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We welcome 2016 with a new exhibition titled “From the Stacks: Highlights of the National Library”. Taking place from 30 January to 28 August at level 10 of the National Library Building, the exhibition curates over 100 unique items that many people have likely never seen before. These rare materials – books, manuscripts, letters, photographs, maps and newspapers that have been painstakingly collected and preserved for nearly a century and a half – weave a colourful tapestry of Singapore’s short but intriguing history. Largely drawn from the National Library’s 11,000-strong Rare Materials Collection, the exhibits cover a diverse range of material, from politics, history, sociology, language and religion to current affairs, nature, travel and food. Several of the items on display at the exhibition predate the founding of Singapore, with the earliest, an English-Malay dictionary written by an unlikely Englishman, dating back to 1701. It is appropriate that this issue…

The National Library’s newest exhibition, “From the Stacks”, presents highlights of its Rare Materials Collection. Chung Sang Hong explains why you should not miss this event.

Long before the advent of modern communications and transportation systems, merchants in 19th-century Singapore relied on the humble newspaper to track shipping arrivals and departures. As the movement of cargo, people and mail was key to the island’s rise as a maritime port, the Singapore Chronicle‘s chief task was to disseminate commercial information and news.

The horrors of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) in Singapore can be read in any number of history books. But few are likely to be as candid or visceral as a series of cartoon books published after World War II in 1946. Titled Chop Suey, the four volumes of illustrations by the artist Liu Kang offer a rare insight into how people in Singapore were persecuted and tortured by the Japanese during the Occupation years.

When the Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen set in motion his plans to overthrow the Qing dynasty in China and establish a new republic in the early 20th century, he found an ally in Singapore. Teo Eng Hock, a merchant and rubber tycoon, was a close friend of Sun and one of the founding members of the Singapore branch of the Tongmenghui (同盟会; Chinese Revolutionary Alliance), an underground resistance movement founded in 1905 by Sun to gather support for the Chinese revolutionary cause and raise funds for its activities. As Sun’s close comrade, Teo, who was once known as Singapore’s “rubber king”, had intimate knowledge of the revolutionary activities that were taking place, especially in Singapore. Over the nine years that Teo spent as a member of Tongmenghui, he kept about 100 letters and memos relating to the resistance movement. These letters, along with other receipts, documents and photographs, are documented in a Chinese book that he wrote and published in 1933. Titled Nanyang and the Founding of the Republic (南洋与创立民国), the publication – with 57 sections…

Many of us would recognise nursery rhymes such as “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns”, but reading Malay versions of these typically British children’s poems in a culturally misplaced context takes some getting used to. A collection of whimsical nursery rhymes given a delightful Malayan spin is the subject of an illustrated compendium published in 1939. Titled Haji’s Book of Malayan Nursery Rhymes, the collection features Malay translations of 100 popular English nursery rhymes. To appeal to its readers, some words in the poems were replaced with local equivalents to give the translated versions a distinctly Malayan flavour. The book is presented in a bilingual format, with the English nursery rhyme immediately followed by its Malay translation (some with accompanying music compositions by H. A. Courtney), and is interspersed with beautiful illustrations. The drawings mostly feature multi-racial characters and settings typical of the era. Additionally, the book contains a glossary of Malay words to help readers with a rudimentary knowledge of Malay to have a better understanding of its contents. According to its…

This edition of the Qur’an in the National Library is unique because it is one of the earliest extant copies to have been printed at Kampong Gelam in Singapore. The date of its publication, “13th Rajab in the (Islamic) year 1286” corresponds to 19 October 1869. This information in Jawi (Malay written in modified Arabic script), along with the address of the printer – Lorong Masjid Sultan Ali Iskandar – in the Kampong Gelam area, is indicated in the colophon or publisher’s imprint, at the end of the book. In addition, the colophon also contains the name of the printer (Haji Muhammad Nuh bin Haji Ismail) and the copyist (Tengku Yusof bin Tengku Ibrahim). Pre-20th-century Southeast Asian Qur’ans, whether handwritten or printed, are generally scarce because the region’s tropical climate is not conducive to the preservation of paper-based materials. Colophons especially, if they are even included in the book, do not often survive as they undergo much wear and tear due to their placement at the front or end pages. This rare copy of…

A 1946 photograph from the opening of the War Crimes Trials held in Singapore is a grim reminder of the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942–45) – a dark period in Singapore’s history. The photograph shows members of the court taking an oath. The men in the back row with shaven heads were the first group of Japanese soldiers to be tried in the first of 131 trials held between 21 January 1946 and 12 March 1948. The trials carried out in Singapore were part of the international War Crimes Trials conducted after World War II, the most famous of which was held in Nuremberg, Germany, to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. Internationally, these courts were known for establishing new standards of international justice and rights. The reverse side of the photograph bears the watermark of the Crown symbol of the British monarchy and the words “Crown Copyright Reserved”, an indication that the picture must have been taken by an official Crown photographer. The Singapore trials were held in…

By the late 16th century, the Portuguese had dominated the trade in Southeast Asia for nearly a hundred years. Its monopoly depended on closely guarded knowledge about the best sailing routes to the region, known as the East Indies at the time. But a Dutchman called Jan Huygen van Linschoten changed the course of history for Singapore and Southeast Asia by deciphering the secrets of the Portuguese and sharing them with the world. Linschoten was the secretary to Don Frey Vicente de Fonseca, the Archbbishop of Goa, which was then under Portuguese rule. During his employment, Linschoten painstakingly made copies of archives that spelt out the closely guarded sailing directions. Combining this information with his own travel experiences and observations in Goa, Linschoten created a maritime handbook that was published in 1595. The following year, he revealed even more of his hard-earned knowledge in a second, more detailed work: Itinerario, Voyage ofte Schipvaert van Jan Huygen van Linschoten naer Oost ofte Portugaels Indien, 1579–1592 (Travel Account of the Voyage of the Sailor Jan Huygen van Linschoten to…