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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
与新华文化事业（新）有限公司老板杨善才 ( 杨维华）
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。
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。