As a schoolgirl in the 1950s, Lena Lim read Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and learnt about British colonial history. When she graduated, a job in the library of then University of Malaya led her to discover the works of South-east Asian scholars and writers.
In turn, it led her to open Select Books in 1976, a shop with books about South-east Asia for universities and researchers here and in the West. Now 76, Mrs Lim, who was also founding president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), tells Goh Chin Lian about her pioneering effort to reverse the knowledge flow, to go from the East to the West.
What was it in your upbringing that led you to focus on South-east Asia?
I was bred in Singapore but born in Manila because my father, a diplomat for the Chinese government, was posted there.
I studied history and geography, and history of art at then University of Malaya (a predecessor of the National University of Singapore), where I had my grounding in South-east Asian history and geography.
What was your first job?
I was a journalist in The Straits Times for nine months. When a library position was advertised, I applied for it. I worked in different libraries for 15 years, first in the University of Malaya library, at Asia Magazine and Singapore Herald newspaper (both have since closed down), and Asian Mass Communication Research and Information Centre (Amic).
I got to know about South-east Asian writers: Mochtar Lubis, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Han Suyin. Before that, my reading was a girls' school reading of Victorian writers such as Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy.
At Amic, I became aware that information in the world of learning flowed mostly from the West to the East. We were always on the receiving end. This was uncomfortable knowledge.
Why was it uncomfortable?
In the world of knowledge, one knew there was so much more in Asia's civilisation and history.
If I was to run a bookshop, I'd try to get a toehold in the Western market. I'd promote writers in Singapore and also South-east Asia.
The domino theory and the Vietnam War created a lot of interest in South-east Asia as a geopolitical region. Many American universities had strong teaching components as well as library acquisitions to build up information about South-east Asia. Select Books was established at an opportune time.
What was your vision for the shop?
Our first objective was to have a quality bookshop that focused on books about South-east Asia. Our quality was measured in terms of the breadth and depth of our stocks. Our second objective was to offer good professional service by staff who knew about books.
To me, books represented the intellectual and creative output of Singaporeans and Asians. I was selling something very special, not shoes or toothpaste.
I had no idea what a business was about. I didn't realise my 20 per cent margin was nowhere near enough to cover overheads.
I spent six months working through catalogues to identify prize-winning books.
How did you penetrate the Western market?
Select compiled a quarterly annotated book list called Selections On South-East Asia. This list was mailed to individual and institutional customers at home and abroad.
In 1977, we were appointed the Singapore agent by the United States' Library of Congress, which collects books from the whole world to inform the two Houses of Congress.
As its agent, I acquired, I suppose, a certain prestige that I was a reputable bookseller. Other big clients were university libraries, research institutions and government-related organisations.
How did you acquire books for your shop?
Big publishers like the World Health Organisation asked us whether we could stock their books. We got to be agents for Scalabrini Foundation from the Philippines. It had many studies about Filipinos going abroad to work. Select was delighted to discover these "rare" studies. Select sometimes had to resort to unconventional means to "acquire" difficult-to-get materials from countries like Myanmar. These arrived via regular seamen, conference couriers or political dissidents.
Why go into publishing?
I was pushed into it because writers from organised groups could not find publishers for their manuscripts.
But if I found it took up a cause I felt for, I'd take it up if it had the approval of my other directors.
For instance, Pastel Portraits: Singapore's Architectural Heritage came out of a conference on Adaptive Reuse of Old Buildings, at the height of Singapore's urban renewal policy. Its editorial committee tried to interest many publishers. Select was the last one they approached. The book has gone into seven reprints.
It has since acquired the status of a reference book in public libraries, and for architectural students, an essential guide to the so-called Singapore Eclectic style.
In many ways, Pastel Portraits may be credited as having influenced the publication of other "heritage" books that focused on Singapore's visual heritage, which anchors us to our historical past.
In 2003, Select published People Like Us: Sexual Minorities In Singapore, a ground-breaking book on homosexuality, a previously taboo subject in generally strait-laced Singapore. I read the manuscript and found it very appealing. It wasn't salacious or racy. That book went into a reprint very quickly.
Did you face opposition from any quarter?
We did encounter problems with The Struggle Over Singapore's Soul, by Joseph Tamney, a book by a German publisher.
I sent a sample copy to the publications department in the then Ministry of Culture.
Eventually they told me: "If I were you, I'd go and see a lawyer." I said: "Is it banned?" "No." I said: "Is it approved?" "No. Go and see a lawyer." That meant they probably found things they could sue Select for.
But my directors gave their approval after reading it. I ordered 50 copies. Normally you'd send a new book to the newspapers to review. We kept very quiet, but it was listed in Selections. It sold very well. I went back for another 200 copies.
Your husband was prominent in civil society. How did you balance being supportive of him and running your bookstore?
We are mutually supportive of each other's intellectual babies.
Without his support, I don't think I'd have gone into book selling. I have no business sense. The only economic decision I made was to agree to start a bookshop only if he agreed to buy the premises.
When the shop opened, the shelves were rather bare. The booksellers said: "Typical woman's economics. Buy bookshop, no books."
But as the years went on and other bookshops were having problems paying for increased rents, I was paying for bank overdrafts at the same percentage as I started 20 years ago. That helped Select to survive.
How did you get involved in Aware and become its founding president in 1985?
Growing up through the war and after, I was very conscious that women had very limited space in society.
One was aware of the many family problems: women trapped in bad marriages; husbands having subsequent wives; yet more unplanned babies; economic and social dependency.
Among the founding members were many strong, capable women who should have been president. They were nominated, but declined for various reasons.
The choice fell on me, probably because I presented the least fearful image of a strident feminist. Ironically, I was, in the People's Action Party's terms, the most "acceptable" woman: I'm married. I have children (daughter Chiwen is now 48 and a "professional mum"; son Weiwen, 46, is a financial investor). I am a working graduate mother. Aware widened my horizons and was a challenge I thoroughly enjoyed.
What was the impact of Select on reversing the flow of knowledge, to go from the East to the West?
In a small way, Select made research libraries in the West realise there are reputable publishers in Singapore, and that there are scholarly and creative writers who have an intellectual contribution to make to many fields of study.
While the West can turn a blind eye to us, for our own people to turn a blind eye to our own contributions, that's criminal.
In Singapore, very often we think a foreign professor is better than a locally trained professor. We think it's more reputable to have an article published in a foreign journal, but if the same article is published in a journal from here, you don't earn an extra feather in your cap.
We are still tied to our colonial baggage. I tried my best to break that. I don't know if I have managed to. But I'm glad I did it.
From librarian to owner of renowned bookshop
FOR 28 years, Mrs Lena Lim ran a bookshop that was renowned for its focus: Its shelves were lined with books about South-east Asia, and written by scholars and writers from the region.
The origins of this literary niche can be traced largely to the 15 years Mrs Lim spent as a librarian in educational and media institutions, from then- University of Malaya to the now-defunct Asia Magazine.
It was to open her eyes to the creative works of Asian authors, including Indonesia's famed political prisoners Mochtar Lubis, who was jailed under presidents Sukarno and Suharto, and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, under Suharto.
Select Books had a fledgling start in 1976. But the following year, a deal with the United States Library of Congress to be its Singapore agent gave Select a prestige that helped set it on the road to success.
Another significant milestone was the shop's venture into publishing, notably its publication Pastel Portraits: Singapore's Architectural Heritage, a best-seller on the architecture of Chinatown shophouses.
Published in 1984, it is for architecture students here an essential guide to the Singapore Eclectic style.
In 2004, however, Mrs Lim sold the shop because it had become too dependent on her, she said. Also, she wanted to spend more time with her family.
Now 76, she lives with her husband, William, 82, a prominent architect who designed such landmarks as the Singapore Conference Hall in Shenton Way.
Mrs Lim was also active in civil society. She was founding president of the Association of Women for Action and Research from 1985 to 1987.
Reflecting on the significance of Select Books, she pinpointed how it could sell the international rights of books on contemporary Asian architecture it had published to big architectural publishers in Britain and the United States.
"Its legacy may have been that we were in some ways opening the eyes of the public as well as institutions, both locally and overseas, that there were architects trained in Asia who were no less creative in their design than Western, European or Japanese architects.
"Perhaps, for the first time, Asians were seen as being capable of producing outstanding architecture."