101 on how to stay Popular

101 on how to stay Popular
Popular Holdings CEO Chou Cheng Ngok says reading books is a luxury which he does not have time for.

Halfway through an hour-long interview with Life!, Popular Holdings chief executive officer Chou Cheng Ngok declares: "I don't read books."

This is ironic, since he runs a large chain of bookstores.

"I read The Economist, Time, Fortune, Forbes, anything that's informative and entertaining," he is quick to point out. "But for me, books are a luxury. You need a quiet spot to sit down and enjoy reading and honestly, I don't have the time."

As Popular celebrates its 90th anniversary this year and holds its annual BookFest@Singapore book and stationery event this weekend, it is clear that the man at its helm is no book-shunning ignoramus. Mr Chou has his eye on the future as the bookstore industry sails into choppy waters, and is charting a course through the rough tides with a steady hand.

Speaking to Life! at the Chou Sing Chu Foundation, a privately-funded organisation which he set up to promote Chinese culture and learning, he has confidence in the integrity of the ship he is helming.

He says: "In Singapore, people know Popular as Popular bookstore, but we are very diversified. If we are not diversified, we can't survive. This is why we're confident. All other bookshops can close but Popular will survive."

Popular Holdings also has businesses in areas such as publishing, property and educational centres.

The 78-year-old, the youngest son of Popular founder Chou Sing Chu, is a straight talker. He is fond of rhetorical questions and is willing to talk about anything and everything, though not always in the most politically correct terms.

He says: "The book industry is suffering. You hear nothing but bookshops closing. It's because of the Internet age, because of that distraction. Nowadays, you see parents with children, they don't even talk. If children don't talk to their parents, do you think they'll be bothered to read books?"

What makes a Popular bookstore different from others which have gone under - such as Borders and Page One - is that his stores are "one-stop shops", he says.

"How do you attract people to come to a bookshop? You make it convenient," he says. "Then you've got to ask yourself, what is relevant to books? Books are a necessity for education. What other necessities are there for school? So, we brought in stationery."

It is this all-in-one concept - and an injection of money from his property business in Hong Kong - that has seen Popular grow from a single Popular Book Company in 1936, to being named Singapore's Largest Bookstore Chain by the Singapore Book of Records this year, with 70 shops here, 68 in Malaysia and 18 in Hong Kong.

With Popular's robust network of brick-and-mortar shops, he is confident he can weather the rise of online retailers. "The landscape will continue to change, you can't help it," he says with a shrug.

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