“City Book Room” by Tan Waln Ching (English Translation and Chinese Original)

“City Book Room”
November 2016
Tan Waln Ching

Translation of Essay in Mandarin (Below)

City Book Room and me.

City Book Room was featured in a Channel 8 television programme on independent bookshops in Singapore . It was broadcast in August 2016.

I love books, so it is my destiny to be in the publishing and bookshop industry.

I am from Malaysia, and came to Singapore in 2003 when I was admitted into the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore. I love the Chinese language. In my second year as an undergraduate, I chose to major in Chinese Studies. I would go to book stores like Great River Book Company, Grassroots Book Room and Shanghai Book Company to buy books that I needed for my classes. I was involved in organizing the Singapore Tertiary Literature Award in 2005 as a student. We invited Yeng Pway Ngon of Grassroots Book Room to be on the panel of judges. I was to get to know Mr Yeng well.

I worked for about a year in an art gallery after I graduated. In 2008 I joined Global Publishing, a local publisher of Chinese books. Such companies would be small enterprises. Its staff would have to multi-task—organise events and forums, do editing, correspond with colleagues overseas, keep in touch with other companies in the book industry etc. As I was also responsible for sales, I had to pay visits to the local bookshops. Thus it was that I showed up at Grassroots once again. This time, it was no longer as a customer that I approached Mr Yeng.

Mr Yeng let me know that he had just completed chemotherapy for prostate cancer. His eyesight deteriorated, and his typing speed was affected. I felt that typing was an easy job, and volunteered to enter data on the books into the computer on weekends, and email the list to libraries for their selection to purchase. Mr Yeng immediately accepted my offer. He asked me to come in once a week, starting the following week.

I am not sure how I managed to keep up going to Grassroots 3 to 4 times monthly for about three years. I did data entry, but later also helped to select titles to stock, and had conversations with Mr Yeng about the history of the local book industry, publishing, and one’s ideals. I benefited much from those years of working once a week at Grassroots.

In 2011 Mr Yeng told me that his latest novel Art Studio would be published soon. He wrote it after he was diagnosed with cancer. Its completion was thus an occasion for celebration. I proposed that he should have a book launch, and helped to organise the event. The launch was well received, and we both felt greatly encouraged. I continued to work part-time at the bookshop.

Then Mr Yeng asked if I would work full time. He was hoping that we would be able to turn Grassroots into a viable business.

I have great respect for Mr Yeng’s concept of publishing and running a bookshop. Thus even though I would suffer a salary cut of a thousand dollars a month I felt that I would benefit more than I would lose by joining him.

In order that Grassroots would interact better with readers, I helped to set up Facebook, Weibo and Sina web pages, and regularly updated news and information online. Aside from keeping the university libraries abreast on current titles, I helped Mr Yeng with typing, banking chores, sending lists of new publications to the libraries, publishing new titles and other tasks. We published the work of my former lecturer from the Chinese Studies Department, Associate Professor Lo Yuet Keung. I also organized a number of cultural activities at Grassroots.

Unfortunately book sales at Grassroots did not see any dramatic improvements.

Mr Yeng focused primarily on non-mainstream literature, history and philosophy titles. Customers told me that they would often find books at Grassroots which were not available elsewhere. A bookshop should have its own taste and style.

A year and a half later, Mr Yeng’s doctor informed him that his prostate cancer had relapsed. He felt that it was time to close Grassroots Book Room so that should he depart suddenly, his wife Goh Beng Choo and I would not find ourselves with a mess on our hands.

Soon after that Lim Jen Erh and his friend Lim Yeong Shin joined later by medical doctor Lim Wooi Tee, took over Grassroots Book Room. Mr Yeng retired on 1 August 2012. I assisted in matters of handing over to the new bosses, and left the bookshop three months later.

During my time at Grassroots, Mr Yeng would often ask me about my ideals in life. He said that a person with ideals was likely to face much hardship in life, and would have to make sacrifices. His insights were important to me. I had to ask myself what was meaningful to me about life. It was not that I do not care for the material aspects, but their pursuit surely cannot be the only thing to live for. One has to be concerned about oneself and one’s family, but also the community, the region we live in, the world. There is also the next generation to think about. If we are not satisfied with current conditions and hope for a better quality of life for the next generation, we would have to start to make it better.

People are gloomy when they talk about the situation of Chinese bookshops but in my six years of working with books, I have only been happy. Those who love books will know what I mean. At any rate, I got to taste failure, and am no longer a stranger to it. However failure should not only be based on quantifiable criteria. If we are able to persevere then we have not failed, even though the readership of Chinese language books may be declining.

I don’t think we should be unduly pessimistic about the Chinese bookshop and publishing business in Singapore. Readership is declining, but it is still possible for us to try to make it work. We need to put out high quality publications, and encourage a readership. This is still worthwhile trying to do. I had my experience to draw on, particularly shortcomings in selecting books, and in marketing.

Ultimately, the business I know best is books. In 2014 I started a publishing business at home—City Book Room.

When I was at Grassroots, Mr Yeng and I would often discuss plans for publication, but then his health failed. I took these plans to City Book Room. The first title I published was the out-of-print novel, Yeng Pway Ngon, Trivialities About Me and Myself. Next was Divining Dreams in a Dream: Essays on the Daoist Master Zhuangzi by Associate Professor Lo Yuet Keung. Most of the titles published by City Book Room received grants from the National Arts Council, which covered part of our production costs

After having published three titles, I signed a 2-year rental contract for a unit at North Bridge Road, opposite the National Library. We commenced business at the premises in April 2016. My husband, an interior designer, and his friends did the designing and renovation of the shop.

Our stock includes titles on the history of Malaya, Malaysia and Singapore; local literature; new publications from Hong Kong and Taiwan, such as literature and the humanities translated into Chinese; and out-of-print books To me, content and literary creativity are at the heart of a good book. I consult a group of friends who act as an editorial board. Our focus is on publishing literary studies and novels.

We do not carry titles on Internet literature, travel, cookery, inspiration, investment, and metaphysics.

City Book Room also runs monthly activities. We hope that by organizing book review circles, reading clubs, forums etc. we would build up a following, particularly of younger readers. With the Nanyang Technological University’s student group TrendLit, we organized a journals reading group; we collaborated with the young poet Zhou Hao, who led a session on poetry reading and appreciation.

Zhou Hao, poet and MA candidate in the Chinese Studies Department, Nanyang Technological University reading from 逐想像而居》 (Live Where the Imagination Is), a collection of poems by 吳耀宗 (Gabriel Wu). Prof Wu was my lecturer on Singapore and Malaysian literature. Live Where the Imagination Is received a merit award in the Chinese poetry category at this year’s Singapore Literature Prize.
Kenny Leck of Books Actually at the launch of 《消灭众神》(Destroy All Gods), a collection of poems in Chinese by 孤星子 (Gu Xing Zi) This is the first title in Chinese to be published by Math Paper Press, run by Books Actually. The event was held in October 2016 at City Book Room.
Italian writer and publisher Andrea Berrini at City Book Room speaking in English on ‘An Italian in Beijing’ (30 October 2016). The English translation of his book Noi siamo la classe operaia: i duemila di Monfalcone (We are the Working Class, 2004) has been published by Ethos Books under the title A Far Better Thing I Do: The 2000 from Monfalcone (2013). Front row, from left: Tan Heng Lee, Chan Wai Han, Fong Hoe Fang, Andrea Berrini, Yeng Pway Ngon, Goh Beng Choo, Chng Min Oh, William Yap. Second row, from left: Teo Soh Lung, Chin Wey Tze, Tan Waln Ching.

Xing Zi is a friend. He is one of the founders of Trendlit [新文潮》文学社 ]. The group often holds its activities at City Book Room.

I have known Kenny since my days at Mr Yeng’s Grassroots and have followed the progress of his book shop and publishing company. He integrates marketing, media outreach and activities for readers very effectively. I admire the perseverance and spirit of enterprise of Books Actually.

Yeng Pway Ngon and Fong Hoe Fang of Ethos introduced Berrini (60 years old), founder of the Italian publishing house Metropoli d’Asia to City Book Room when he attended the Singapore Book Festival. Mr Berrini spoke about the Chinese translation of Noi Siamo La Classe Operaia which was published in Beijing. The talk was chaired by noted Singapore translator Goh Beng Choo.

It was at this event that I got to meet Chin Wey Tze, who encouraged me to write on City Book Room for s/pores.

We also want to venture into literature in translation. The Nonexistent Lover, a short story collection by Yeng Pway Ngon and translated into English by Goh Beng Choo will be published soon.

Literature nourishes the mind. This is particularly needed in our high-tech, highly stressed life.

Reading literature books is a pleasurable way to anchor us to humanity.



城市书房曾被本地 8 频道网络电视访问,谈有关本地独立书店的课题,于今年 8 月播映。


我来自马来西亚,二OO三年,我从马来西亚來新加坡國立大學念社会科学系。我喜欢中文,大二那年选中文系为主修。由于要买课本,所以我会逛中文书店,如长河、草根、上海书局。二OO五 年,我在大学参与主办大专文学奖,筹委会邀请英培安先生为大专文学奖的评审,所以,我对草根书室的英培安先生有比较深刻的认识。





















周昊,本地诗人,也是南洋理工大学人文学院中文系硕士导读吴耀宗 的诗集《逐想像而居》。 吴耀宗老师曾在大学教我“新马文学”。 《逐想像而居》也是2016 年新加坡文学奖诗歌组优异奖的得奖作品。
图为本地英文书店 Books Actually 的负责人陆文良,于今年十月在城市书房举办本地青年作家孤星子 (原名汪来昇) 的诗集《消灭众神》的新书分享会,《消灭众神》是 Books Actually 下出版社 Math Paper Press 出版的第一本中文诗集。
— 图位安德烈·贝里尼(Andrea Berrini)在城市书房以英语主讲《一个意大利人在北京》的 分享会(30/10/2016)。 本地英文出版社时代精神书屋(Ethos Books) 于 2013 年曾为安德烈出版他的历史记录 Noi Siamo La Classe Operaia 的英文版,题名为 A Far Better Thing I Do… The 2000 from Monfalcone。第一排(左起):陈兴利、陈慧娴、方可弘、安德烈·贝里尼、英培安 、吴明珠、庄明湖, 叶汉源。 第二排(左起):张素兰、陈蔚芝、陈婉菁。

《消灭众神》作者孤星子是我的朋友,也是《新文潮》文学社(NT U Trendlit)的创办人之一,他和朋友常来城市书房办活动。 这次也是他提出在城市书房办新书分享

我在英培安的草根书室工作期间就认识 Kenny,一直留意他的出版社和书店的动向,他们在行销、社交 媒体与读者的互动非常密切,佩服他办书店的毅力和魄力。

透过英培安先生与方可弘先生的介绍,意大利出版社Metropo li d’Asia 的创办人安德烈·贝里尼认识了城市书房。为配合新加坡作家节的举 办,安德烈(60岁)10 月底来新,并在城市书房举行一个小型的讲座,和我们分享他在北京 出版著作 Noi Siamo La Classe Operaia 中文版的体会,分享会由本地知名翻译工作者吴明珠女士主持。

我就是在这场讲分享会里认识了蔚芝, 她鼓励我,并引荐我在 s/pores 介绍城市书房。