Time Out Singapore: BooksActually Turns Ten

17 Nov 2015: Established in 2005, BooksActually has become something of an institution for book lovers in Singapore, giving local writers, artists, designers, independent publishers – and three super cute cats – a place to call home. Things haven’t always been easy for founder Kenny Leck and his dedicated team, but as the bookstore celebrates its tenth anniversary this month with an exhibition at The Substation, we get Leck to reflect on how far they’ve come.

Books Actually

1) Leck started BooksActually for, unsurprisingly, the love of books: ‘Well, mostly. It was a combination of wanting to set up a business and growing up reading too many books. Couple that with a few years of experience working in a bookstore, and it led to BooksActually.’

2) There have been plenty of memorable moments at the store, but the one that stands out is:‘When we still get at least one or two customers who walk one round in the bookstore, and then ask, “What are you selling?” It sounds hilarious but on the flip side it also shows how unbelievable our book culture, and the existence of bookstores, is in Singapore.’

3) The most important lesson he’s learnt is: ‘To not become big-headed no matter how successful we are. Also, the learning never ends.’

4) He hasn’t been drawing a salary for ten years: ‘[I live on] an allowance. Basically, my meals and transport expenses are all paid for by the bookstore. So this is like schooling days when my mum will give me just about enough to cover the meals that I had at recess!’

5) He thinks the local literary scene is heading in the right direction: ‘It has certainly progressed in leaps and bounds in the past decade. There is a sense of urgency, and a sense that we need it. It is no longer an afterthought. But until the day bookstores become a common business that folks want to set up – like the multitude of cafés – can I say that we’ve reached our proudest moment.’

6) If he could change one thing about the literary scene here, it would be: ‘The crutch – the reliance on state funding. Independence does not mean anti-censorship; it means sustainability. The latter is the driving force and the nurturing “soil” for Singapore literary arts to grow.’

7) The exhibition at The Substation is a re-creation of the ten-year journey of BooksActually: ‘You will see pictures of the four different locations that we were at. Almost every single artefact that we are exhibiting will be made for sale. My wish is for everyone to own a “piece” of BooksActually regardless of what happens next – all retail concepts, and its owner, have finite life cycle. So in this sense, I can be assured that everyone will have a physical memory of the bookstore to hold on to.’

8) Looking ahead, the future for him is still books (phew!): ‘It has always been the same. To get a book into each and everyone’s hands.’

9) Each night, he goes to sleep happy that: ‘My cats are all fed, litter-box cleaned, safe, and guarding the bookstore.’

10) And if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to co-own BooksActually with three cats – Cake, Pico and Lemon: ‘You mean: they own it. Co-owning is a foreign concept for them. But they do bring a light to our bookselling lives every day!’

Time Out Singapore: Singapore Writers Festival 2014

As with previous iterations, this year’s edition will bear a strong local flavour. But if you need a little help in working out who’s who in the rota of more than 120 Singaporean writers, Gwen Pew spotlights five local authors you should know about.


20 Oct 2014:

Adeline Foo

Best known as the author of the children’s book series The Dairy of Amos Lee, Foo is a near-permanent fixture on the The Straits Times bestsellers list. Her first young adult fiction, Thomas Titans: Men Among Boys, is being made into a telemovie that is slated for release at the end of this year.

‘The SWF is the one big event in the year where almost every Singapore writer I know will be attending. It’s a wonderful time to catch up on gossip and to discover if what you’ve heard about so-and-so winning a writing award is true!’ she says. ‘In my SWF sessions, I will talk about the challenges that I had to overcome in picking the right story for the TV show. I will also share the differences between writing a book and a TV screenplay.’

Catch Foo at ‘Text Into Film’: 1 Nov, 7-8pm; Makeover Tent, Campus Green, SMU. ‘Writing for the Global Audience’: 9 Nov, 4-5pm; Makeover Tent, Campus Green, SMU. ‘Natural Compositions’: 9 Nov, 5.30-6.30pm; Glass Hall, Singapore Art Museum.

Yap Seow Choong

Born and bred in Singapore, Yap used to be a journalist with Lianhe Zaobaobefore moving to Shanghai in 2003. He’s still based there today, where he joined the publisher of and consultant for the Lonely Planet guide books in China. He has also written and published several travel books in China and Taiwan. ‘My work took the form of travel literary writing with an Asian journalistic approach. They are true accounts of the places and people I came across. Every essay focuses on a destination, yet it also weaves in other similar experiences accumulated from over 80 countries that I’ve been to,’ he says. ‘At SWF, I will be sharing my experience in publishing travel guidebooks in China and my views on the future of guidebook publishing and its challenges.’

Catch Yap at ‘Beyond Travel Guides’: 8 Nov, 10-11am; Makeover Tent, Campus Green, SMU.

Jerrold Yam

Currently a law undergraduate at the University College of London, Yam has published three poetry collections, Chasing Curtained Suns (2012), Scattered Vertebrae (2013) and Intruder (2014). In 2012, he also became the youngest person to be nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in the US.

‘I try to tread a fine line between honesty and storytelling, revelation and commentary. I also keep an international audience in mind,’ he says. ‘My event at SWF is targeted at young or emerging writers, so I’ll be sharing my creative writing journey, and elucidate the ways in which a Singaporean adolescence will impact a writer’s creative output. For example, all three of my poetry collections interrogate the experiences with which Singaporean youths are familiar: the dichotomy between private and public selves, university, National Service and globalisation, among others.’ Catch Yam at ‘Finding My Voice’: 8 Nov, 7-8pm; Seminar Rooms, National Museum of Singapore.

Joel Tan

One of the hottest up-and-coming names in the local theatre scene, Tan is an associate artist with Checkpoint Theatre, and has worked with a range of companies, including Yellow Chair and Wild Rice, for whom he penned the pantomime, Jack and the Bean-Sprout, last year.

‘I’m best known, probably, for my play Family Outing (Wild Rice 2011, Man-Singapore Theatre Fest), but a lot of my more recent work focuses on young Singaporean voices, human relationships and the changing emotional/spiritual landscape of Singapore,’ he says. ‘For SWF I have been working with the poets Tania de Rozario, Cyril Wong, Pooja Nansi, Joshua Yip and Jollin Tan to create Apart, an experimental performance work that weaves in poetry, music, confessions and drama. It’s a play, co-written by the poets and dramaturged and directed by myself.’

Catch Tan at ‘Plays Station’: 8 Nov, 4-5pm; Centre 42 Black Box. ‘Apart’: 9 Nov, 7-8pm; Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore.

Yeng Pway Ngon

A recipient of the Cultural Medallion for Literature in 2003, Yeng is a poet, novelist, playwright and critic with 25 book titles under his belt. Three of them – 骚动 (Unrest), 我与我自己的二三 事 (Trivialities about Me and Myself) and 画室 (Art Studio) – earned him the Singapore Literature Prize. At this year’s SWF, he’ll participate in three events: the launch of the English translation of his novel 我与 我自己的二三事; a dialogue with his translator; and he’ll act as moderator in a panel discussion among three young Chinese writers. ‘I look forward to sharing my experiences and encourage them to continue writing in Chinese,’ Yeng says.

Catch Yeng at ‘座谈会: 就是爱用 华文写作!’: 1 Nov, 5.30-6.30pm; Seminar Rooms, National Museum of Singapore. ‘Trivialities About Me and Myself’: 2 Nov, 10-11am; Festival Pavilion, Campus Green, SMU. ‘在翻译世界里交汇’: 2 Nov, 11.30am- 12.30pm; The Salon, National Museum of Singapore.

Time Out Singapore: Adrian Teo

Having accepted that his life became ‘a series of dates’, Adrian Teo decided to chronicle his wisdom in a new book titled Date KingGwen Pew finds out more from the king himself.

Book cover of Adrian Teo's book, 'Date King', illustrated by Ken Foo. Image courtesy of Epigram Books.

Cover of Adrian Teo’s book, ‘Date King’, illustrated by Ken Foo. Image courtesy of Epigram Books.

1 Sep 2013: ‘My name is Ah King, but my friends call me “Date King”. Not because I’m smooth with girls, but because my life is a series of dates,’ writes Adrian Teo, the towkay kia (boss’s son) of a third generation chicken rice seller in the opening pages of his debut book. The project started in October 2012, when he teamed up with local illustrator Ken Foo to share his wisdom and adventures on the Singaporean dating scene with the world, and the Date King blog was born.

Teo’s popular – if controversial – blog made the leap from website to page in July, covering topics such as his numerous dates-gone-wrong to the types of people you’ll find at speed dating events (‘at least one guy with huge muscles, two girl-next-door types and three financial types in their 30s who like to club and are a bit fat’), plus his guide to stereotypical types of local girls (from the bak bak [fleshy] girl to the attractive Malaysian girl) and advice for other hapless, clueless souls. Here, he shares more about the project.

Tell us how Date King was born.
Date King is a collaboration between me and Ken. The aim was to attempt to create a uniquely Singaporean icon that was still exportable overseas – a genre that was both local and exportable. So we settled on romance and comedy as its choice. Ken was already an accomplished art designer and comic illustrator.

Have you always been working with Ken Foo? His illustration style really adds a cute visual charm to the stories.
Ken and I were strangers when we met on a stormy December night three years ago where we both ordered the same popiah from the popiah uncle. The uncle said there was only one popiah and Ken and me both wanted it, so we decided to arm wrestle for it. While we were wrestling, the uncle chopped the popiah in half and gave us one each, and that was when we took the omen from the comic gods that we were meant to create the best Singaporean icon possible to represent the manliness of the male Singaporean.

Whoa, really?
No. Actually, we met at comic-con in 2008 through my cousin Derek.

So how much of the book is true? Did one of your dates really throw a prawn in your face after you wouldn’t peel it for her?
Half of it is true, the rest are pure imagination from watching too many Mediacorp Chinese dramas.

Have you actually dated any of the girl types you mention in the book?
I have dated ten percent of the girls in there; the rest are stories from my mates.

What made you decide to go from blog to book?
The book was actually re-created two years ago to start some basic marketing for the blog and also to record some amusing drafts that could work [on the page].

We get a sneak peek of Book Two at the end of Date King, which introduces your enemy, the ‘buaya king’ [a player, literally ‘crocodile’ in Malay]. Tell us more! How many books are you planning to release in total?
Book Two will have longer story arcs – you can see a sample of it on the blog. We planned on a total of six books initially, but we’re also exploring other media formats such as digital, video and podcasts on the topic of dating.

Lousy dates aside – what’s been your most romantic date?
Now that I’m married, all my dates start with a romantic dinner and end with a soiled diaper from my baby boy and me forcing my toddler girl to eat her vegetables.

What’s your most important lesson about dating in Singapore?
Well, I think dating in Singapore can be enhanced to another level if only both men and women can open their minds and not have preconceptions.

What advice would you give to struggling local singletons?
Join the Date King dating service, coming soon! Complete with limo service and all-you-can-eat buffet.

Finally, describe your ideal girl.
My wife, of course… or Megan Fox feeding me carrot cake with a pair of chopsticks.

Date King is available at all major bookstores for $9.90 (www.epigrambooks.sg). See http://www.dateking.blogspot.sg for more.

Time Out Singapore: ‘100 Singaporeans’

As he prepares for the launch of his book, 100 Singaporeans, photographer Wesley Kar-Wai Lo talks to Gwen Pew about capturing the Singaporean face.

Wesley Loh.

Wesley Loh

2 Apr 2013: ‘I was looking for anyone with a pink IC – that was my only main criteria,’ says Wesley Kar-Wai Loh, 42, about his new book from local indie publisher Epigram Books entitled 100 Singaporeans, a collection of full-page portraits of local citizens. ‘I started off by asking my friends on Facebook if they’d like to be a part of the project, and then it was friends of friends, then friends of friends of friends and so on.’ The main objective of the project, says Loh, was to capture the ‘Singaporean face’, and he describes the end result as ‘a sea of faces’ – the book features page after page of close-up, full-page headshots captured in black and white, depicting subjects from hawker stall aunties to MPs and CEOs.

Born and bred in Singapore, Loh first became intrigued by the idea in 2009 when he returned here after spending a few years in Paris. ‘I came back and the city was completely different,’ he says, with a look of disbelief still evident in his face. ‘The buildings changed, the people changed. Everything changed, except the food, which is why we cherish it so much in this nation, I suppose – it’s the only thing that remains constant. So I realised that I wanted to capture faces before they changed, too.’

An accomplished black-and-white portrait photographer (he began shooting as a teen), Loh’s work also aims to examine who people are under their social masks. ‘I wanted to portray my subjects in their most natural forms, so I had to come up with a way to put them in a comfortable environment,’ he explains, adding that the shoots for the book would usually last no more than five or ten minutes. ‘I’d just get them to sit down, close their eyes and imagine themselves in a safe, relaxed place – whether it’s in their car driving home or in their mum’s kitchen. After one, two, three, I ask them to open their eyes and that’s the moment that I want to show in my pictures, because that’s when they look most at home. That’s who they really are.’