The Bras Basah Complex, built in 1980 under the urban renewal programme, has for the past three decades been a comfortable environment to many Singaporeans. Over the decades, the mixed development complex has become the well-known City of Books in Singapore, an unofficial but symbolic name just like the Army Market as well as the popular Sungei Thieves Market.
It was planned and approved to be a book centre when the Bras Basah Complex was constructed. The renters’ early batches were legally required to sell books. In the eighties, the early tenants formed the Bras Basah Complex Merchant’s Association (BBCMA) to cooperate, protect interest and solve common problems at the newly constructed complex.
During the final week of the December holidays, many Singaporeans would fondly remember taking their booklists to buy textbooks and evaluation books for the next school term.
The Bras Basah Complex is composed of two 25-storey towers, catering for commercial purposes from the first to the fifth floor and residential units from the sixth to the 25th level. The flats are part of an early downtown public housing plan developed in the seventies and eighties by the Housing and Development Board.
Students thronged to the many bookshops that worked from the shophouses well before the building of the Bras Basah Complex. The demand for book merchants was also greatly assisted by the neighbourhood cluster of schools such as Raffles Institution, Raffles Girls’ School, Saint Joseph’s Institution and Saint Anthony’s Convent in the vicinity.
More art and craft shops at the Bras Basah Complex were also attracted by the advent of home tuition and art colleges, such as the LASALLE College of the Arts, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and Raffles Design Institute.
The commercial feature of the Bras Basah Complex is so conspicuous that often it is easy to forget that residences live above them. Bras Basah Complex is one of the city’s last affordable housing projects for the Housing and Development Board. Today, a unit at the project can fetch more than $700,000 for selling the HDB flat.
One feature of these residential properties is that, instead of the ground floor, the void deck is typically situated on the third floor and above. On the fifth floor, the empty deck of the Bras Basah Complex is located, perhaps to allow its residents more protection and exclusive use of their shared space.
The Bras Basah Road bookshops probably had their best days in the sixties, when neighboring countries such as Indonesia and Brunei were in high demand for textbooks. Literature, math and philosophy were the most used textbooks. While overseas demands had decreased dramatically by the seventies, the bookstores remained to be bolstered by the local market for their businesses.
Many local Chinese students patronized the popular bookshop, even as it moved before arriving at the Bras Basah Complex. But his fortune changed with a dwindling market and a dwindling popularity in Chinese books in the 1980s.
But in the late 2000s, when the Shanghai Book Company was involved in internal conflicts between its local and Chinese shareholders, its final chapter finally arrived. The bookshop, bogged down in deep debts, had to cease its service by mid-2009, signaling the demise of one of the oldest Chinese bookstores in Singapore.
Numerous exhibits, art galleries and musical festivals were held at the Bras Basah Complex atrium in the eighties and nineties. In 1989, the HDB renovated the atrium to protect it from disruptive weather with the construction of a new roof and waterproofing the roof. This was due to the sudden rains that often disrupted cultural activities, such as exhibits or instrumental performances of Chinese painting.
The Bras Basah Complex has seen dramatic change in its surroundings and neighbours for more than three decades, even though it has remained relatively unchanged.