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The Straits Times/Toh Wen Li 12.06.2022 - Union Book Co goes down memory lane in its 70th years

Among Chinese-literate Singaporeans of a certain vintage, the name Union Book Co - You Lian Shu Ju in Chinese - will ring a bell.

The Bras Basah Complex bookstore has been a fixture of the Chinese literary scene since the 1950s. Once Singapore's main importer of books from Taiwan, it now stocks more than 30,000 titles from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.

It can also be found on 10 online platforms – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, WeChat, Bilibili and more – and live-stream story-telling sessions and other events.

The pandemic sped up its efforts to go digital, says managing director Margaret Ma, 55, in Mandarin. “What’s different from the past is you can’t expect readers to just come to the store. You need to promote yourself, tell people about these good books and find ways to bring content to them.”

This year, Union Book Co celebrates its 70th year in Singapore. To mark the occasion, it has issued a 99-page Chinese-language publication looking back on its history.

The story began in 1949, when a group of young intellectuals left China for Hong Kong and later started a publishing organisation grounded in the ideals of democracy, economic equality and a free society. Three years later, they set up an office in Singapore at the now-demolished Winchester House in Collyer Quay.

This was followed by a store at 469 North Bridge Road in 1956 – the year Nanyang University (or Nantah) held its first class – selling books as well as its own publication such as Chao Foon and Student Weekly.

Over the years, it went through several incarnations, from a three- storey space at 303 North Bridge Road in 1968 to its current shop, which opened in 1981.

The late Mr Chow Li Liang, who ran Union Book Co from 1977 before handing it over to Ms Ma in 2005, bought over all the shares for Union Book Co, so the Singapore store was fully independent of its parent firm.

In 1995, the store started to sell more books in simplified Chinese characters, and such titles now make up 60 per cent of its stock. It also owns its units on the third floor of Bras Basah Complex.

While most of its customers are middle-aged or elderly, Ms Ma is eyeing the younger crowd. “There is demand from parents who want to get books for their children, be it in the form of graded readers or picture books. We try to make things more lively, to attract more people and nurture the next generation.”

The company’s 18 full-time staff – their ages range from 25 to 57 – are mostly from Malaysia. Ms Ma, who joined in 1995, is a Chinese immigrant turned Singaporean.

She quotes a Chinese proverb : “Ren sheng qi shi gu lai xi”(“one seldom lives to be 70”).

“How do you keep this bookstore going for 100 years? That can’t depend solely on me,” says Ms Ma, who has already found a successor among the team.

When The Sunday Times visited the shop a fortnight ago, customer Y.T. Chua, 70, had just bought a book on yoga. He has been visiting the store since he was a student, he says in Mandarin. “I like literary books. I can find more of those here, which I can’t get from the other stores. Taiwanese books are still better than the one from mainland China.”

Nantah’s closing in 1980 dealt a big blow to the Chinese literary community. But there is still a market for Chinese books here, Ms Ma says.

“People always say the standards of Chinese are falling and falling, but look – a Chinese bookstore has survived for so long.”