Retiree donated more than 500 items to national collection

Retired lawyer and banker John Koh's home is unusual for its focus away from its living spaces.

Packed tightly in a 1,200 sq ft space over two floors in the terrace house near Orchard Road are more than 25,000 old books, and countless other photographs and ephemera.

To keep them in good condition, he has installed an industrial grade dehumidifier.

He recently donated 524 items to the National Library Board (NLB) to add to the national collection, but hopes more can go into NLB's custody.

"We are still in our early days of building up our core collection so I understand the need to impose some discipline. But much of our history is still up for grabs and so many of these are interesting and hold important social histories," Mr Koh, 66, said.

One of his gifts was an issue of the Bintang-Timor, a weekly newspaper published here in the 1850s, as well as an annotated, translated proof of the 1868 first English edition of the Max Havelaar, a political novel by Eduard Douwes Dekker that today is credited with having hugely influenced Indonesia's independence movement.

Mr Koh also donated over 500 volumes of Chinese comics that were published in Hong Kong between the 1940s and 1960s and were distributed here.

These told stories of Chinese culture and were popular among youth then, who rented them from neighbourhood shops.

"I found these when buying furniture in an antique shop in Paya Lebar. In the cupboard were boxes of these comics. In the comics is a list of all the branches of bookstores that sold these comics, which spanned Malaysia, Indonesia, Borneo, Singapore," Mr Koh said.

He added: "Today, there are more books on the French Revolution than on South-east Asia and Singapore. There is still so much to be written here."

Mr Koh is the owner of Bernard Quaritch, London's oldest antiquarian bookseller, which he bought in 2005. He is now working on a book with a working title of The Dog in 19th century photography, using the more than 10,000 images he possesses of dogs.

Clement Yong

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2021, with the headline Retiree donated more than 500 items to national collection. Subscribe