Heroes to the rescue
A socialist publisher found fortune and some fame in a coterie of Chinese comic-book heroes, CHEONG SUK WAI writes.
IT WAS during her seven-month detention under the Singapore Internal Security Act in 1987 that publisher Lim Li Kok hit upon the idea that pulled her company back from the brink of ruin.
After long stretches of harrowing interrogation, the founder of Asiapac books would retire to her cell and read comics by Taiwanese cartoonist Tsai Chih Chung, which her civil engineer husband brought her on visits.
Lim, 49, recalls: “I enjoyed reading them, and found them very interesting.
Tsai’s comics sold so well that, within a year, Asiapac’s revenue soared 30%. Not bad for a business with S$50,000 in debts a year before, and which had been used only to about S$400,000 a year in turnover since its set-up in 1983.
And to think that Lim, upon her release in December 1987, told her husband she wanted to close down her company because she was tired. She was detained for her alleged involvement in a Marxist conspiracy.
She recalls: “He said, ‘Sorry, you can’t take a break. You have to work very hard because we have debts?’.” So she “stood up where I had fallen,” she says.
This year, Asiapac celebrates its 20th year in business. It has sold 2.5 million books and reached a total turnover of S$15.4mil (RM33.9mil) as of last month.
Lim, who has three daughters, is also vice-chairman of the National Book Development Council of Singapore.
Forced by mounting debts to go back to work just hours after her release from detention, Lim says: “The business world is quite an understanding one. It really was business as usual. The (Singapore) Government has never victimised my company.”
And unlike the experience of pro-communist Nantah (the then Nanyang University) students of the 1950s and 1960s, Lim found Singaporeans kind, forgiving and tolerant of her supposed Marxist transgressions.
“Many people told me they understood I was not a criminal, just someone whose thinking was different from that of the Establishment,” she says.
As a child, Lim spent almost all her free time in the library of the private Bedok Chong Wah Public Chinese school, set up and run by her late father, Francis Lim Cher Kheng, and his three sisters.
“I loved books and my ambition was to get a PhD and become a researcher,” she remembers.
But as an undergraduate reading philosophy and sociology at the then University of Singapore from 1972 to 1976, she got involved in charity drives for flood victims in Bangladesh and squatters in Johor’s Tasik Utara area, and soon got to know student activists like Tan Wah Piow, who is still wanted by the Singapore Government and in exile in Britain.
Indeed, she was so taken by socialist ideals that she moved out of her comfortable family home into a one-room flat which she shared with three others – where “every time I opened my door, neighbours would be fighting and hammering each other. It was so dirty and chaotic.
“Only if you stayed there would you know what life these people were living. If you didn’t live there, you wouldn’t think of changing it,” she recalls, her brow furrowing.
After traversing “every corner of Singapore” to help the needy and unfortunate, she found little time left to study and so dropped out in her third year.
It was then that she and her university coterie decided to open a bookshop in December 1976 in Queensway Shopping Centre, with S$20,000 seed money pooled from their savings and loans from other friends.
She named their bookshop Single Spark, drawn from the Maoist dictum: “A single spark will start a prairie fire.”
Single Spark, she adds, served as a contact point for other like-minded activists, becoming, as she puts it, “our McDonald’s meeting place”.
They were more idealists than opportunists, she says of the enterprise: “We learnt some hard business lessons. We sold mainly textbooks, and after everyone had bought their textbooks for the year, no one would come because the business was seasonal. So we learnt we also had to sell assessment books.”
But she soon grew tired of retail, which she says became mechanical and offered little challenge. A keen interest in reviving an awareness of Asia’s culture and heritage led her to venture seriously into book publishing. Thus Asiapac was born in 1983.
She says: “From the beginning. I’d aimed to make Asiapac a global publisher. So I participated in international book fairs. With the help of the then Trade Development Board, I’ve taken part 15 times since 1984.
“Some friends ask me why I turned to traditions and heritage. I tell them that, before, I felt this world was chaotic and no one could answer me. But now I’m trying to find the answers by exploring and relearning my heritage and traditional values.”
And, it seems, she is spreading her curiosity to the world too. Today, Asiapac has bookshops in 15 countries. Its books have been translated into French, Indian and Malay.
“Using comics to interpret Asian philosophies like that of Confucius and Lao Zi turned out to be our success formula,” she notes.
Despite Asiapac’s continued blossoming and creation of new products – like its book packs on such things as Peranakan culture – it is choppy waters ahead for now.
The economic slowdown has whittled Asiapac’s orders down to worrying levels.
But she says, cryptically: “There’s nothing worse that could happen. It may be the worst business situation I’ve seen in a long time, but it is not the worst time in my life.” – Straits Times Singapore / Asia News Network