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)
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.
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”.
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.
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。
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。
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。