Back in the 1890s, when horse-drawn carriages and rickshaws roamed the dusty streets of Singapore, travellers docking here had a travel guide to turn to: the officious-sounding Handbook To Singapore by George Murray Reith, a Scottish Presbyterian minister posted to Singapore.
First published in 1892, it is one of the country’s earliest guidebooks. Visitors with a few free hours can follow Reith’s favourite walking and driving tours around the island.
But for those with a day or more to spare, his suggestion was: head to Johor. Take a drive through Kranji to visit the villages there, then a boat across the strait to Johor.
This guidebook and other rare documents and artefacts are showcased in From The Stacks: Highlights Of The National Library, an exhibition which thrusts pre-independence Singapore into the spotlight.
The exhibition of more than 100 items – including maps and children’s books, many of which are being shown to the public for the first time – is on till Aug 28 on the 10th floor of the National Library Building in Victoria Street, Singapore.
The exhibition is a display of the richness and diversity of Singapore’s history and heritage, says Chung Sang Hong, 46, one of the three curators who put the exhibition together.
He worked with Tan Huism, 50, and Georgina Wong, 24, to reveal lesser-known facets of Singapore’s distant past, such as the fast-moving business scene.
“Whampoa” Hoo Ah Kay, for instance, made an ill-fated foray into importing ice from the United States, a business which folded in just two years.
Chung says: “Even in the early 19th century, Singapore was already very cosmopolitan. It had booming trade and a booming population, and you had very different communities active in their culture and businesses.
“It was already a hub; for printing, for publishing, even for the opium trade. It was a trading centre. So in a way, it was similar to Singapore today, even more than 150 years ago.”
The oldest exhibit is from 1701, more than a century before Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles set foot on Singapore. It is the first-ever English-Malay dictionary, written by British trader Thomas Bowery.
A 1960 edition of My Favourite Recipes, a cookbook first published in 1952, is the “newest” exhibit. The popular book, which is still on sale today, was written by the first Singaporean principal of Methodist Girls’ School Ellice Handy.
In library lingo, stacks refer to shelving units in a section of a library usually closed to the public. So From The Stacks, explains Ms Wong, is a way to offer the public a peek into the National Library’s collection of artefacts.
Most of the items on display come from its Rare Materials Collection, which has more than 11,000 items spanning the centuries. These are stashed away in a special climate-controlled room in the National Library Building, kept away from curious eyes and questing fingers for the sake of preservation.
The National Library has built up its collection through various sources. Some were donated, others acquired through auctions.
Some items have had a fascinating journey to the library.
The Loyalty Address, an intricate gift presented by the Chinese merchant community to Prince Alfred on his visit to Singapore in 1869, was donated to the library by a private collector in 2009, after he bought it at an auction in London. Before it was put up for auction, the Address had been in a flea market in Berlin.
“I don’t know how it ended up in a flea market,” says Tan. “But the beautiful thing is that it’s back with us. It’s come full circle.”
From The Stacks is divided into clusters that focus on different themes to provide an encompassing view of Singapore in its early years.
“We wanted to give a diverse view through these objects. We try to have each object give a little glimpse into early Singapore life, whether it’s literature, food – of course, food is very important to us – or education, or even the war,” says Tan.
Some clusters boast interactive panels that allow visitors to tap and flick through the species of birds in Malaya or digitised versions of fragile manuscripts.
Tan adds: “With things such as books and manuscripts, people think they’re ‘dead’ and boring. So we wanted to make it interesting, have objects come alive and tell their story.
“To see people walk away, learning something new and saying, ‘I didn’t know that. So interesting’ – that’s all we need.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network
From The Stacks: Highlights Of The National Library is on until Aug 28 at the National Library Building.