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5 Things You Should Know About POPULAR

PopularIf your children attend school in Singapore there is one retailer you’re bound to know really well. Your house is filled with its merchandise. You’ve probably even paid to become a member to make those inevitable store visits 10% less painful.

Yes, you know who I’m talking about – textbook and stationery retailer – POPULAR Holdings (SGX: P29).

Singapore’s favourite educational books publisher, distributor and retailer is a home-grown gem – having started life on our sunny island way back in 1924.

From China, to Singapore…

Chou Sing Chu, like many of Singapore’s Chinese entrepreneurs arrived on our shores from his native China. He set up the Cheng Hing Company in the busy port of Tanjong Pagar, distributing Chinese storybooks and pictures throughout the island – and Singaporeans snapped them up.

By the 1930s, Mr Chou had established his World Book Company on South Bridge Road, turning his hand to publishing as well as the distribution of Chinese books and quickly establishing his company as one of Singapore’s most prestigious Chinese book publishers.


In 1936, Mr Chou decided to bring his books to the masses himself and set up the first POPULAR Book Company retail store on North Bridge Road, selling Chinese books and stationery.

However, World War II and the Japanese Occupation soon put paid to any further plans – and the Chou family fled to China to wait out the war.

Communist China 

Chou returned to Singapore after the war – but following the installation of the Communist government in China, he predicted that obtaining Chinese language books from China could soon start to get more difficult.

Publishing in Hong Kong 

He shrewdly spread his wings and flew to Hong Kong, where he started publishing Chinese magazines and books himself through his newly created World Publishing Company for distribution throughout Asia.

Educational Publishing House (EPH)

Following the success of the new Hong Kong publishing arm, Chou decided to follow up with Chinese textbooks there, too and founded the Educational Publishing House (EPH) for this purpose.

In 1947, Singapore’s five major Chinese bookstores (including World Book Company) joined forces to create the United Publishing House (UPH) in Singapore and Malaysia to publish Singapore’s primary school textbooks.

By 1952, Chou was actively publishing textbooks – with his eldest son Cheng Chuen running the group’s Singapore and Malaysian operations whilst younger son Cheng Ngok oversaw Hong Kong.

Bilingual Bookstore 

In 1965, Singapore became a republic and with its independence came many changes – the most major for Chou’s company being that English was to be the country’s official language. Many presumed that the Chinese book retailer would struggle to survive.

But as the old saying goes: “If you can’t beat them, join them”. Chou shrewdly started rebranding his POPULAR shops as “Bilingual Bookstores” – and began stocking English books alongside the Chinese tomes.

HARRIS Bookstore

In 1970, the company opened the first HARRIS bookstore in Hong Kong – its first bookshop to stock only English language titles. Further stores were opened in Malaysia and Singapore – but not until 2006.

POPULAR Malaysia

During the eighties and nineties POPULAR continued to expand its bookstore network throughout Singapore and Hong Kong with locals flocking to the modern, comfortable, air-conditioned outlets and in 1984, it established the POPULAR Book Company in Malaysia.


In 1990, the company launched the POPULAR card – a loyalty card that gave members a discount off their purchases, in a bid to attract more readers to its stores. It was a shrewd move and the card proved to be extremely… popular (ahem).

In 1994, World Book Company was merged into Popular Book Company, and the United Publishing House (UPH Singapore) was merged into POPULAR’s Educational Publishing House in 1996. The company also founded the POPULAR Book Company Ltd in Toronto to publish educational books for the Canadian market.

And in 1996, in an effort to consolidate its numerous book retail operations, all of its retail operations (including HARRIS bookstores and its World Publishing Company) were merged under the name POPULAR.

The company was listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange in 1997.

Electronic Learning 

In 2001, POPULAR founded its e-Learning Holdings Pte Ltd, Singapore to provide educational e-products and services with promises to eventually turn its library of over 5,000 educational titles into online textbooks.

[email protected]

POPULAR was also the organiser of the successful [email protected] – an annual book and stationery event that allows book publishers and distributors to come together and showcase their wares to book lovers. The festival proved so successful that similar events are now also staged in Malaysia and Hong Kong.


The company has even made its foray into the world of property, having its established POPULAR Land – its property arm, in 2006. The company concentrates on developing luxury condominiums – with its first project being on Robin Road, Singapore.

But did you know…

1. When the POPULAR Bras Basah store opened in 1980, it was the biggest bookstore in South East Asia.
2. POPULAR is the single largest Chinese books exporter in China and Taiwan.
3. POPULAR Holdings Ltd was ranked in the 2011 Singapore International 100 Company listings
4.POPULAR Book Company (M) Sdn Bhd is listed by the Malaysian Book of Records as the largest bookstore chain in Malaysia, with over 70,000 square feet of retail space.
5. POPULAR was established in 1924, the same year as Adidas, Shaw Organisation and Hugo Boss.

Today, POPULAR is an investment holding company that operates in the retail and distribution, publishing and e-learning businesses in Singapore, China, Malaysia and internationally selling books, stationery, CD-ROMS, audio products and magazines.

POPULAR has 156 retail outlets including POPULAR bookstores, UrbanWrite stationery stores and {prologue} bookstores and is planning to expand further. The company has even founded its own catering company Epilogue Catering to provide food and beverage options to its bookstore customers.

The book retailer has continued to diversify into property development – and last year acquired the Borders bookshop brand, with plans to open a brand new store in Jurong by the end of 2014.

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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Alison Hunt doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.