The Power In Books

Photo by Rhonwyn Hagedorn
I’ve been fascinated with the book trade since I was a child. Ah Bak, Elder Uncle, worked for a schoolbook distributor in Ipoh. Ah Ba, my father, visited him at least once a week and he often took me along. We would first be seated in Ah Bak’s manager office, a room full of boks.

The Ah Bak would have his clerk bring us some soda drinks. While the two men talked, Ah Bak’s staff would come in to ask for his signatures on invoices, inventories and purchase lists. Everyone in the shop – from the labourer who carried the books in from the lorries to the accountant—were men. 

Knowing that I loved books, Ah Bak asked me, “Do you want to work in a bookshop?”

When I looked shyly at the floor, in deference to an
elder, Ah Bak laughed, “You’re a girl – you should never work in a bookshop. Bookshops are for men. It’s hard work!”

This was why I always associated the book trade with men. Then, one day, a woman named Yvonne Chau from MPH called, inquiring about my interest in selling ‘Stories for My Mother’.

After I agreed with the terms, a sales agreement was faxed to me to sign. “I’ll bring you the original copy of the agreement to sign where I come to pick up your books,” she confirmed after I faxed the signed agreement back to her. The agreement, between the buyer and a new seller, took less than half an hour. 

A blue Proton Iswara showed up several days later. Yvonne, the Assistant Merchandising Manager of MPH turned out to be a five-foot-two young woman with shoulder-length hair. I asked if anyone was helping her carry the seventeen packages of books. 

“I’ll do it, don’t worry,” she said as she picked up two heavy packages and carried them effortlessly to the boot of her car. In her two-inch high heels. In her knee-length skirt. 

I was impressed.

That encounter was the beginning of my dealings with MPH – all women except for the Head of the Marketing Department and a pick-up boy. Yvonne continues to pick up my books for urgent orders.

Since then, I have seen women carrying big cartons of books, collapsible book shelves, chairs and tables at new MPH outlets, warehouse sales, book fairs and shops. They climb ladders to put up displays, banners and decorations. Clearly, they are as capable as the bookshop men in Ah Bak’s shop. 

“Where are the male staff?” I once asked a woman in MPH Headquarters. 

“Somewhere,” she looked around the office before she answered. 

She had not thought of the question as more than half of the fifty six staff attached to the HQ are women. Twenty-one of them work in the accounts department where there are only three male staff. Nearly all the operations, marketing, merchandising and administrative department staff are women. Five out of seven in the Marketing Department are women. The Head of the Merchandising Department and the Chief Operating Officer are women. Most of the women work at the Headquarters, and more of the men work in the warehouse. 

Most of these women love reading, and they enjoy the challenges posed by the book trade. As for women like Yvonne, moving books from the local authors’ places means she gets to meet the authors and gets a glimpse into their lives and the realities behind their writings.

“It makes a difference when I’m not just working for the money, but for the meaning of life!” she shares.

If Ah Bak were alive today, what would he say about all these women in the book trade?

- by Chong Sheau Ching


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