request for books from various sources, like Taiwan, Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China (PRC)? When we want to trace where our thoughts and ideas came from in the 1970s – bookshops are a good place to start.

Mr Yeng: I got into the bookstore business in the 1970s. Around 1973 or 1974, I set up 前卫书室 (Vanguard Book Room). After graduating from Ngee Ann College, I was a social welfare worker at a Catholic organization in Bukit Ho Swee, a low-income neighbourhood. In those days I was writing modern poetry, which was highly personal. Thus I was looking for a job which would give the opportunity for involvement in society at large. I worked there for two to three months.

During that time we formed a cooperative. With funds collected from residents we bought items of daily necessity from wholesalers. Volunteers who lived the area then went about selling them cheaply to residents in neighbourhood. As a salaried staff, my working hours were rather long. From this job experience I got the idea of doing business —buying from wholesalers to sell to customers.

As I love to read, I decided to set up a bookshop. Previously, I had not bothered with how books are priced etc. I made inquiries at Shanghai Bookstore where I frequented, about the discount I would be given on book orders as a retailer. They said that bookshops received 60 percent discount on the retail price. I thought it was a good deal. I approached my parents for help; a good friend also pitched in. I didn’t have much money, and had to take some time to pay for renovating the shop.

On receiving the first bill from Shanghai Book Company, I realised that the so-called 60 percent discount was based on Hong Kong dollars, the denomination used by wholesalers of Chinese books in the 1970s. The industry practice was for wholesalers to levy a premium of 50 percent on the foreign currency exchange. Thus a book which retailed at HKD 10 would cost me SGD 4 to buy, and I would sell it for SGD 5. In fact my profit margin was only 20 percent. In order to attract customers. I gave a 10 percent discount, reducing my margin by another 10 percent. However business was good.

Initially I ordered books mainly from Taiwan; subsequently I was advised to bring in more titles from the PRC. I ordered titles from Shanghai, and also stock greeting cards, like Christmas cards. Later I began to order PRC books in substantial quantities.

My bookshop was where Golden Mile Cinema used to be. My staff members including the person who carried the books back to the shop from the wholesalers’ were members of the Children’s Drama Group. They were familiar with books from PRC, and those popular with the cinema patrons. Many of my customers were their friends. Xu Hui Min who is now a well-known broadcaster helped me out in the early days of Vanguard. He was familiar with PRC publications.

My cash flow was tight, and as mine was a new business, I did not have credit terms and had to make cash payments for the books. Thus my bookroom did not have large stock of books. However business was not bad. There were days where we had to make two or three trips to suppliers like Shanghai Book Company to re-stock.

At the peak of our business, Vanguard Book Room was the top seller for the magazine 《七十年代》(The 1970s ). We sold over 700 copies of the issue commemorating Zhou Enlai. While others charged $1.10, I sold them for $1.00 a copy. The cost price was 90 cents. We made ten cents per copy sold.

After the show, cinema audience would rush over for the latest copies of The 1970s and 《广角镜》 (Wide-angled mirror). I would wrap up the magazines ahead, all ready for the rush.

However we did not make money as our prices were too low.

I was then not familiar with the leftwing publications as I read mostly modern literature from Taiwan. Initially when I stocked only books from Taiwan I practically had no customers. I was the only one who was interested in them.

The good times didn’t last for long. I had been in the business for over two years when the cinema changed from screening PRC movies to Taiwan ones. My customers were mainly cinema patrons, so my business was badly affected. Our daily takings used to be around two to three hundred dollars at a minimum, and could hit seven to eight hundred dollars. That fell to less than a hundred dollars a day. I could not cover expenses, and was really worried.

Fortunately, I happened to come across a vacant shop facing the main entrance at the Textile Centre at Jalan Sultan. And the cinema in the shopping complex screened films from Shanghai. The rent was a thousand dollars monthly. An interior decorator was willing to accept payment by installment to set the place up.

I was subsequently to sell my bookshop to my friend Chong Kek Yuen for $5000. As he was new to the business I not only handed the stock to him, my staff stayed on, though he had to carry the outstanding payments due for the books. The sum involved was not much, as I do not like being in debt.
I named my bookshop at the Textile Centre ‘Grassroots’. That was around 1975-76. Business was initially not bad as the cinema screened films from PRC. I can recall that when we moved in, Cricket Emperor was screening.

 

s/pores: Was naming the bookstore ‘Grassroots’ related to your getting close to the left wing?

Mr Yeng: It could be because at the time my thinking was to be close to the common people. I like the word ‘grassroots’. I was arrested in 1978, when I was operating Grassroots. That time, I sold mostly books from Taiwan, not PRC as I didn’t want to replicate Vanguard Book Room. I also stocked books in English, popular English-language novels, English-language music cassettes etc. That’s being ‘grassroots’ I suppose, but the content was not left-wing. (laughs)

My arrest was not because I was involved with any leftwing activities. Rather, I was tainted by my association with a regular customer in the Vanguard days. He had the same ancestral village as my wife. We got along well. I was then living at two-room HDB flat at Tanglin Halt. He would come over occasionally for a chat after work. I didn’t know that he was a member of the Liberation Front. He had never revealed this to me.

His cell group members and the cell connections were arrested. Special Branch had been tailing him and as he was often at my place, so I too was arrested and placed under detention. As a result my father fell seriously ill, and did not recover.

During interrogation, the officer wrote down a name and asked if I knew the person. I told him it was my customer. The officer asked if I had donated money to him. I said I could not have, as my financial situation was not good. There was no evidence that I participated in underground activities and I was released after about 4 months. This friend of mine was freed after about a year. He came to apologise. He said that he did indeed tell his ISD officer that I had nothing to do with his organization, and that ideologically I was not a suitable candidate for membership.

 

s/pores: So what happened to Grassroots when you were locked up?
Mr Yeng: My wife and the staff kept it going.

s/pores: Did they put pressure on you to shut Grassroots down?

Mr Yeng: No. Besides, my book suppliers were good to us, and continued to do business with Grassroots. When I was about to be released the ISD officer said to me they were willing simply to let me out, but should I have anything to do with such political activities again I would have to write a confession and admit wrongdoing before I could get out.

I said that I had no interest in politics. But the terms of my release stipulated that I could not take part in political activities, have contact with former political prisoners or to travel overseas until further notice.
There was an amusing incident when they came to arrest me. They searched my house, and found copies of Playboy magazine which a friend gave me. They said that I could be charged on two counts: possessing ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ literature. I said the ‘red’ publications were bought from book suppliers in Singapore, and had been cleared by the ministry of culture. The ‘yellow’ literature was given to me by a friend. Actually, many people had such publications at home.

They were only out to frighten me, and I was never charged. On my release, they returned the ‘red’ publications to me but not the Playboy magazines. [Laughs] They took away my diary, which was not returned. I never kept a diary again.

s/pores: So you were no more than a businessman selling leftwing books, and were not involved in political activities, is that right?

Mr Yeng: That’s right. I closed down Grassroots Book Room not long after my release. My wife was pregnant; the shop was not making money; the rent went up. Also, I discovered that ISD officials would drop by. I was fed up.

The chief editor of Nanyang Siang Pau, Mu Liguang, on learning about my situation offered me a job. We agreed on the terms and conditions, but a day or two later, the paper’s Mr Li Xiang phoned me with the news that ISD put a stop to that.

Mr Mu gave me a column in the paper so that I could make a living. I was not to use my name as the columnist. So I took on the pen name Sun Dashan. The column was titled 《说长道短》(Idle talk). They were humorous pieces. With the amalgamation of Nanyang Siang Pau and Sinchew Jit Poh I was given a column in the Lianhe Wanbao, 《人在江湖》(Not always by choice).

I fell into my bad habit again of criticizing the government on its language and dialect policies not long after. My column was terminated.

 

s/pores: For how long were you a columnist?

Mr Yeng: I started to write ‘Idle Talk’ for Nanyang Siang Pau in 1979. ‘Not always by choice’ which followed with the amalgamation of the newspapers lasted till the mid-80s. I also wrote a good number of radio plays for the pay. The serial ‘Dashan and Peipei’ was the most popular. It centered on routine husband-and-wife quarrels. It was amusing and realistic at the same time.
At the time, a couple of my friends in television wanted to do drama on student life. They got some students and me together to brainstorm. I came up with a script. My friend said that personally he thought it was fine, but there were taboos that local television had to observe. No commentary on education policies; no student romance. I wondered what else was there left to write on student life? That was the end of that. But I did get to know a group of fine students. One of them went on to obtain a PhD and is teaching at Hong Kong University.

The television station had at one time offered to employ Chen Fang from Hong Kong as copyeditor, but she felt that there were too many restrictions placed on television drama series in Singapore. Chen Fang later read the scripts for plays that I wrote, and recommended that the station hire me. Producer Foong Choon Hon interviewed me, and we had more or less agreed on the terms. He even wanted me to start work as soon as possible. But the next day he phoned me and said in Cantonese ‘You know your own situation. It’s no go.’

When my newspaper column was terminated I focused simply on writing novels, publishing my first in 1987. 《一个像我这样的男人》 (A Man Like Me, translated into English) won the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award with a prize of $1000.

In 1994 I started to submit articles to Hong Kong newspapers. At the time there was the 《香港联合报》( xianggang lienhe bao) which paid very well. I also wrote for Sing Tao Daily and Ming Pao. I felt that it was difficult for me to make headway as a professional writer in Singapore. There were too many distractions. Since the Hong Kong newspapers were willing to accept my articles I decided to live there for a period and try to concentrate on the novel that I had always wanted to write: Sao Dong (Unrest, translated into English).

I lived in Tuen Mun, a good distance from the city. It was not convenient for friends to visit me, and vice versa. So I did not waste time socializing and concentrated on my novel.

In no time, Sing Tao’s evening paper gave me a daily column. Whenever I was downtown I would head for the bookshops. On one occasion I ran into a senior person at 三联 (Joint Publishing) whom I had dealings with when I ran my bookstore. She encouraged me to return to Singapore and carry on running a bookstore. I told her that I did not have the funds. She suggested that I look for a shop space with a low rental. She would supply me with stock and I could make payment in good time.

I happily accepted her offer, and told my wife about it. She was keen for me to return to Singapore to set up a bookshop. She was then working as a translator, and her clients were based in Singapore so she was reluctant to join me in Hong Kong. She found a shop space before I returned.

I continued writing columns to supplement my income right until Sing Tao Evening Daily folded—it was my last. I ceased writing newspaper columns after that. The pressure of writing them every day was great, but the pay was really good. The HKD 4000 or more that I received paid for the rent, and I still had $800 left. I was able to buy a return ticket to Hong Kong once in two or three months and also cover my living expenses. I lived simply, of course.

On returning to Singapore I set up a bookshop, again called ‘Grassroots Book Room’. This time I was keen to establish a really good bookshop. Initially I would write a column at home in the morning and send it by fax to Hong Kong. In the afternoon I worked at the bookshop by myself, and did not employ staff. I also published the works of the young writers Lee Huay Leng, Kai De and Quah Sy Ren. The bookstore was not doing well in terms of walk-in sales but we survived as the university library ordered books through us. The National University of Singapore Library, and then Nanyang Technological University’s as well. We also supplied local publications to Taiwan National University later on.

Grassroots really depended on the support of book-loving friends. A good number of them helped out in the shop on wages that was a pittance. The poet from China Song Ling and the Nanyang University lecturer Hee Wai Siam helped to look after the business. In 2008 I fell ill. One of my customers, the well-known novelist Zhang Huiwen took care of Grassroots while I was underwent treatment.

 

s/pores: So you had started three bookstores in all.

Mr Yeng: That’s right. Vanguard Book Room only lasted a short period. The first Grassroots operated for some years until I was arrested. I stuck with the second Grassroots for a long time, close to 20 years.

s/pores: Were the three bookstores managed differently?

Mr Yeng: The earliest bookshop sold leftwing books as the cinema nearby screened movies from PRC. The Children’s Drama Group members were also my customers. It did not take much effort to sell the books. So when the business plummeted, I didn’t know what to do about it.

The next bookshop stocked modern literature titles from Taiwan, and also books in English. As for the third, it was mainly literature and academic books from Taiwan, and customers were mostly students and lecturers from the universities. Books on philosophy, culture, plays, opera, film and books by Nobel Prize winners. Titles that very few bookstores would stock.

s/pores: What types of books were the best selling?

Mr Yeng: Literary criticism and Chinese philosophy, though actually titles which the university lecturers used in class were the best sellers. (Laughs) Students writing theses would often buy books on literary criticism.

 

s/pores: Did your regular customers meet up for discussions at the bookshop?

Mr Yeng: We did organize literary activities originally, but the number of people who turned up for them got fewer and fewer, so we stopped. On the final occasion there were two people in the audience. The speaker was a teacher, but he did not get his students to attend. He was miserable when he saw the poor attendance, and so was I. Recently a student started a bilingual magazine, which was launched at our bookshop. I encouraged her to continue with the work, like I did when I was young.

s/pores: Did your regular customers often gather at your bookshop for discussions?

Mr Yeng: No. The place was too small. It was not a popular thing to do in those days.

s/pores: Nevertheless regular customers would meet up in small groups just to talk about things?

Mr Yeng: They would usually drag me off to a nearby coffee shop for a cup of tea. We did not gather at the bookshop. When I was running Vanguard Book Room there were Chinese music instructors in the same building, and these friends would come to the bookshop for a chat. I even published a book on how to play the guqin. It sold quite well.

s/pores: Is there a relationship between managing a bookshop and being a publisher?

Mr Yeng: Actually it is very difficult to manage the two as at the same time as businesses. After I wound up Grassroots I started to write newspaper columns. At the time, Nanyang Siang Pau published my first book of essays Idle Talk. I began to have the idea that I should get into publishing. Later, a local Chinese language publisher put out a selection of essays that I had written as a columnist. It was titled Not always by choice. This was followed by 《拍案集》、《破帽遮颜集》,They went into second print runs. This company published the works of a good number of writers. However it later went out of business.

I then published several of my column articles through Grassroots Book Room, including 《风月集》(On

the wind and moon) ,《潇洒集》(Free and easy) and《翻身碰头集》(No room to turn) The first print run for the titles was 2000 copies each. As the distributor 新文化机构(Xin Wenhua Jigou) marketed them widely, as far as to Malaysia, we ran out of stock very quickly. At the time, there were people whose business was visiting schools to sell books. They wanted to sell my books, but I had run out of copies. So I did a second print run. Book sales at schools were not bad at all.

But the bookstores soon returned their unsold copies from the first print run. These mainstream shops were interested only in stocking the latest popular titles. I thus ended up with unsold stock. I learnt my lesson. Thankfully, I eventually sold about 3000 copies of each of the titles. But that left me still with a thousand copies of each, 3000 books in all. It was actually a serious matter.

After publishing my fourth book《寄错的邮件》(The Misdelivered Mail), a collection of short stories, I felt that I should use what little money I had earned to publish the works of other local authors. I published Kuo Pao Kun’s 《棺材太大洞太小》 (The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole). But I printed 2000 copies, which was foolish of me. Why do I say that? Because even though Pao Kun was very well-known by then, and his plays drew a wide audience, those who attended the performances weren’t interested to read the scripts. Very few copies of The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole were sold. I ended up having over 1800 copies at home. Following that I published Chen Bohan and Xu Huimin’s crosstalk dialogues.

After my full-length novel A Man Like Me, I published the works of other local authors such as Sun Ailing and Teoh Hee La. As I didn’t have many new writings of my own I republished some of my older ones, such as my miscellaneous essays and poetry collections.

I operated from home, so didn’t have to pay rent for an office or salaries to employees. So I usually did not land up in the red from publishing, with the exception of the couple of books on the performing arts: Pao Kun’s plays and Xu Huimin’s crosstalk dialogues. Shortly after Grassroots reopened at North Bridge Road, I moved house. I had piles of unsold copies of The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole, and my wife allowed me to take about only 300 copies to the bookshop; the rest were discarded. What a waste! But had we taken them all to the bookshop, there would still be unsold copies today. The book hardly sold at all— about 300 copies at best.

 

s/pores: You publish books because you have a passion for it, right?

Mr Yeng: I have always been fascinated by book publishing. I started publishing my own books quite early on. In 1968 my first book—my poetry collection 《手术台上》 (On the Operating Table) was published by May Publishing, established by a few of my fellow poets and me. My friends were older, and were already working while I was still studying. I went to register the company under my name.

However, I later found that my ideas and perceptions on literature differed from theirs, so I wrote to inform one of the key members that I wished to cease my publishing partnership with them. I handed the company registration over to him, so that it could be re-registered under his name. I then left this group of friends, and started my own magazine and bookshop.

I can’t explain why I like publishing. I had thought that it could also be a form of livelihood. I also enjoy painting. At the time, I did not have much funding for my magazine. I handled the design and typesetting, wrote the articles, and even typed them out myself.

 

s/pores: You started your third bookshop in the 1990s—you already had the idea of opening a “bookshop on the second floor”.

Mr Yeng: Actually I already knew about the ‘bookshops on the second floor’ in the 1980s. I couldn’t leave the country for a period of time after I was released from detention, but by the mid-80s I could travel overseas. During that period I often made trips to Hong Kong, and regularly visited their ‘bookshops on the second floor’ such as Cheng Mun. I published a collection of essays titled《园丁集》 (A Gardener’s Collection) in Hong Kong, with Mr Ho Tse’s 山边社 (Mountainside Publishing). Mr Ho is a children’s writer from Hong Kong. He published children’s books as well as Hong Kong literature. He even paid me royalties when I visited Hong Kong. My book was priced at HK$8 per copy. Back then the exchange rate was HK$2 to SG$1, so the price was SG$4. The print run was 2000 copies. With a royalty of 10%—what’s 2000 times 40 cents? I received about $800 in royalties.

 

s/pores: What are your thoughts on bookshops as centres of cultural concepts? On the importance of bookshops in society?

Mr Yeng: Bookshops are quite important indeed. But it’s tough operating them these days as people have less and less need for books—and when they do, they buy books online. But I still think that bookshops are necessary, because they are cultural symbols. What would happen if, for example, Shakespeare and Company closed down in Paris?

Of course, our bookshops can’t be compared to Shakespeare and Company. Nevertheless bookshops have a very important relationship with authors. Authors need bookshops to sell their books; the bookshop is what feeds them. Can you see how important the relationship is? It’s a cultural phenomenon.

Nowadays, writers can simply go online to look for information but in the 1960s and 70s, one had to borrow books from the library, or buy them from bookshops. Bookshops are facing difficulties surviving these days because no one buys the classics anymore. Do you know why Singapore’s Commercial Press closed down? They specialised in selling dictionaries, but who would buy dictionaries these days, when they are available on smartphones?

My bookshop stocked all of the most seminal Chinese classic books, but no one reads them anymore. My friend tells me that classical poems can be read on smartphones now; as long as one wants to read them, they are there. Therefore it is indeed more challenging to be in the Chinese language books business now. But I love books; I like the tactile sensation of books. One can also underline texts in books, and read them over and over again.

 

s/pores: You are one of the rare authors who have owned a bookshop. Do you think there is any special connection here?

Mr Yeng: I had really hoped to be like writers from other countries, who can make a living just by writing books. But the reading population in Singapore is too small, and there is no security making a living as a writer here. I thought that operating a bookshop could give me that security as I could derive income from the bookshop while writing.

That’s what I thought. But the reality is that it hard to be writing once you’re operating a bookshop. It slows your writing down. Actually, what I really enjoy is writing. The bookshop was meant to provide me with living expenses, but it’s actually harder to make money from a bookshop than from writing.

Mr Yeng autographing books at the book launch of The Non-existent Lover and other short stories. Image courtesy of Tan Waln Ching

 

s/pores: With the bookshop space that you have, did you unconsciously nurture some…

Mr Yeng: unconsciously…? I don’t know. Because promising young writers, they do work hard. I wouldn’t claim that I had any role in nurturing them, nor do I have the ability. I don’t suppose their talent is only nurtured through bookshops. But of course, to write well, one must enjoy reading, and must be constantly on the lookout for good books to read.

s/pores: Do bookshops play a role in this? Or do authors have their own spaces and groups?

Mr Yeng: I don’t think my bookshop has had that much of an impact in Singapore. It has, however, been of benefit to me. As a bookshop owner, I am humbled when I see the books of famous authors on my shelves every day. I know that some Singaporean artists and authors become arrogant easily after they’ve found fame. Singapore is small, and a person’s modest achievement is easily made much of nationwide. Plus, we only have one newspaper. As long as your relationship with the press is good, you will appear in the news often, and you will feel like you’ve made it.

When famous foreign artists or authors visit, the press will bring them to meet you, or when you represent Singapore in overseas events often enough, foreigners will recognise you as a local artist or writer. As a result, you become arrogant and think highly of yourself, as a maestro or big-shot author. But when you read the truly great authors, such as the ones from China who did research against great odds during the war of resistance against Japan and produced such brilliant books, they truly deserve our admiration.

I think we don’t work as hard as foreign writers or philosophers. There was a period when I really enjoyed reading foreign works. Many classics are worth reading. I feel that our local writers write more than they read. Good writers read more than write—they write just one book after reading ten; some even write just one book after reading fifty. But not us. We write fifty books after having read only one.

s/pores: That’s quite strange.

Mr Yeng: We grow arrogant easily because we don’t read much. Reading has made me humble. When you have come into contact with truly excellent works, you won’t be self-indulgent.

 

s/pores: When our press interviews a person, he or she is given free rein. The reporters don’t assess or seek further verification of the information the interviewee provides.

Mr Yeng: That’s right. Therefore I know that while it’s great that the press interviews me, I must be clear about my real standing. Writers should know very clear about their place in the literary field.

The good thing about owning a bookshop is that I can recommend and make available the books I love to others.

When I started my first bookshop, I had not read much. But when I started Grassroots the second time, I was widely-read, and ordered titles which I had in my personal collection. I would recommend books that I’ve read to my customers, such as Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but it’s an excellent book.

When I was young, 志文 (Chih-wen) Press’ 新潮文库 (New Tide Library) was popular with readers. New Tide Library published translated works of famous authors such as Bertrand Russell, and had a big impact on us readers from that era. In the 1960s there was no copyright for translated works.

However copyright was recognised for publications from 1965 on. Copyright needs to be purchased to do the translations of works published after that date.

The New Tide Library collection comprises translations of foreign publications, including works by famous novelists from countries such as USSR and France etc. I grew up reading these books.

My bookshop had a good stock of New Tide Library titles, books that I have read. Actually New Tide Library doesn’t publish new titles, they’re all old ones. An employee of Chih-wen Press was unhappy with this, and decided to publish translations on new philosophies and modern literature, mainly on new philosophies, such as Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.

Chih-wen Press, the publisher of New Tide Library, is still operating in Taiwan today, re-publishing their titles, which are low-priced, and did not have copyright. They used to sell for NT$10 each at the bookshops; these days it is NT$200-300. The value of the currency isn’t what it used to be. But these books are still available.

Books that Lauréate Publications translated into Chinese were copyrighted titles; on expiry of the contract the copyright had to be renewed. It was thus not easy to make it work as a business, and the publisher eventually could not survive. A pity, for it had translated a number of excellent foreign titles. Grassroots Book Room regularly stocked Lauréate Publications’ translations including of social science research publications and books by famous post-modern philosophers and renowned literary authors.

s/pores:Has your current publishing company been publishing? I went to your book launch; you mentioned that you used to read western contemporary classics in the 1970s and 80s.

Mr Yeng: Oh, that book launch. It was for the re-publication of my novel 《我与我自己的二三事》 (Trivialities About Me and Myself, translated into English) published by City Book Room, run by my former assistant, Waln Ching.

Actually, Grassroots had the help of many people, including Waln Ching. She was on the Tertiary Education Literature Award committee when a student at NUS, and came to the bookshop to invite me to be a judge. That was how I got to know her.

When she graduated and was working at Global Publishing, she looked me up at the bookshop. I was then just recovering from radiotherapy, and would tire easily. When she found out, she offered to key in titles for the book catalogue once a week on her rest days.

I told her that I wanted to quit the bookshop business because of my health issues. She said she would quit her job at Global Publishing and hoped that she could be of help to me.

I had never held launches for my books, but when Art Studio was published, she organised a launch event, and the book sold well. Business picked up after she started work at my bookshop. Unfortunately, my PSA reading was rising, and my condition worsened. My doctor warned that my prostate cancer could relapse. I decided to wind up Grassroots Book Room.

I sold Grassroots to Renyu who was with the press, Yongxin whom I have known from my Vanguard days and a young doctor who was keen to work with them. Before I was done with Grassroots, Trivialities About Me and Myself had sold out in Taipei, and local readers were also looking for the book. Waln Ching and I planned to re-publish it, so when she started her own publishing company, she got my permission to do that. She is now re-publishing my collection of literary criticism, 《阅读旅程》 (Reading Journey), published in Hong Kong in the 90s. It has long been out of print, but there are still readers looking for it.

 

s/pores: It seems that all along, different people have always been giving you encouragement and support. What kind of impact has Grassroots Book Room had on local intellectuals and young Singaporeans?

Mr Yeng: I don’t know if Grassroots has had an impact on young Singaporeans. I do, however, remember that when it was newly opened, a group of students from NUS Department of Chinese Studies were thrilled, and visited often. They helped me unpack new stock, and also made purchases. Sometimes, they would brew and have tea at the shop. After they graduated they came less often; probably too caught up with work. Some stopped coming altogether. The young writer (Chen) Kaide was from that batch of Chinese Studies graduates. He used to come to the shop frequently, but less so after he graduated. Even so, he would visit Grassroots occasionally to this day.

s/pores: This batch of graduates should be in their 40s by now, I guess?

Mr Yeng: Yes. It has been 19 years. The reason why some of the Chinese Studies students liked coming to Grassroots was because their professor Dr Yung Sai-shing often mentioned the Hong Kong comic book McMug during lectures, and only Grassroots had copies back then.

I was also selling Jimmy Liao’s illustrated books very early on. I had read them when I was in Taiwan, and met him at Grimm Press’ publishing company. I was already selling several of his titles before《向左走,向右走》 (Turn Left, Turn Right) appeared.

Grimm Press published many beautifully illustrated books. I had stocked some of their titles. It’s a pity that they don’t sell well in Singapore, except for Jimmy Liao’s. But when other bookshops started to bring in Jimmy’s books, sales at mine fell.

Smaller bookshops must stand out from the crowd by stocking books that others don’t. Jimmy Liao’s books are somewhat mainstream, so they gain popular appeal easily. Regular bookshops usually wouldn’t risk selling non-mainstream literature and philosophy books. Roland Barthes for instance: although his books sell slowly, there will be customers for them. From the time that we started to stock the Chinese translation of A Lover’s Discourse we’ve sold 200 to 300 copies in all.

 

s/pores: You’ve mentioned previously that you’re a loner, but I remember you were very friendly when you were at Grassroots. When I was young I visited your bookshop occasionally. So I was thinking, your solitary nature and your bookshop seem to be…

Mr Yeng: One of the benefits of my owning a bookshop is that I have become less solitary. Before that I was a loner. This turned out to work in my favour though, when I was detained under the Internal Security Act. It meant that I had not joined any organisation. Loners don’t participate in political activities or belong to any party.

When I was a student, I joined the Rediffusion Mandarin drama group together with friends. Apart from that, I have never been a member of groups or organisations. Given my solitary nature, I didn’t adapt well to the drama group and left shortly.

 

s/pores: Did your bookshop collaborate with some of your friends who taught in universities? For example, in providing books that were required reading for university courses?

Mr. Yeng: They would let me know the books that were needed for their courses. For titles published in Taiwan, I would try to order them directly from Taiwan. My friends teaching in universities definitely helped me a lot. I tried as much as I could to work with them. Sometimes, they would estimate the enrolment size of their courses, but the actual number would turn out to be less. Thankfully, the remaining copies could be sold in subsequent semesters, unless the courses were no longer run.

 

s/pores: The books sold at Grassroots in the 90s—what percentage of them were selected by you, and what percentage chosen in collaboration with others?

Mr Yeng: Oh, I selected most of them. Actually I didn’t collaborate much with university lecturers in this respect. Most of the books that customers bought were ones that I selected.

s/pores: When Grassroots Book Room reopened, the titles it carried seemed more diverse, and from more varied sources.

Mr Yeng: While running Grassroots, I also helped to start two other bookshops—they were large stores. I learnt a lot from doing that. Less than a year of starting the second Grassroots, I took a job concurrently at Hong Kong’s Page One in order to support my own bookshop financially.

Page One didn’t sell Chinese books in the beginning; its first selection of Chinese books was picked by me. Page One’s boss initially wanted me to close down Grassroots, sell the stock to him, and work for him. I couldn’t bear to do that and wasn’t suited for work in a large bookstore either. I left after selecting the first batch of books for Page One Kowloon Tong.

s/pores: When was this?

Mr Yeng: In the 90s, not long after the opening of Grassroots. After Grassroots was established for a few years, another mega-bookstore contacted me, asking me to be their Chinese Division manager. The CEO was an Indian who used to work with Popular. I heard that he’s the one who brought Popular to Orchard Road. My EPB–its Chinese name was 一品–had four branches. They all closed down after 3 years.

The flagship store where I worked was at Suntec City. The pay was not bad; I originally intended to work there for two years. When they hired me, I told them that I was running my own bookshop. The CEO said no problem, just change the ownership to your wife.

After a while, I realised that they didn’t place importance on the Chinese language books. The bookstore had a total area of more than 20,000 square feet. During the planning stages, they had agreed to allocate 1500 square feet to the Chinese section, but it was reduced to 1000 square feet when the store opened.

After a year, I told them that my wife couldn’t cope with Grassroots, and that I wanted to resign. The CEO tried to persuade me to stay. I insisted on leaving, so he had to accept my resignation. However, he wanted me to serve as his consultant, and take a look at the Chinese section weekly, and give input to those in charge.

I worked at My EPB for a year, and earned a year’s worth of high salary, Hee Wai Siam was helping me at Grassroots. He did a great job. There was another part-time assistant– Song Lin, a poet from China. His wife is French, working at the French Embassy. Song Lin loves to read. He would purchase books from the shop with his wages earned working there.

 

s/pores: which bookshops in Singapore do you think most resemble Grassroots?

Mr Yeng: As the simplified Chinese characters system is used in Chinese-language education in Singapore, most bookshops here stock books from China. Even 友联 (Union Book Co) which used to sell Taiwan publications switched to mainland China when it had a new boss.

Grassroots mainly stocked books from Taiwan. Kinokuniya too stocks many Taiwan titles. My own books which were published in Taiwan were probably sold in Singapore only at Kinokuniya and Grassroots. Kinokuniya would receive copies before Grassroots though. It would be selling my books before they were available at Grassroots.

s/pores: So you feel that there are similarities between Kino and Grassroots?
Mr Yeng: I wouldn’t dream of comparing Grassroots to Kino.

s/pores: So you originally thought that opening a bookshop would give you more security, but in the end…

Mr Yeng: I remember being perpetually troubled by the accounts and rental. Now that I’ve handed over the reins to Renyu and the others, I don’t have such headaches anymore.

s/pores: You’ve been in the bookshop business for a few decades. What do you see as the value in this?

Mr Yeng: I’ve spent half my life operating bookshops. What is the value of that? I think I have had the opportunity to read, and get to be friends with book lovers. I also came to realise that there are people who read a great deal though they do not write. I got to know learn about a good number of books from them.

s/pores: It doesn’t seem like you’re a loner at all!

Mr Yeng: What I mean by being a loner is that I don’t take part in group activities.

s/pores: But you actually have many friends.

Mr Yeng: Being a loner as in not joining groups and seldom socialising. I enjoy being alone or spending time with people who have similar interests. I often reject invitations to literature events, including ones held overseas. If I don’t find them meaningful, I will not attend.

But I found some events to be very meaningful and worth attending, such the lectures by distinguished speakers at the Hong Kong book fair; discussions with universities in Taiwan on Singapore’s culture industry; the symposium on Chen Yingzhen’s novels; and the book launch of the Italian translation of my Art Studio in Italy.

 

s/pores: Why did you keep ‘Grassroots’ as the name of your bookstore?

Mr Yeng: I kept to ‘Grassroots’ as I couldn’t bear to part with the calligraphy 草根 on the signboard by the calligrapher Da Yang. I could not part with the two characters he wrote.

The books at Grassroots Book Room were mainly academic publications and modern literature from Taiwan; the readers would not have actually been “grassroots”.

Grassroots Bookshop at North Bridge Road. Image from: http://singapore.haiwainet.cn/ n/2016/0829/c456512-30264438. html

s/pores: What “grassroots” trait do you think you have?

Mr Yeng: I think I can get along with the working classes though perhaps this is not exactly a grassroots trait. I often helped out at my grandfather’s coffeeshop when I was young, so I had no problems carting my books to schools to sell them, and serving my customers over the counter. Does this qualify as grassroots?

 

s/pores: Are you Hainanese?

Mr Yeng: I am Cantonese. My family’s coffeeshop at North Bridge Road was the rare Cantonese one. When I was a boy I lived one storey above the shop. I spent my childhood and youth at North Bridge Road, and have many fond memories of the place. Hence the second Grassroots was at North Bridge Road.

s/pores: We had a productive session today; you look more spirited than we do.
Thank you for taking the trouble to talk to us.

 

_________________

s/pores: 因为我想说一个课题,关于新加坡的书店。那当然是可以从华文书店开始了。我们可以看六七十年代书店的生意,书店这个地方不仅为我们提供知识,人们也有机会认识对方。我有时在想我们的知识是从哪里来呢?当然是从书本。那这些书本是书店老板一早预定的,还是读者提供书目,要求老板从不同的地方,比如台湾,香港,大陆订的。所以我们想知道七十年代那段时期,我们的思想是从哪里来的?所以我们想从书店这一块看起.

英培安:我是从70年代开始做书店的。大概是73或74年左右我开始创办了前卫书室的书店。之前,我在义安学院毕业之后,就在河水山一个天主教组织的团体里工作。我就在那个较为贫困的地区做社工。我以前是写现代诗的,思想比较自我。我想参与一些与社会有关的工作,所以就去应征了那份职位。我大概在那儿工作了两三个月。我们办了个合作社,从居民那里筹钱向批发商买日常用品,卖给居民。几个有兴趣的居民在那儿轮流做义工把买来的货品廉价卖给邻居,但我是拿工资的员工,所以工作时间比较长。 这工作使我萌起做生意的念头,就是可以从批发商那儿买货,把货卖给顾客。

因为我很喜欢看书,所以就决定开书店。我以前买书的时候极少关注书的定价或折扣等。我到常光顾的上海书局问如果我要开书店,向他们拿书,他们会批给我多少折?他们回答我说四折,我认为四折是个很好的价格。那个时候的书很便宜,大概在一块钱左右。所以我就向父母拿了一些钱,并且从一个好朋友那里获得了一点支持。我的资金其实很少,所以开张的时候还是有点拮据,装修的钱也需要慢慢还。一开始买书的时候,上海书局开单给我,我才发现原来所谓的四折是按照港币来算的。因为70年代时的华文书批发时都是用港币计算的。原来门市是卖港币五折。比如定价十块港币的书,我是以四块新币买进五块新币卖出。换句话说我只赚20%。为了吸引顾客又再扣10%。最终是,我的盈利只有10%, 但是生意很好。

我刚进货的时候是进台湾出版的书比较多,但后来他们告诉我应该多进大陆的书。所以我就进了一些上海的书。我也进一些贺年卡,圣诞卡之类的,后来我才开始大量卖大陆出版的书,主要是,我的书店在黄金戏院,戏院上演的主要是大陆电影。帮我做工的店员与替我到大书局拿书的职员都是儿童剧社的团员。他们对大陆书比较熟悉,知道来看大陆片的观众会买什么书,而且很多顾客都是他们的朋友,现在的名广播员徐惠民在前卫书室开店的早期也帮过我,他对大陆书很熟悉。我因为资金不足,而且是新开的书店,没有帐期,都是用现金买货,现金也不多,所以在书店里摆卖的书很少,但生意却不错,有时一天我们会到做批发的书店如上海书局两三趟。因为要付现钱,每趟都不能拿太多货。

我们生意最好的时候,卖出去的《七十年代》杂志的数量创下了最高的记录,纪念周恩来的那一期,卖了七百多本。因为那个时候别人卖一块一,我们卖一块钱。成本是九毛钱,我每一本赚一毛。《七十年代》与《广角镜》一出版,散场的观众就涌进书局,我们必须要预先把杂志包好,顾客一来就递给他们。那个时候其实赚不到钱,因为卖的太便宜了。其实,我对左派书是比较陌生的,对台湾书比较熟悉,早期我自己看的多半是现代的文学作品,都是台湾书。但我刚开书店时订的台湾书,几乎都没有人买,只有我自己看而已。

好景不长,我的书店经营了两年多时,黄金戏院本来是放映大陆电影的,结果换了台湾电影。我的顾客多半是来看戏的观众,所以顾客数量就开始骤减。我本来一天至少可以做两三百块,多则七八百快的生意,突然降到了一天几十块。根本不够开销,令我十分担心。刚好我在惹兰苏丹的布业中心看到一件空店,正对着大门口。最重要是,布业中心的光辉戏院上演中国电影。那边的租金大概一个月一千块。有一个装修商也向我表示可以帮我做装修,钱可以分期付款。所以我决定以5000块的价格把前卫转让给一位朋友张克润,因为他对经营书店是外行,所以除了存货,也把职员留下来帮忙他。但是剩下的书账要由他还,因为我不喜欢欠人家太多帐,我的书帐其实不多。

我在布业中心开的书店叫草根书室,那时大概是75,76年左右。因为上演大陆电影,开始时生意还不错,我还记得,我开始营业的时候上演的片子叫《蟋蟀皇帝》。

 

s/pores:取草根这个名字跟接触左派有关系吗?

英培安:可能我那时候的思想比较接近平民。我很喜欢“草根”这个字。我是在78年被捕的,那时我在经营草根。我卖的大多是台湾书,很少大陆书,因为我不想和前卫售卖的书籍一样,我也卖英文书,英文流行小说,英文流行歌卡带等,算是草根吧,但内容并不左。(笑)

我被捕的原因,不是因为我参与任何左倾的活动,主要是在我经营前卫时被一个顾客牵连的。他是个熟客,也是我太太的同乡。因为谈得来,关系很好,那时我住在东陵福的一房一厅组屋,有时我下班后他会来我家里聊天。我不知道他是解阵的人,但是他也没向我暴露他的身份。有一晚,他们解阵整条线被捕了,因为内政部跟踪他的时候,他常到我的家,我也因此被捕了。我被关押了一段时间,使我爸爸罹患了重病,从此一病不起。审问我的时候,内政部的官员写了一个名字,问我认不认识他。我告诉他那是我的顾客,希望不要连累他,警官问我有没有为该顾客的活动捐钱。我告诉他我自己的经济状况都不好,不可能有闲钱捐给他。因为找不到我参加地下党的证据,我关了四个月左右就释放了。那位参加解阵的朋友后来判刑,关了大概一年多,出来后向我道歉,他告诉我他的确告诉内政部的官员,我与他们的组织无关,而且我的思想性格不适合参加他们的组织。

 

s/pores:那你被关的时候“草根”怎么办呢?

英培安:就由我太太和员工管理。

s/pores:那他们有强制你把书店关掉吗?

英培安:没有。而且供货给我的书商对我都很好,继续给书草根。后来我快被释放时,内政部的官员对我说,我们就这样让你出去,但是,如果以后你再牵扯这些政治活动,要出来就要写悔过书和认错了。我说,我对政治活动没有兴趣,不过,释放时我的条件是不能参与政治活动,不能与前政治犯来往,不能出国,至另行通知为止。内政部的人来逮捕我,在我家搜查时有一件趣事,他们搜到我朋友给我的几本Playboy,即对我说,他们可以控告我两项罪名,私藏“黄书”和“红书”。我说“红书”是和本地书商拿的,都是文化部通过的。“黄书”就没办法了,是朋友送我的,这些杂志,其实很多人家里都有。不过,他们只是唬吓我而已,没有控告我。但在释放我的时候,红书都交还给我了,那几本Playboy却没有还我。(笑)我的日记在搜查时也被拿走,释放时也交还给我,从此以后我再也不写日记了。

 

s/pores:所以您只是作为商人在卖左派书,并没有真的参与政治活动,对吗?

英培安:对。我释放以后不久就关掉了草根书室。主要是我太太怀孕,书店也不赚钱,还加租。而且我发现,内政部的人有时还会到店里来问候我,令我很烦,所以我就把书店关了。那时,《南洋商报》的总编辑莫理光先生很赏识我,听说我把书店关了,打算聘请我到报馆工作,条件本来已谈好了,但是过了两天,报馆的李向先生打电话来告诉我内政部不通过。莫先生为了支持我,让我赚点钱做生活费,就叫我为报馆写专栏,但是不能再用英培安这名字了,我当时改了个笔名叫孔大山,专栏叫《说长道短》,都是些幽默小品。南洋与星洲合拼后,联合晚报创刊时,报馆也给了我一个专栏,叫《人在江湖》,写了不久,我的老毛病发作,因为语文和方言的问题,又开始批评政府,因此专栏就被停了。

 

s/pores:专栏写了几年呢?

英培安:从79年开始在南洋商报写《说长道短》,南洋星洲合拼后写《人在江湖》,一直写到80年代中旬。为了生活,我也写很多广播剧。其中有一系列特别受欢迎的处境戏剧叫《大山与培培》,内容是两夫妻日常争吵的琐事,很有趣,也很生活化。我写广播剧的时候,也和一两个在电视台工作的朋友来往,他们打算拍一部以学生生活为题材的电视剧。约我与学生们一起参与露营,观察他们的生活,看能不能写一部电视剧。我参与了他们的露营生活后,写了个剧本。电视台的朋友看了后告诉我,他个人觉得不错,但是有两样东西电视剧是不能碰的,就是教育问题和学生恋爱。我当时想,学生的问题不外是教育制度产生的问题和她们的恋爱问题,如果不能写,还能写什么呢?所以剧本并没有被采纳,但是我因此认识了一班不错的学生,有一个还有联系的学生现在已是博士了,在香港的大学教书。

电视台也曾打算请香港无线的陈方来做编审,但是她不习惯新加坡的电视剧太多限制,就婉拒了,后来陈方读了我的剧本,建议电视台聘请我。当时电视台的冯仲汉先生的确想聘用我,而且也面试了,条件也谈得七七八八了,冯仲汉还希望我尽快到电视台上班,但面试后隔天他亲自打电话来用广东话对我说,你知道你自己的事,不可以啦。

我的专栏被停掉后,就索性专心写小说。1987年我出版我的第一部长篇小说 《一个像我这样的男人》,并获得新加坡书籍理事会的书籍奖,奖金是一千元。

94年的时候,我开始投稿到香港的报纸。那时候香港有一份报纸叫《香港联合报》,稿费很高,《星岛日报》和《明报》我也有投稿。我觉得自己在新加坡专业写作,很难突破;在新加坡杂事太多,常打扰我的写作。既然香港的报纸接受我的作品,我决定到香港生活一段日子,希望在那儿能专心写作,完成我一直想写的长篇小说《骚动》。到香港后我住在一个比较偏远的地方,屯门。地方离香港市区很远,朋友找我或我找朋友都很不方便,所以我不必花时间与人社交,只专心写小说。

在香港我很快就在星岛晚报开了个专栏,每天为专栏写稿。在香港到市区时我一定去书店。有一次在书店里遇到了三联的一位高级职员,因为我以前开书店时有和三联来往,她很支持我回新加坡继续开书店。我告诉她我没有资金,她建议我找一个租金便宜的地方,他们先发给我一批书,先不必还账,以后慢慢还。

我欣然答应了她的建议,并把开书店的想法告诉了我太太,我太太也很赞成我回来新加坡开书店,那时她是双语翻译,客源都在新加坡,极不愿意和我一道住在香港,所以在我未返回新加坡前,她已帮我在新加坡寻好了一个铺面。回新加坡后开书店时,我照旧每天写我的专栏,赚取生活费,直到《星岛晚报》关闭为止,我就不再替其他的报纸写专栏了,我觉得每天写,压力蛮大的,不过稿费真的很高,我每月的稿费除了还房租,四千多块港币还剩下八百多块。够我每两三个月一次买往返新港机票的钱以及生活费用。当然,我的生活费非常简单。

我回到新加坡,决定重新开始经营草根书室时。我是真的很想开一间卖好书的书店。开始我上午在家为专栏写稿子并传真到香港去,下午一点左右开始一个人在书店工作,没有请帮手。当时我还出版了非心(李慧玲),凯德,柯思仁等年轻作家的书。草根的门市并不很好,能存活下来,是因为把书销售到大学的图书馆去。开始时国大,后来是南大,再后来也供应本地的出版给台大。

草根其实是靠一些喜欢书的朋友支持的,好些帮我照顾书店的文友,其实只拿很低的薪水。如有一位叫宋琳的中国诗人及现在南大教书的许维贤也曾帮我照顾书店的生意。2008年的时候我身患癌症。我的一个顾客,也是一名出色的小说家张惠雯,在我患病期间义务帮我照顾书店。

草根书室的租约在2014年7月到期,因为医生说我的癌症可能会复发,我决定不要继续做了。

 

s/pores:所以你开过三间书店。

英培安:是三次。只是前卫的时间比较短。第一次开草根才开了几年就惹到事被人抓起来了。第二次开草根,我熬了很久,将近二十年。

s/pores:这三间书店主营有什么不同吗?

英培安:第一间书店基本只卖左派书,因为那儿有间专放映大陆电影的戏院,话剧团体都向我们这里拿书。书太容易卖了,所以营业额一降,我就不知如何是好。

第二间书店就不只卖左派书了,也卖台湾的现代文学,英文书也包括其中。第三间主要是台湾出版的文学和学术的书。大学生和老师是主要的顾客。我们卖许多别的书店很少卖的专书,很多是关于哲学、文化,还有戏剧、戏曲与电影及诺贝尔文学奖得主的书。

s/pores:哪一个种类卖得最好?

英培安:文学批评和中国哲学。但其实最畅销的是老师开课要用的参考书。(笑)要写论文的学生就常常买关于文学批评的书。

s/pores:那您书店的常客会聚在一起讨论吗?

英培安:其实我们之前本来有举办过文学活动的,但因为出席的人越来越少,就懒得办了。最后一次活动只有两个人来。发言人是个老师,但他没有叫自己的学生来。他看到人这么少,觉得很颓丧,我也是。最近有个年轻女生创办了本双语杂志,杂志出版后也有在我们书店发布。我鼓励她继续做下去,就像我年轻的时候那样。

s/pores:70年代的时候书店会举办活动吗?

英培安:没有。那个地方空间太狭小了。那时候不流行。

s/pores:不过那些常客会在你那边小聚,对吗?讨论一下?

英培安:没有。通常是会拉我出去附近的咖啡店喝茶,不会在店里聚。我记得在开前卫书室时,因为大厦里有些教华乐的朋友,他们常到我的书店里谈天,记得在开“前卫”时,我还出版过一本关于怎样学古琴的书,销量还不错。

 

s/pores:那经营书店和出版有什么联系呢?

英培安:两者其实很难一起经营。我关掉草根之后开始写专栏。当时《南洋商报》出版了我的第一本杂文集《说长道短》,我即萌生了自己出版书的念头。后来本地的文学书屋出版我的专栏《人在江湖》的杂文,出了三种即《人在江湖》、《拍案集》、《破帽遮颜集》,都印了两版。这出版社出版了不少本地作家的作品,但是,后来因为经营不当倒了。

后来我用草根书室出版我的专栏文章《风月集》,《潇洒集》及《翻身碰头集》第一版印两千本,因为帮我批发的新文化机构发得很广,甚至发到大马,所以一出版,很快就发完了。当时有人专跑学校卖书,向我要书,我已没有书了,就再印了第二版,到学校卖的书成绩还不错,但是发出去的第一版,过了若干时间后,因为它主要放在卖流行书的书局,结果退回不少书给我。所以我后来就存了很多书,下来就不敢再这样做了。不过还好,每种书我大概也卖了约三千本。但是每种书第一版与再版加起来也存了接近一千本,三种就有三千本了,其实是很严重的。

出到第四本书,我的短篇小说集《寄错的邮件》后,我觉得我应该用我赚到的一点钱来出版其他本地作者的作品了。所以我出版了郭宝崑的《棺材太大洞太小》。但是我很笨,还是印两千本,为什么说我笨呢。因为虽然宝崑当时很出名,戏也很多人看,但看戏的人对剧本是没有兴趣的,印两千本,卖出的书非常少,家里堆了一千八百多本。之后我也印是陈伯汉与徐惠民的相声。

出版我的长篇小说《一个像我这样的男人》后,我出了几本其他作者的作品,像孙爱玲,张曦娜,因为我自己没有那么多新作出版,所以也再版以前出版的作品,如我的杂文,还有我的诗集。

我的出版是在家里做的,因为没有办公室与职员的开销,大体上都不会亏本,整个出版大概是亏了两本,都是表演艺术的。一本是宝崑的戏剧集,另外一本是徐惠民的相声。在北桥路重新开草根书室的门市时,不久我也搬家了,《棺材太大洞太小》因为太多存书,搬家的时候我太太只肯让我拿三百多本到书店,其他全扔了,真的很可惜。不过即使是拿光了,现在也卖不完。因为没有人会去看剧本,剧本的销量是很少很少的,最多三百本。

s/pores:是因为你对出版有兴趣所以你就做,是这样吗?

英培安: 我很早就对出版着迷。我很早的时候,我就自己出书了。1968年我出版第一本书,也就是我的诗集《手术台上》,是五月出版社出版的,五月出版社是几个写诗的朋友搞的同人出版社,那时候,那几个朋友的年龄都比我大,出来做事了,我还在读书,没有工作,就由我去注册,但是后来我因为思想和文学观点与他们不一样,我写信给其中的一位主要的社员,我对他说,因为我对文学的观念不一样,我不想再与他们在一起搞出版了。因为出版社是我注册的,所以我把出版社交给他,让他可以重新注册,我就离开这群朋友了。之后,我自己办杂志,开书局.

我不懂为什么会喜欢出版。我觉得这也可以是一种生计。我也喜欢绘画,那时候,因为我出版的杂志缺乏资金,设计啊排版啊,写文章,甚至打字都是自己来。

 

s/pores:“您第三次开书店就是在九十年代,您那时候已经有了二楼是书店那样的概念。

英培安: 其实我八十年代已经认识到二楼是书店了,我被捕释放后一个时期不能出国,但八十年代中能出国了,我常到香港,也常到香港的二楼书局如“青文”。那时,我在香港出版了一本散文集《园丁集》,是何紫先生的山边社出版的,他是香港的儿童文学家,出版社除了出版儿童文学也出版香港文学。我到香港时他还特地给我版权费。我的书定价港币八元,那时候港币对新币的汇率是对半,每本折成新币是四元,印了两千本,版税十巴仙,两千个四毛是多少?版税大概是八百元的。

 

s/pores:那你对书局,这种中心文化的概念有什么看法?就是书店在一个社会的重要性。

英培安: 书店是蛮重要的。不过现在开书店很不容易,人们越来越不需要书了。因为人们会在网上买书。不过我觉得它还是需要的,它是一种文化的特征。就好像如果有一天法国巴黎的莎士比亚书店关了,会怎么样?当然我们的书店不能与莎士比亚书店比较,无论如何,书店对作家的关系非常密切,他们的书要是靠书店卖,他们也需从书店那边得到粮食,你说重要不重要?它是一种文化的景象。

现在的人,写文章是可以在上网找资料,不过在六七十年代,如果你要找资料,除了到图书馆借书,就是到书店找。现在经营书店的困难就是,那些经典的书几乎没有人买了,你知道新加坡的商务为什么会关门?商务印书馆最强的地方就是它的字典,现在还有谁要买字典?手机都有字典。中国重要的经典,我的书店里都有,可是没有人要看那些经典了。我的朋友对我说,什么古诗词,我手机里都有,要看都能看搜索到。所以现在做华文书的确是比较难了。但是我喜欢书,我喜欢摸上去的那种感觉,而且你可以画线,可以反复地看它。

s/pores: 您是少数有书店的作家,您认为这个有什么特别的关系吗?

英培安: 我是很想像外国的作家一样,只靠写作就能生存的。但是我们的阅读人口太少,在这儿靠写作生活令我没有安定感。我以为开书店可以给我安定感,我可以开间书店赚点生活费,同时写作。我一开始是这样想的。但是你开了书店以后其实是很难写作了,写作会放慢。其实我真正喜欢的,是写作,书店是因为我希望它可以支撑我的生活,但是开书店比写作更难挣钱。

 

s/pores: 您有没有用这个空间不经意地培育了一些……

英培安: 不经意的啊?我不懂。因为好的年轻作者他们自己也很努力,我不敢有这样的想法,也没有这样的能力。他们的才能也不能只靠书店去培育吧,当然要把作品写好首先是要喜欢阅读,寻找好书来读。

s/pores:书店会不会起到一些这样的作用,还是说作者群有一个自己的空间或群体?

英培安: 对我的书店来讲,我觉得在新加坡的作用不是很大。书店对我自己倒是获益不少。因为我开书店,每天都面对着书架上的名著,对着这些大家,你会觉得自己很渺小,不会自大。我知道新加坡有一些艺术家也好,作家也好,有点名气,很容易就自大。因为新加坡只是一个小国,你做点小事很容易就全国出名。而且我们只有一份报纸,只要你和报馆重要的人关系很好,新闻就会常见报,你就会觉得自己很了不起。

如果有外地的知名艺术家或作家来这儿,报馆就会带他们来找你,或你常代表新加坡出国参加活动,外地人认识的本地艺术家或作家,主要就是你,你不免会飘飘然,觉得自己很重要,是大师或大作家。但是,当你去阅读那些真正的大家,像中国就有很多大家,他们是在抗战时期做研究与创作的,多辛苦啊,但是他们却能够写出这样好的东西,真的是令人佩服。我觉得我们不够用功,外国的作者也好,思想家也好,都是很用功的。有段时间我很喜欢看外国作品,很多经典都很值得看。我觉得我们的写作人,写得比看得多。好的作家主要是看书多,他们是看十本书才写一本,有些甚至是看五十本写一本。我们不是,我们是写五十本书才看一本书。

s/pores:那是很奇怪的事情。

英培安: 我们容易自大是因为看书少。阅读对我来讲,使我学会了谦虚。你知道真正的好东西,就不会自我迷恋。

 

s/pores:“我们的报馆访问一个人时,是任由他自己讲的,没有再去求证。”

英培安: 对,所以我知道,报纸报道我当然很好,但是你要知道自己真正的位置在哪里,你在文学领域的位置是在哪里,自己要知道,要很清楚。有一个书店的好处是,我喜欢的书,我可以推荐给别人。
我第一次开书店时,看书不多。第二次开草根的时候我就会记得我看过的好书,所以我是根据我自己的藏书来订书的。在书店,我一直推荐我以前看过的好书,如弗洛姆的《爱的艺术》,我不懂你们有没有看过,那真的是好书。我看过的好书,我就推荐。

我年轻的时候,看台湾书的人最流行看志文出版的新潮文库。新潮文库对于我们那个时代看书的人影响很大,文库都是翻译书,翻译罗素等名家的作品。因为六十年代时,中文翻译书是没有版权的,后来才有。六五年后外国出版的书,你要译成中文就得付版权。新潮文库都是翻译外国名家的书,出名的小说家,苏联啊法国啊之类,我就是看这些书长大的。

我开书店的时候就把自己看过的好书订过来,推荐给大家。所以我书店里有很多新潮文库的书,是以前我看过的。其实新潮文库没有出什么新书,都是旧的,志文出版社一个职员不满意他的老板,他决定要出新的当代学说和文学,离开志文后他办了个叫桂冠的出版社,都是当代的新思想和当代的文学,主要是新的思想。像罗兰巴特的《恋人絮语》。但是,新潮文库的志文出版社在台湾现在还存在,一直重版他的书,因为它很便宜,没有版权。以前是一本卖十元新台币,现在是卖到新台币两三百块,因为以前的价钱不一样,但是它一直在卖。桂冠出的书是要付版权费的,而且也限制你出版多少年,到期要重新签合约,不容易做,结果在不久前倒闭了,很可惜,它真的是一个很好的出版社,出了很多好书。我的草根也有很多桂冠的书,关于社会科学研究的,或后现代的哲学与文学名家。

 

s/pores: 自己现在的出版社有出书吗?你的发布会我有去听,你有说你在七八十年代有看那些欧美的现代经典。

英培安: 哦,那个发布会,是我以前的助手婉菁开的一间叫城市书房的出版社,替我再版我的小说《我与我自己的二三事》。

我开书店其实很多人帮过我,包括婉菁。她在国大读书时是大专文学奖的筹委,到草根来联络我,叫我做评审,我们就因此认识了。

她毕业之后在八方做工时,到书店来找我,知道我刚做了电疗不久,很容易疲倦,决定每周休息时,选一天替我输入书目。

那时候,我说我身体不好,不想做书店了,她说她辞掉八方的工作,替我做,希望对我有帮助。

我出书从来没有开发布会的,出《画室》的时候,她替我办发布会,书卖得不错。她来草根帮忙后,营业额也提升了,可惜我病情恶化,PSA升高了,医生说,我的前列腺癌会复发,所以我还是决定结束草根。

后来在报馆工作的仁余与我在办前卫时认识的永心愿意接手,还有一位年轻的医生也有兴趣和仁余及永心合作,我就把草根卖给他们了。其实还没结束草根前,因为《我与我自己的二三事》在台北已卖完了,这儿有读,者找,婉菁和我也计划要再版这本书的,所以她自己办出版社时,就征求我的意见,要替我再版这本书。现在她也替我再版以前在香港出版的文学批评集《阅读旅程》。那本书是九十年代出的,早就绝版了,还有读者找。

 

s/pores:听起来,一直都有不同的人来鼓励来帮忙你,你可以谈谈草根对于新加坡这些知识分子或者年轻人有什么意义吗?

英培安: 我不知道草根对年轻人有什么意义。我倒记得刚开草根的时候,有一群国大中文系的学生对草根很兴奋,常来草根光顾,有新书到时会帮我开箱点货,然后买书。有时他们还会在书店里煮水泡茶,但是他们毕业后,大概因为工作太忙,就少来了,甚至不来了。青年作家凯德也是那一届的中文系学生,我开书店时他也常来,毕业后虽然少来了,但久不久还是会在草根出现,一直到现在。

s/pores:所以现在那一批人的年龄应该差不多四十多岁吧?

英培安: 嗯,该四十多了,19年前的事啦。有些国大中文系的学生喜欢来草根,是因为他们的老师容世诚常在上课时提起香港的漫画《麦唛》,那时只有草根有《麦唛》卖。

还有我很早的时候就卖几米的书了。因为我在台湾看到了几米的书,也在格林文化的出版社见过他,在他出版《向左走,向右走》之前的几本我就开始卖了。

格林文化出版许多很美的绘本,我有卖过他们一些书,可惜在新加坡不是很好卖,除了几米。但是后来其他的书店都有卖几米的书,我们就很难卖了。

小书店一定要有自己的特色,卖一些别人没有卖或不卖的好书,几米的书是比较通俗,容易流行起来,而不通俗的文学与哲学的书,一般书店都不大敢拿的,比如罗兰巴特,他的书虽然卖得很慢,但能持续卖,他的《恋人絮语》,从开始到现在几乎卖了两三百本。

 

s/pores: 你说过你是一个很孤僻的人,可是我记得你在草根的时候你是很friendly的。我以前小的时候也有去过你的书店,偶尔。所以我在想您孤僻的性格跟你的书店好像…

英培安: 开书店有一个好处就是使我变得没有那么孤僻。没开书店时我是蛮孤僻的,孤僻对我有个好处,就是我不会去参加任何团体,我被内政部逮捕的时候,这点对我很有利,孤僻的人是不会参加政治活动,不会有同党的。除了学生时代,我陪朋友参加过丽的呼声的华语话剧组外,我就没参加过任何团体了。就是因为我孤僻,我在话剧组很短的时间,觉得不适应便离开了。

s/pores: 您的书店跟您的那些朋友,比如大学教授开课的时候需要的一些书,您会不会和他们配合?

英培安: 他们会告诉我他们上课时会用什么参考书,如果是台湾出版的,我就会设法向台湾订,在大学教书的朋友的确是帮了我不少。我是尽量与他们配合,有时他们估计会有若干学生选修他们的课,结果却没那么多,还好卖不掉的书,下回开课时也会卖掉,除非他们不再开那门课。

s/pores:九十年代以后开的草根,买的书有百分之几是你自己选书,百分之几是跟人配合?

英培安: 哦,多半是我选的。其实与老师配合的书不多,书店里的书主要是卖给顾客,都是我选的。

 

s/pores:第二次开的草根,书种好像更多元,来源也比较多。

英培安: 开这个书店的时候,我也替别人开了两家书店,而且是大型的书店,所以在工作中,我学习了不少。第二次开草根,不到一年,为了要赚点钱支持我的书店,我曾经替香港九龙城的叶一堂(Page One)工作过。叶一堂以前是没有卖华文书的,它的第一批华文书是我选的。他们找我是因为我认识华文书,也认识台湾与香港的书商。叶一堂的老板本来是希望我结束草根,把书全卖给他,帮他打工的,但是我舍不得草根,也不适应替大书店工作,所以替九龙塘的叶一堂选了第一批书后,就离开了。

s/pores:几时的事?

英培安: 九十年代吧,草根刚开不久的时候。 我做了几年之后,又有一间大型书店找我做他们的中文部经理。书店的总裁本来是在大众书局做的,是个印度人,据说就是他把大众发展到乌节路的。这间书店英文名叫 My EPB,中文名叫“一品”。开了四间店,但三年后就全关了。

我去做的时候是开第一间总店,在Suntec City。我本来是答应做两年的,薪水不错。他们请我的时候,我告诉他们,我还开着自己的书店,书店总裁说很简单啊,把书店负责人换成你太太的名字就可以了。我在那儿做了不久,就发现他们并不重视华文。书店有两万多方尺,筹备时本来答应会给中文部千五方尺,但讨论的结果开张时只有一千方尺。做了一年,我说太太照顾不了草根,我向总裁提出辞职,他极力挽留我,但是我坚持要走,他只好让我辞职,不过要求我做顾问,每个星期回来中文部看看,对中文部的职员给意见。

我在一品做了一年,赚了他们一年的高薪,主要是当时许维贤帮忙我, 他帮我把书店照顾得很好。还有另外一个 part time 的帮手宋琳,他是中国的一个名诗人,太太是法国人,在法国大使馆做事。他喜欢看书,就来我这边帮忙,我给他的工资,他都用来和我买书。

 

s/pores:“除了草根以外,你觉得新加坡有哪些书店,最像草根?”

英培安: 由于新加坡的华文教育是用简体字的,几乎所有的书店都是卖大陆书,连以前卖台湾书的友联,因为换了老板,也是卖大陆书。

草根主要是经营台湾出版的书籍,如果从售卖的书来看,纪伊国屋(Kinokuniya)也售卖不少台湾书,较接近草根。所以我在台湾出版的书也几乎只有 Kinokuniya 与我在卖,而且他们来得比我快,我的书还没到他就先到了,比草根先卖。

s/pores:所以你也是觉得Kino跟草根的性质会比较像?

英培安:没有,我不敢跟他们比啦。

s/pores:所以原本以为开书店会给你一个安全感,可是后来也…

英培安: 我记得整天为书账与租金头痛,现在让给仁余他们,我不必头痛了。

s/pores:加起来算是开了好几十年的书店了,你觉得价值在哪里呢?

英培安: 我半生都在搞书店,有什么价值呢?我觉得可能是认识了不少书本和一些爱读书的朋友吧。在书店里我发现,有些人虽然没有写文章,不过他们读不少书,我很多书本的讯息是从他们那边来的。

 

s/pores:你一点都不孤僻啊。

英培安:我孤僻的意思是,我不参加团体活动。

s/pores:但是其实有很多好朋友。

英培安: 孤僻是不参加团体,也少去社交,我喜欢单独或和几个志趣相投的人来往。我其实常拒绝很多文学活动的邀请,包括国外的文学活动。如果我觉得没有意义的,我是不会去的,但是像之前去香港书展的名人讲座,到台湾的大学谈新加坡的文化产业,陈映真小说的研讨会,到意大利发布我的意大利版《画室》,我都觉得很有意义,值得去。

 

s/pores: 你的书店为什么要取草根这个名字?

英培安: 因为我喜欢这个字。我舍不得“草根”这个招牌。它是一个叫歹羊的书法家写的。我对这几个字很不舍。我的草根书室卖的是台湾的学术书与现代文学,读者其实是很不草根的。

s/pores: 你自己觉得你有什么比较草根的特质?

英培安: 我觉得自己比较能够和底层的人交往。这可能还不算有什么草根特质。因为小时候我常在祖父经营的小咖啡店帮忙,所以我也习惯扛书到学校卖,在柜台前为我的读者服务,这算草根特质吗?

 

s/pores: 你是海南人吗?

英培安: 我是广东人,我们家的咖啡店是少有的一家广东人开的咖啡店。小时候祖父开的咖啡店就在桥北路,我就住在咖啡店楼上,桥北路是我童年与少年活动的地方,我童年与少年的回忆都在这里,所以中年以后我选择在桥北路第二次开草根书室,就是因为怀念这地方。

s/pores: 我们今天收获很不浅,你的精神比我们还好,不好意思,打扰你了。

 


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