Part 1 3: Nostalgic memories of bookstores (both old and current) in Bras Basah Complex and its vicinity


Singapore Memory
Mr Yeo Hong Eng

Part 1:
Brief history of Bras Basah Road
The terms ‘bras basah’ in Malay means ‘wet rice’. It was named so most likely during the 19th century, rice was brought into the area by sampan. In the process, the rice got wet during rainy season. It was laid along the road to dry. So it was named ‘Bras Basah Road. 
The Chinese named it ‘Lau Kaa Ku Kheng Khau’. Kaa Ku’ in Hokkien is ‘Gaol’. ‘Lau Kaa Ku Kheng Khau’ means at the entrance of the gaol. In the 19th century there was a gaol.

My memories of Bras Basah Road Book Stores and its vicinity
We, siblings, did not buy textbooks in my primary schooldays as they were all on loan to us by the colonial government at a fee of only $1 per annum. My primary school years – 1953 to 1958.

However, in my secondary schooldays, all textbooks had to be purchased. 

“Have you got your booklist?” my father would ask enthusiastically. I showed him the list.

“Tomorrow morning, I’ll take a bus with you down to Bras Basah Road to buy,” he promised excitedly, feeling proud that at last he had the chance that he could purchase books for his son for the first time.

It was in one of the mornings of early January 1959, we went to Bras Basah Road via the No1 red and white Changi bus. Armed with the handwritten booklist (meticulously copied from the blackboard (actually cement slab painted in black) from our form teacher in the Form IIA classroom in Lim Teng Heap Wing of Dryburgh English School.

My father knew the area well but not I. I have never been to that area before as my playground was in Changi and Bedok. I was lost for words when we walked along the corridors of the shops. Almost every shop was a bookshop – old and new. Periodicals, newspapers, weekenders, magazines (ordinary and sleazy ones),  (both local and imported), school textbooks (primary, secondary as well as tertiary levels),  fictional books, non-fiction books of varied different genres, stationery, etc. I felt groggy.         

To try to save a few dollars, we tried to hunt from the second-hand book stores. I remembered that I was excited when I got one of the books. It was entitled  “The World.” It was a Geography book. Then we proceeded to the book stores that sold new ones. We went in and out almost all the shops from the whole length of Bras Basah Road from Victoria Street to Prinsep Street.  Then my father pointed out the triangular traffic island that was surrounded by Dhoby Ghaut, Prinsep Street and Bras Basah Road. He pointed out that it was ‘Sa Kak Eng’ in Hokkien which to me was Greek. The day ended with a light meal at one of Indian food stalls along one of the lanes. 

(Memory collected at the 'irememberBookstores' campaign)