I had a conversation with the artist Yip Yew Chong when he was taking a break painting his huge mural at the corner of Arab Street, facing Sultan Mosque. I said to him that I appreciated that he included in his mural the publisher Haji Muhammad Said. The mural — painted in the punishing July sun — is nearing completion and by the looks of it, the artwork might be finished in time for National Day.
Haji Muhammad Said bin Haji Muhammad Arsyad was the foremost printer and bookseller of Kampong Gelam from the 1870s to around 1918. In common with the other prolific publisher-booksellers of Kampong Gelam at the time, Haji Muhammad Said was Javanese and hailed from Semarang, Central Java. His comrades-in-print, Haji Muhammad Siraj was from Rembang, Central Java, and Syaikh Haji Muhammad Ali was from Purbalingga, again, from Central Java. They all had premises near Masjid Sultan, either on Arab Street or on what is now Bussorah Street (variously called Lorong Masjid Sultan, Sultan Lane, and Sultan Road, the name Bussorah Street was officially gazetted in 1909). These Javanese publishers were really the pioneers of the Malay print industry in the Nusantara, and they saw to what can only be described as an explosion of printed works that were distributed throughout the Malay world via the port of Singapore. Among themselves, Haji Muhammad Said and his sons published 200 works, predominantly in the Jawi Malay script, over four decades at the turn of the 20th century.
The printshops of these Javanese bookmakers were really editorial-offices-cum-printer-cum-bookshops because the retail of books took place in the same premises as they were lithography printed, and in many cases in the same place as manuscripts were copied, written, translated from Arabic, edited, or illustrated. One can only imagine what hives of activity these bookshops were, with much of that literary and intellectual energy spilling out onto the earthen streets of Kampong Gelam, and into homes and gathering places in the form of the printed word. What stories these booksellers would tell!
As it happens, I am in the middle of the book Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach, the founder of the same bookshop. Founded in Paris in 1919, just as the Malay print industry boom was waning on the other side of the globe, Shakespeare and Company (the original, not the current one established by George Whitman in 1951) was cresting a wave of literary energy made up of the expatriate literati of the Lost Generation (people like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway). While many of the works of Hemingway et al. not only survive but continue to be read and celebrated to this day, sadly many of the publications of Kampong Gelam remain only as title entries on extant booksellers’ catalogues.
So this is why I appreciate Yip Yew Chong for honouring publishers like Haji Muhammad Said. For us Singapore Muslims, most of us have forgotten that we are inheritors of this intellectual heritage. We have to honour those who toiled for the sake of the dissemination of knowledge and literature. If we are unable to honour them in substantial ways, at least mark that they once walked these streets and exerted mind and body, scrutinising page proofs by oil lamps, in these shophouses.
And never forget that books and reading are as much our cultural inheritance as the baju kurung and the nasi rawon.
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