No, this isn’t a reference to the local network of ground-level political volunteers (Singaporeans would know what I mean).
Its Chinese name, cao gen shu shi (草根書室), has roughly the same meaning, but with a subtle nuance of pleasant idyll evoked by the mental image of tender blades of grass (which is what cao gen can be somewhat more accurately translated to). The tiny white-fronted bookstore with its warm yellow lighting sticks out in the landscape of hotels, clan associations, eating houses and bars scattered across the rest of Teo Hong Road. It seemed to me like a beacon for the quirky and romantic ones among the visitors who stumble past its doors – much like the books housed within its shelves.
One of Singapore’s first independent bookstores, it was founded in 1995 by Yeng Pway Ngon – former journalist, acclaimed Chinese poet, Cultural Medallion recipient and once a suspected leftist in the ‘red scare’ of the 70s. Though the store has passed to new hands and moved to its current premises in 2014, that same eclecticism which seems to have characterised his life can still be felt in the building – namely, in the tight haphazard displays jutting out towards the doors and array of unique titles (How to Walk, Why Do Indians Dot Their Foreheads? and Floating World Cat Pictures, among others). The typical independent bookstore is dominated by English-language media and associated with Western indie culture (as if to emphasise this stereotype, the store is attached to a cafe). Yet it operates almost exclusively in Mandarin.
This all combines to make the Grassroots Reading Room feel like a world apart from the streets of English-speaking, brazenly urban Singapore outside its doors, even if it’s set a stone’s throw away from Chinatown. On an average day it receives visitors almost purely by coincidence – foreign tourists, young couples, the occassional family. Most walk in, stare at a few books, and leave without venturing to give them read. “This is like Taiwan,” one young man muses. “My Chinese isn’t good enough for this,” I hear another lady quip jokingly. Had many of these books been in English, they might have been lapped up by literary circles or picked up for the bookshelves of the young and artistically-conscious. In Mandarin, the store’s rich collection of literary, philosophical, economic and political volumes remain locked away from the minds of many viewers.
Ten years (or more) of Chinese classes in the local education system seem to have equipped few Chinese Singaporeans with the ability to understand or appreciate anything written in the language. “Why are you even reading that? It’s in Chinese!” a secondary school classmate had scoffed when she saw flipping through a collection of literary essays in a Mandarin youth magazine. And yet through reading in another language I felt I got glimpses into subjects that would rarely grace the pages of an English-language book: how Chinese in the Song Dynasty celebrated their New Years, reminiscence of life in a racially segregated ‘new village’ in Malaysia, the unadulterated delight of snacking on Taiwanese bread.
Past the shelves at the back of the shop, the Open Book Cafe also draws its visitors to experience their world a little differently. “We’re Sorry We Don’t Have Wi-fi,” read one sign. “You can: 1) Read a book 2) Draw 3) Talk to each other 4) Pretend it’s 1995.” The soft white light, plush cushions adorning the wooden stools and watercolour landscapes on the walls seemed deliberately arranged to lull visitors into serenity, complementing the mild fragrances of the matcha cake and apple-and-wolfberry tart sold from the countertop. A glass jar sits on a long table down a narrow passageway, stuffed with the notes customers who came before had written to the strangers who came after them. Perhaps every cafe should have a sign like that – forcing visitors to get off the grid and meditate on the simple pleasure of sitting down, sipping a slow cup of coffee and think about the person at the other table and the things they could talk about.
Outside, three women take turns to run the shop daily. There are few restrictions on photography or bringing food and drink into the shop – they glide by visitors, almost unseen and unfelt. After all, this space belongs to the books. And some nights, it will belong to the spaces of artists who have a voice to share – a watercolour urban sketcher, a musician who had once been a chef and a bricklayer, and a Taiwanese Aboriginal film-maker who produced a documentary about the culture clashes between his people and the Chinese Taiwanese.
A Mandarin commentary I had read in the monthly publication of a local Chinese millionaires’ Ee Hoe Hean Club discussed how Singapore could become ‘Asia’s Switzerland’. It concluded: “Let’s start with culture. We need to escape the myth that English is everything and use more languages, creating a brighter future where a potential Shangri-La exists from as far as Africa to as near as our neighbouring countries.” Through something as simple as reading in another language, this ‘Shangri-La’ might be unlocked not just around the world, but within our own hearts as it beckons a wellspring of new ideas. And for this I hope the Grassroots Reading Club will not go the way of other independent bookstores, and continue to remain oddly, proudly, out of place.