Grassroots Book Room reopens

Grassroots Book Room reopens
Former journalist Lim Jen Erh (right), 57, and medical doctor Lim Wooi Tee, 30, pictured in the revamped Grassroots Book Room.

One of Singapore's most prominent Chinese bookstores, the Grassroots Book Room, reopens officially today under new ownership and in a cosy new space in Bukit Pasoh Road, next to the New Majestic Hotel.

Grassroots, which was set up in 1995 by renowned Chinese-language writer and Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon, 68, changed hands last July.

Its new owners are former Lianhe Zaobao journalist and dramatist Lim Jen Erh, 57, and his two partners, his friend Lim Yeong Shin, in her 50s, who will help him run the bookstore full time, and medical doctor Lim Wooi Tee, 30.

All of them were Yeng's loyal customers.

Speaking in Mandarin, Yeng tells Life! that he had been thinking of shutting down his bookstore for some time.

He had been through an exhausting libel suit with artist Tan Swie Hian in 2011, which he lost, and to make matters more complicated, Yeng, a prostate cancer survivor, realised that his health was "in poor shape" after a visit to the doctor.

It did not help that footfall at the bookstore was low and rent was steep.

"I realised that time and health were more important to me and so I decided to shut the bookstore," says the award-winning writer, who is working on another novel.

He was "delighted" when the three Lims said they would take over. "I'm getting old," he says with a laugh, "and I've spent a long time with this bookstore - 20 years."

The new owners have kept Yeng's inventory intact and have added children's books and other general titles to the mix for more variety and accessibility for a total of more than 5,000 books.

About 10 per cent of the books are English-language titles to cater to the non-Chinese-speaking crowd.

Also on sale are stationery and other tchotchkes.

Readers will be able to find fiction such as Su Tong's Wives And Concubines (which was adapted into the critically acclaimed film Raise The Red Lantern), alongside non-fiction like retired Singapore lawyer Lim Chin Joo's memoir, My Youth In Black And White, and titles by popular Taiwanese illustrator and picture-book author Jimmy Liao.

Yeng's books are prominently displayed beside those of other local writers such as Quah Sy Ren and Tan Chee Lay.

Three of Yeng's novels have won the Singapore Literature Prize: Unrest (2002), Trivialities About Me And Myself (2006) and The Studio (2011).

The latter two were selected by the journal Asia Weekly for its prestigious annual list of the 10 Best Chinese Novels In The World, along with the works of Nobel laureate Mo Yan and acclaimed contemporary writer Yan Geling.

Lim Jen Erh, who has known Yeng since the early 1980s, says that it was "a necessity" to keep the bookstore open: "We thought - 'oh no, another bookshop is going to close'. Especially because there are not many Chinese bookshops and Grassroots is quite a quality Chinese bookshop, we wanted to do something about it."

They declined to reveal the cost of renovating the new 1,800 sq ft space, twice the size of the bookstore's former premises at North Bridge Centre.

But Lim says that the rent is "definitely higher" than the $4,500 a month Yeng was shelling out previously.

Lim and his partners are sharing the cost and he says they have enough to keep them going until their lease ends in three years' time. After that, the fate of the store remains to be seen.

But one thing is certain - they will not just be selling books.

Lim says: "I think the old model of bookshops just selling books doesn't exist anymore. We want this to be not just a bookshop - we'll have exhibitions and talks and a cafe, where people can enjoy a drink."

Apart from housing its own coffee joint, the Open Book Cafe, the store is currently hosting a small exhibition of artworks by illustrator Lee Kow Fong, who goes by the pseudonym Ah Guo.

They are planning an exhibition of Peranakan embroidery next month and a photography exhibition on Chinatown in March.

There are also plans to host talks and book launches, a formula that seems to have worked for popular independent bookstore BooksActually.

But the old Grassroots Book Room will be missed.

"Ironically, it's the quietness of the bookshop that people enjoyed," Lim says with a laugh.

"When you go there, you can really look at books quietly and you get to talk to Yeng Pway Ngon himself."

Visitors will still get a chance to meet Yeng at the new store this weekend.

There is a flurry of other activities lined up for its official opening, including a short performance of nanyin music by the Siong Leng Musical Association this afternoon and concerts by Taiwanese soprano Jade Shih and xinyao singer-songwriter Wong Hong Mok tonight.

Tomorrow, historical researcher Han Shan Yuan will be giving a talk about the rich history of Bukit Pasoh.

Admission is $10 at the door.

Lim grins: "Hopefully we will be around after three years."

Grassroots Book Room is at 25 Bukit Pasoh Road and is open from 11.30am to 8.30pm daily.

For more information, call 6337-9208 or go to www.facebook.com/bookroom.grassroots.


This article was first published on January 17, 2015.
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