My first concrete memory of reading is of me sitting on the floor of my school library, completely immersed in the pages of the book my head was buried in. I can't recall the title of the book, but I remember my single-minded absorption in the story, and the mild irritation felt when the bell rang to signal the end of recess.
The library at Marymount Convent School was on the first floor, wedged midway between my classroom on the second floor and the canteen in the basement. It seemed like a huge space full of books to a nine-year-old but looking back now, it was probably about the size of three large classrooms. It was here where I borrowed books by Enid Blyton and read about the adventures of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Some of my favourite books tucked away on the shelves are Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House On The Prairie series and L.M. Montgomery's Anne Of Green Gables. Years later, another memory etched in my mind is that of fighting sleep in order to read the mammoth A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth in 24 hours - one of the many books I hungrily devoured when I had plenty of time on my hands after the A-level exams.
In Janice A. Radway's classic ethnographic study, Reading The Romance, she examines the reading habits of a group of housewives in small-town America. For these women bound to the home, reading romantic fiction served as a form of escapism and pleasure from their mundane lives revolving around the house and children. They saw it as a form of education (transporting them into exotic - and sometimes erotic worlds - that they would have little chance of experiencing); therapy (providing respite from housework and boredom); and community (allowing them to converse with other like-minded readers). While not everyone enjoys reading romance novels, Radway's study illustrates how reading can serve multiple purposes of education, edification and entertainment. That reading can provide endless hours of entertainment or transform one's world- views likely accounts for the significance that people attach to their memories of reading and of books.
Trawling through the Singapore Memory Project portal, I discover echoes of my own memories in the memories of others. People shared their memories of reading The Adventures Of Mooty and being hooked on the Bookworm Club series, both published in Singapore. The latter series was a regular publication in the 1980s and 1990s, featuring the adventures of Sam Seng, Simone, Porky, Mimi and Edison in locations that were distinctly Singaporean. The Bookworm Club was innovative in its ability to generate a sense of excitement about reading through school assembly talks and membership subscriptions.
While how we buy and read books today has changed with the presence of online book retailers such as Amazon and Book Depository and e-readers like Kindle and iBooks, reading remains very much alive in the 21st century.
I was an avowed Bookworm fan, and at Primary 4 or 5, made the pilgrimage with some friends to its office in Selegie Road to buy backdated issues. Students today have greater access to children's and young adults' literature by local authors. Recent Singapore bestsellers include The Diary Of Amos Lee by Adeline Foo and the Sherlock Sam series by the husband-and-wife team Adan Jimenez and Felicia Low-Jimenez - both published by Epigram Books.
Each generation has its own memory of particular genres and particular books. Singaporeans in their late 20s and early 30s would have been spellbound by Harry Potter books; the long lines snaking outside Borders bookshop in the early to mid- 2000s is a sight many still remember. While I was not one of those who stood in line, I had friends who followed the series (first the book, then the movies) rabidly.
Enid Blyton remains a consistent favourite among primary school children, although parents might be surprised to find their children reading revised - read politically correct - versions of The Famous Five, with the language updated for modern audiences. Students from the 1970s to the 1990s would be familiar with the comic series Lao Fu Zi, or Old Master Q in English- created by Alfonso Wong in 1962.
Students found the stories so engrossing that even those with a shaky grasp of Chinese, such as me, read the simple comics for their illustrations and humour. T.C. Lai recalls that he "grew up in the 1970s reading Lao Fu Zi all the time, whether it was at clinics, barber shops or bookshops in South Bridge Road". He enjoyed the "scenes… of Lao Fu Zi (and his sidekicks) dealing with gangsters dressed in bell-bottom pants and garish print shirts".
Actor Edmund Chen, now in his 50s, recalls that wuxia, or swordfighting novels, were his reading staples during his Catholic High School days. But for Wan Zhong Hao, in his mid-20s, a generation later at the same school, manga comics were the rage, along with Tin Tin and Asterix and Obelix comics. These books allowed readers to immerse themselves in the parallel story worlds, and enabled them to follow their favourite characters through their adventures, dilemmas and, sometimes, even growth.
Libraries and bookshops rank highly in Singaporeans' memories of places of reading. While each generation remembers different libraries and bookshops, these places re- main constant in the memories of the diverse generations. The collective memory of the National Library in Stamford Road generated unprecedented civic activism between 1999 and 2000 when many Singaporeans protested over its proposed demolition to make way for the Singapore Management University and a tunnel to redirect traffic.
Even though the quest for "progress" prevailed and the red-bricked building was eventually torn down in 2005, people of a certain generation still remember it fondly. It would seem that the old National Library, more than any other institution in Singapore, symbolised the nation's love for reading.
Opened in 1960, the original National Library in Stamford Road was for many years a source of entertainment and education for many Singaporeans. People visited the library to borrow and read books, and parents could safely leave their children in the children's section while they browsed in the adult section, all on the ground floor.
The library became the haunt of students from the various schools in the Civic District - students from Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls' School, Victoria School, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and St Joseph's Institution hung out at the library to socialise and to study.
Reflecting on his time spent in the National Library as a teenager and later, as an adult, poet and essayist Boey Kim Cheng writes that the library is a "storehouse, not only because each book it contains is a work of memory, but more vitally because it contains the memory loci for readers whose lives have been changed by it".
Places are repositories of both individual and collective memories; the sounds, the smells, the feelings evoked by the old National Library are part of our recollections of what the building represented. The iconic but austere building - typical of the functional post-war Modernist architecture of the period - with its concrete steps leading up to the balustrade and main entrance, the slightly musty smell of books, the tattered library card that promised a treasure trove of books (four to be exact) that could be borrowed are some memories that Singaporeans over the age of 30 share.
For the younger generation, their memories of reading are associated with the modern glass-and-steel building in Victoria Street or with the new and shiny public libraries found all over Singapore.
Bookshops are also often associated with reading. In the 1960s and early 1970s, parents with their school-going children in tow would head to independent bookshops along Bras Basah Road - bearing names like Sultana and Modern - before the start of the new school year to buy freshly minted textbooks. The mother of all bookshops was MPH, established in 1815 in Malacca and later moving to Singapore in 1890. MPH has gone through several name changes, from Methodist Publishing House to Malaya Publishing House, then Malaysia Publishing House. Entering the scene much later were Times the Bookshop in 1978, Kinokuniya in 1983, and of course Borders in 1997, which has since exited the retail scene.
In a less wealthy Singapore, second-hand bookshops also thrived as hubs of pleasure for avid readers. Second-hand books could be bought for a fraction of the original price, read and then returned in exchange for another book at a reduced price.
In secondary school, when I was permitted to roam about by myself after school hours, I would visit Sunny Bookshop in Far East Plaza or patronise a small second-hand bookshop in Ang Mo Kio Central Market and Food Centre, usually on my way to the Ang Mo Kio Public Library.
The iconic Sunny Bookshop closed in August 2014. Bank analyst Lynn Teo, reflecting on the imminent closure of Sunny, rued its loss, writing: "I feel like another piece of my 'growing up' is gone… I remember taking hours to decide which romance novels I wanted to rent and counting if I had enough money to take out more than one book at a time. I... definitely miss it."
For Chinese books, readers would go to Chinese bookshops in Golden Mile Complex and the various independent bookshops in Bras Basah Complex. Yam Chiang Yee recalls visiting these shops as a young child, where "some of the poor would sit on the floor of the bookshops to read. Back then, the bookshop owners were… very understanding and didn't chase them away".
The now ubiquitous Popular began as a Chinese bookshop in 1936 in North Bridge Road, and moved to Bras Basah Complex when it opened in 1980. The presence of so few independent bookshops today represents an erosion of the reading culture in Singapore.
READING AS SOCIAL PRACTICE
While reading is often perceived as a solitary activity, there is in fact much social interaction that takes place around reading and readers. In a speech made at the 10th anniversary celebration of KidsRead, a National Library Board (NLB) programme where volunteers read to children of low-income families, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared how his mother, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo, used to read to him as a child. A favourite book was The Story About Ping, about a duckling living with his family on a boat on the Yangtze River.
Reading, as this case illustrates, becomes pleasurable parent-child bonding time over stories. It is also a form of apprenticeship, where parents teach (often without trying) their children how to read and to engage in reading for pleasure.
When Borders was launched, it tried to create a community of readers. It brought a different concept of the bookshop experience to Singaporeans, encouraging browsing and reading within its premises with books that were not shrink-wrapped and providing sofas and armchairs for this express purpose - although many chose to sit (or sprawl) on the carpeted floors to read.
Borders was ahead of its time in Singapore, organising various activities such as book launches and book discussions and workshops to engage the community in reading. The presence of Borders resulted in the transformation of the bookshop landscape, with MPH and Times revamping their store layouts and Japanese book retailer Kinokuniya expanding its business in Singapore with a capacious outlet at Ngee Ann City in 1999. Although Borders closed in 2011, in part due to poor sales as well as the declining fortunes of its parent company in Australia, it helped significantly in repositioning the entertainment value of reading in Singapore.
Book clubs are another example of how reading can be very much a social activity. Read! Singapore, launched in 2005, is a nationwide initiative by the NLB. Featuring a multilingual annual book list, author sessions and book clubs, the initiative aims to generate excitement about reading.
The annual Singapore Writers Festival, first organised in 1986, is another example of an initiative that aims to encourage reading and conversations around books. Independent bookshops such as Caogen (Chinese bookstore Grassroots Book Room) and Books Actually continue to thrive, partly because they value their community of readers and create opportunities, whether through book launches or cafe spaces, for the community to meet. Readers want to see themselves as part of a wider social network and have conversations around books they have read. These conversations can add another layer to the experience of reading.
The idea of having conversations around what one's friends and contemporaries are reading is not new. In the 1950s and right until the 1970s, the Malay community in Singapore participated in "group reading of the newspapers", passing the papers from "one hand to another or father to son".
It was common for individuals to congregate in village spaces, and later coffee shops, to discuss social issues relating to what they had read. This culture of newspaper reading and coffee-shop talk among older generations of Singaporeans has survived and even spread to other communities - my father, for instance, now retired, takes a daily walk to the nearby coffee shop to have his morning coffee and read his Chinese newspaper.
While how we buy and read books today has changed with the presence of online book retailers such as Amazon and Book Depository and e-readers like Kindle and iBooks, reading remains very much alive in the 21st century. The Internet is abuzz with online reading communities that provide opportunities for people to discuss, share and recommend their latest reads. Digital books are downloaded instantaneously on e-readers, and are especially convenient when travelling.
Yet, the printed book remains a popular option, informal books clubs continue to thrive and book-related media events continue unabated. Technology, therefore, supports and encourages the reading of the printed book, and libraries and bookshops are reinventing themselves as places not just to access books, but also to engage in social activities around books.
Our memories of reading are closely intertwined with the relationships and conversations that are built around books and the places that allow us to indulge in reading.
- Dr Loh Chin Ee is an assistant professor at the National Institute of Education. She is the co-editor of Teaching Literature In Singapore Secondary Schools (2013), and Little Things: An Anthology Of Poetry (2013), and co-author of Teaching Poetry To Adolescents (2013). Her current research focus is on reading and school libraries. This article first appeared in BiblioAsia Volume 12 Issue 1, the quarterly journal of the National Library.