The book box: A cultural journey from Geylang to China and back

An evening musing over an old wooden box of books prompted Hua Language Centre director Chew Wee Kai to embark on a personal journey of discovery into the history and legacy of the book box.
The writer's set of the Nine Volumes.
The writer's set of the Nine Volumes.

(Photographs courtesy of Chew Wee Kai, unless otherwise stated.)

As the sun set, and while taking a break from reading, I spotted a small box under my desk. I moved it onto the table and pondered where it came from. With age, my memories are broken like crumbs of rice falling to the ground, mixed with sand and dirt, constantly teasing this old man with failing eyesight.

I closed my eyes and tried to remember who had given me the box — all I could recall was that it was given to me by my friend, the poet Pan Cheng Lui, over twenty years ago. The details were hazy, so I decided to piece together the story behind the box.

The box was made of dark brown wooden panels, and shaped like an old-fashioned radio from sixty or seventy years ago: 44 cm long, 26 cm wide and 22 cm high. On the front were carved Chinese characters painted in gold, giving it an elegant and bookish flavour that was not completely lost to age and dust.

nine volumes
An old box containing the "Nine Volumes" from the Qing dynasty.

The box was damaged, and whoever repaired it had only fixed its shape. I was unable to open and use it by the time it came to me, so I had to store it away. But when I put it on the table after more than 20 years, a horizontal panel of wood came off. I gently pulled it away, and saw that the interior of the box was divided into the upper and lower compartments; the books were lying flat so their spines, so to speak, were not bent from long periods of standing upright, which was a rather fortunate thing.

A poet points the way

That night, I texted my friend, hoping he could provide some clues about the box's history. He replied that it was in the 1990s when he was still working for the newspapers. He was walking along the roadside of Geylang after lunch one day when he chanced upon an almost empty store next to a mosque. It had no signboard, no cabinets and no shelves, but there were two small broken boxes among the miscellaneous things on the floor.

He could not tell what kind of shop it was, but the characters on the boxes piqued his curiosity, and he asked the shopkeeper what was inside. The shopkeeper replied that they were originally used to store books. He asked if the shopkeeper would sell them — the shopkeeper nodded and said he would take any amount. So my friend took the boxes, had them repaired with the help of a friend, and gave one to me. The limited information that Pan provided prompted me to visit antique shops and stores selling cultural items, starting me on a journey of cultural learning.

... I asked many old Chinese-educated friends if they had heard of The China Museum of Cultural Artefacts, but few knew about it...

A few days later, I went to Bras Basah Complex at North Bridge Road to seek advice from Yeo San Chai (Yeo Oi Sang), a veteran of the book industry. I asked him if he knew of any cultural or antique shops on Geylang Road. He frowned and thought for a while before suddenly remembering a bookstore called “The China Museum of Cultural Artefacts” (中国文物馆) on Geylang Road. He recalled that he used to take the No. 2 bus every day from his home in Siglap to his workplace at World Bookstore at South Bridge Road, and would pass by the The China Museum of Cultural Artefacts. He had also been in the store itself, where tables and chairs were provided for readers.

Seeking a bookstore that doesn't sound like a bookstore

No matter how you look at it, The China Museum of Cultural Artefacts does not sound like the name of a bookstore. Being the uninformed person that I am, I didn't even know that such a bookstore existed on our little island. When I got home, I flipped through Popular Holdings’ 90th anniversary commemorative issue released in 2014, and found that The China Museum of Cultural Artefacts was located at 587 Geylang Road, as recorded in the "Singapore bookstore directory" of the commemorative issue.

The units where The China Museum of Cultural Artefacts used to be, with Masjid Khadijah on the left, April 2023. (SPH Media)

On 12 December 2022, I searched online and found that 587 Geylang Road was now Abedin Restaurant, an Indian Muslim restaurant located across the street from the intersection of Geylang Lorong 30 and Geylang Road. The two units on the left of 587 Geylang Road belonged to the 102-year-old Masjid Khadijah at No. 583, which still stands in its original location.

Leaving the internet, I was still unsatisfied; the next afternoon, I went to Geylang to take a look for myself. On the right-hand side along Geylang Road towards the city, at Lorong 29 near Masjid Khadijah, was a cluster of three shops — the middle unit was No. 587. It was under renovation, meaning that the online information was outdated, and the Indian restaurant was closed— it was unclear whether or not it would reopen after the renovation.

A cluster of three shops — the middle unit was No. 587, April 2023. (SPH Media)

In the days that followed, I asked many old Chinese-educated friends if they had heard of The China Museum of Cultural Artefacts, but few knew about it; no wonder, considering that it was located on bookstore-scarce Geylang Road, and far from South Bridge Road and North Bridge Road where Chinese-language bookstores used to be concentrated.

The nearest secondary schools then were Nan Chiau Girls’ High School and Chung Cheng High School (Branch) as both happened to use the same campus on Guillemard Road, albeit at different times. Then there was Chung Cheng High School (Main) on Goodman Road, which was closer to Geylang.

I asked a friend who was familiar with Nan Chiau Girls’ High School, and she said that she used to wait for a bus opposite the mosque on the way home from school, and did not notice the bookstore. I wonder if the teachers and students of these schools had any fleeting impressions of it.

... he immediately brewed tea for them and conducted himself like a traditional literati of the 1920s and 1930s.

nan chiau chung cheng
Nan Chiau Girls' High School (top) and Chung Cheng High School (bottom) in their original campuses, both in Kim Yam Road. Both schools subsequently used the same campus on Guillemard Road at different times. (SPH Media)

One day, veteran journalist Tay Bon Hoi sent me his new book, and I texted him to thank him, while taking the opportunity to ask about The China Museum of Cultural Artefacts. He said that Tan Pek Ping — who founded Sin Lit Pau (《新力报》) and International Times (《国际时报》) — invited him once in the 1970s. The bookstore owner even gave him a copy of Zhang Liqian’s History of Malacca (《马六甲史》).

In his memory, the bookstore was of average size, with a residential-style facade and its nondescript storefront facing the road, with a door in the middle flanked by two windows. The books were mostly in glass cabinets, mostly classical Chinese literature published by the Commercial Press. The decor was quite casual, and in addition to books, it also sold antique ceramics, and calligraphy paintings. The owner was a traditional culture enthusiast — when they visited, he immediately brewed tea for them and conducted himself like a traditional literati of the 1920s and 1930s.

A bookstore from the 1940s?

My guess is the China Museum of Cultural Artefacts was established after the end of World War II. During that period, China was embroiled in a civil war between the nationalists and the communists, and many cultured persons moved to Nanyang, or Southeast Asia. At that time, Chinese schools in the region were flourishing, and there was still a market for Chinese ancient books and calligraphy.

A few years later, in 1949, China saw a change of government, and some officials who had served under the Nationalist government relocated to Singapore and Malaysia, finding employment in the fields of education, journalism, and publishing. There was Zhao Shixun, head of the journalists at Nanyang Siang Pau in the 1950s; Cheng Jiahua, vice-principal of Pay Fong Middle School in Malacca; Ma Tianying, the former Nationalist government consul to Ipoh who settled in Kuala Lumpur; and Nanyang Siang Pau chief editor Tong Daozhang and his wife Ma Lin (Ma Tianying’s daughter, a writer under the pen name Ai Li), who settled in Singapore and were active in the cultural sector.

There were many teachers from China in local primary and secondary schools; they had a solid foundation in classical Chinese and knew about calligraphy and painting, which created a certain market for old books.

Throwing out an idea to draw out bigger concepts

A few months ago, I showed Mr Yeo a photo of the small book box from the China Museum of Cultural Artefacts. In a flash of inspiration, Mr Yeo got a small wooden box from his study, about six inches long and four inches high, with five gold Chinese characters on the front: “Studies of Ci (lyrics)”.

When he opened the box, it had two compartments, and contained a set of 11 little volumes edited by Hu Yunyi, Xie Qiuping, and Luo Fangzhou in 1934. It was published by the Asia Bookstore on Henan Road in Shanghai, and included poems by Li Qingzhao, Li Houzhu, Xin Qiji, Nalan Xingde, and Wu Zao, as well as selections of ci from the Song, Qing, Tang and Five Dynasties, ci written by females and famous Song poets, and studies in ci, — each set cost 2.80 RMB.

A box containing Studies of Ci from various dynasties.

Mr Yeo’s box set was clearly the same type of cultural product as mine. On the front of my book box — going horizontally from right to left — are the four characters “Collection of the Nine Volumes”, with smaller characters "下函" below.

Following research, I found that the Collection of the Nine Classics consists of 14 volumes and describes the system of laws and regulations in ancient China, with a wide collection of material on political, economic, and cultural systems. This type of book is generally referred to as “political books” (政书), and their titles usually include the character “tong” (通, which carries various meanings, from understanding, to explaining, to making something work).

So we have the “Trilogy” (三通) of the Song Dynasty, which includes the “Directory” (通典), “Record” (通志) and “Essays and References” (文献通考). In the Qing dynasty, these three works were known as the “Early/First Trilogy” (前三通), and with the addition of the “Continued Trilogy” (续三通) and “Qing Trilogy” (清三通), they were collectively known as the “Nine Volumes”. During the reign of the Guangxu Emperor in the Qing dynasty, the Zhejiang Book Bureau published a printed edition of the Nine Volumes.

And what do the smaller characters "下函" mean? The annotations in a dictionary of ancient Chinese language says the character "函" (han) refers to storing and sealing things in a wooden box or case. The books in the Nine Volumes were sometimes divided into two boxes, hence the reference to the first half (上函 shang han) and the second half (下函 xia han).

The box containing Essential Calligraphy by Su Dongpo.

Pan’s box is similar in size to the Nine Volumes. Written horizontally from right to left in the centre of the box are the four characters "东坡书髓" (Essential Calligraphy by Su Dongpo). On the left are three lines of small characters written vertically, indicating that the set of ten books are copies from the collection of Qing dynasty Tao Zhai which were originally stone rubbings from Chengdu West Tower dating back to the Song dynasty, and were printed by Shanghai's Wen Ming Book Bureau. 

The three lines also carry two pieces of important information. First, the calligraphy on the box was by the calligrapher Zhou Zhen from the late Qing and early Republic, courtesy name Su Chen, and casual name Zhou Nong. He was born in Jiading in Shanghai, and was a painter and calligrapher. He was proficient in the Han and Li scripts, skilled in seal carving, and knowledgeable in medicine. He passed away in 1954.

An image of the British Museum in 1853, made through the collotype process. (Wikimedia)

Second, the books were printed by the Wen Ming Book Bureau using the collotype technique, which originated in the West in the 19th century and was a popular printing method in the late Qing and early Republican periods. It was an early technique of photocopying ancient texts and was also known as “glass plate” printing, a type of photographic print process. The process was complex and expensive, but the print quality was high, so it was commonly used for printing valuable pictures, calligraphy, rubbings, and rare and precious documents.

Selling books in these exquisite old boxes in a blend of scents of paper, wood and ink elevated the books and imbued them with a subtle cultural aroma.

Once upon a time, the box was designed for carrying books; over time, it has become a historical artefact. I chanced upon an article by contemporary “Redologist” scholar Feng Qiyong on Qing dynasty writer Cao Xueqin’s book boxes, and from the title alone — which called it the most important discovery in two centuries — I could sense the excitement over it. This pair of wooden boxes is much larger than any I have seen before, measuring 70 cm long, 23 cm wide and 51 cm high. The owner is a worker in China, whose ancestors were said to be close friends of Cao Xueqin.

cao xueqin
Cao Xueqin was best known for his work Dream of the Red Chamber. (Internet)

Blending scents of paper, wood and ink

In the process of researching that old box, I stumbled upon the term “box edition” (also known as a kerchief box edition). I learned that in ancient times, kerchief boxes were little boxes originally used to hold headscarves. Later, their function expanded, and people began calling small-sized books that could fit inside kerchief boxes “kerchief box editions”. Subsequently, these editions were sold in box sets, creating a high-end, elegant environment in book publishing a century ago.

Selling books in these exquisite old boxes in a blend of scents of paper, wood and ink elevated the books and imbued them with a subtle cultural aroma. Out of curiosity, I traced the journey of the book box, a long and arduous odyssey of thousands of miles to bring the fragrance of classical books to Nanyang, only to eventually disappear into the dust of time.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as "还箱记 ——我的一次文化学习".

Related: Chinese bookshops in Singapore: Art salons of the 1970s and 1980s | Diplomat, book addict, concubine and sage, all in an old alley of Suzhou | How the Shanghai Book Company enlivened Singapore's cultural scene | Challenges of Singapore's Chinese community amid competing influences: Lessons from an old bookstore | What old Chinese textbooks say about life and times in Singapore