Sunday, 9 June 2013

Select Books: The Asian Book Specialist

Select Books specialises in books about Asia. Throughout urban South East Asia you can find terraces of narrow buildings known as shophouses; these originally had a shop on the ground floor, and living quarters above. Select Books occupies a shophouse – and one that couldn’t be more fitting. In the early twentieth century Sun Yat Sen, a Chinese revolutionary who played an instrumental role in events leading to the founding of the People’s Republic of China, briefly made Singapore his headquarters.  In 1910, to promote literacy and a sense of identity amongst the country’s Chinese population, he inaugurated the United Chinese Library.  He did so in none other than the shophouse now occupied by Select Books.

Most books stocked by Select are in English. Likewise most are new, although an ancient glass-fronted cabinet that could well have been around since Sun Yat Sen’s day holds books from Colonial times. I didn’t get to flip through any of these, the alarming price tags, and the fact they were all protected by plastic wrappings, deterred me from asking the shop assistant even to open the cabinet, but the titles were intriguing, at least from an historical, if not from a literary, perspective. I doubt I'd choose to while away the time on a long journey reading Pamphlet Of Information For Travellers, published by the Federated Malay State Railways in 1914, as a guide for those taking the train from Singapore to Penang, but what a trove of information it must contain for social historians.

The new books tempting you to spend cover everything from cookery, to art and architecture, to religion, to botany, indeed every subject you’d expect to find in any decent independent bookshop anywhere in the world - although a little lighter, perhaps on defiantly provocative books on politics than would be the case in the West? Mind you, not every political title is timid; I found Freedom From The Press, by Cherian George, which examines the tricky issue of press freedom and state power in Singapore, and which is published by National University of Singapore Press.

In the literature section, I found books by Asian writers already well known in the West – Amitav Ghosh, Tash Aw, Haruki Murakami, Yan Lianke, and so on – but also offerings from authors you’d be hard pushed to find represented in Western bookshops, such as Damiana Eugenio, whom I now know to be honoured as the mother of Philippine folklore, and who is famous in her own land for her monumental Philippine Folk Literature series, published by University of the Philippines Press. Select had Volume 5, The Riddles.

As well as great books, poking around Select also led me to discover some great initiatives by Asian publishers - for example, that Perera-Hussein Publishing House, in Colombo, donates a part of the proceeds of every book it sells towards planting trees in Puttalam, Sri Lanka’s semi-arid zone.

If you do happen to be in Singapore Select Books is well worth a visit: 51, Armenian Street.  Or you can visit them on-line at