Saturday, December 29, 2012

City of Books

One of my favourite book haunts is Bras Basah Complex, on Victoria Street, near the National Library building in Singapore. Full of second-hand bookstores, I still go there whenever I'm back home. One of its Chinese names, in fact, is 书城(City of Books). I've spent many an afternoon there, inhaling the uniquely fusty scent that only old books have, searching and finding all manner of treasures. That last thing I bought there was a copy of the Cambridge edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, in almost perfect condition. For $5 (£2.50)! The most visible shop, Evernew Bookstore, still has a ludicrous three books for $5 (£2.50) offer. That whole stretch, of course, from Raffles City to Bugis, is one very close to home, and has a special place in my heart: I recall many days spent in the National Library, researching for my IB extended essay and then retiring for the day to the Hans downstairs for a cup of coffee with friends and teachers. 

What I didn't know was that the Complex merely brought together bookstores that had been operating on Bras Basah Road long before. Bras Basah Road was, in the postwar days, a hive of intellectual activity. (It is still a road with many historic landmarks today.) It played a crucial role in those heady days of anti-colonial fervour. Tan Kok Chiang, one of the first graduates of Nanyang University, recalls that bookstores such as Shanghai Book Store and Youth Book Store (still in Bras Basah today) were hangouts of the Chinese-educated student activists of those days. Tan claimed that while the English-educated students would go to Bras Basah to buy textbooks, more progressive (and radical) literature could be found there as well. That bit of history helps the present-day visitor to Bras Basah understand a strange sight: bookshops selling Mao's Red Book also sell used A-level textbooks. It wasn't just the Chinese-educated though. S Rajaratnam, one of the Singapore's Old Guard politicians and our first Foreign minister, used to haunt the Bras Basah bookstores as well. (I'm still hoping to find a book owned by someone famous.)

There is whole intellectual history to be written here: how postwar intellectuals in Singapore came by their knowledge, where they bought books, where they discussed their ideas and how they spread them. The mere physical process of buying and reading books demands a history that does justice to it,  not to mention the ideas themselves. I can't help but think that those were magnificent days, despite the threat of detention, the poverty and poor living conditions. To be young then, they all say, was very heaven. Today, sniffing cautiously about one of these bookstores, one can perhaps still get a whiff of 50s radicalism.

(The etymology of it all seems quite confused. Bras Basah is a misspelling of 'Beras Basah', meaning 'wet rice' in Malay. Apparently, before the land was filled in in that area, there was a lagoon that allowed boats carrying rice to come in. Wet rice would then need to be dried. Not sure if I buy this: as always, folk etymology needs a bit more research to back it up.)

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