So long, Kino at Liang Court

Patrons at Books Kinokuniya’s 36-year-old Liang Court store on April 21, 2019, the store’s last day of operation. Image: Terry Tan

Liang Court officially began operations in 1983 as an open concept shopping mall, a relatively fresh retail experience back in 80s Singapore.

The mall’s status as a convergence of Japanese culture was initially de facto at its genesis. A spokesman at that time claimed the high concentration of Japanese retailers (19 overall) was coincidental — instead, the original plan was “30 percent Japanese [tenants], 30% percent European and American, and with 40% local tenancy.”

One of these Japanese retailers was Books Kinokuniya, which eventually became one of the big names of the bookstore business in Singapore. For several years now, the chain’s Liang Court store had long been overshadowed by its more illustrious, flagship branch at Orchard Road’s Ngee Ann City shopping center.

On April 21 this year, an Easter Sunday, Kino Liang Court opened for the last time.

A patron reads at Books Kinokuniya’s 36-year-old Liang Court store on April 21, 2019, the store’s last day of operation. Image: Terry Tan

While the main store at Orchard Road is unrivaled in terms of size — at its peak, the biggest bookstore in the city-state occupied a 43,000 square feet space — Kino Liang Court shone in its function as a cross-cultural spot between Western, Asian and Japanese literary interests.

Unlike the other three stores which seemed to place their Japanese sections as a sort of business-logic afterthought, Kino Liang Court did it differently.

The Japanese books section at Books Kinokuniya’s 36-year-old Liang Court store on April 21, 2019, the store’s last day of operation. Image: Terry Tan

One half of the store, occupied by shelves of Western publications, merged smoothly with the other, the Japanese section. The latter was defined by its brighter, uniquely designed ceiling light, smaller books and the conspicuous sight of Japanese expats and their families during the weekends. The section displayed an eclectic mix of books ranging from the translated works of English language authors to racy picture books featuring Japanese female models.

The merging of both the English/Asian and Japanese sections in Kino Liang Court was an execution in subtlety but with a flavor more distinct than the Ngee Ann City, Bugis Junction and Jem mall branches. It’s where you can very easily tell that you have walked into a part of the store foreign to your daily experience — a little Japan in the corner, so to speak.

Patrons queue at Books Kinokuniya’s 36-year-old Liang Court store on April 21, 2019, the store’s last day of operation. Image: Terry Tan

With the closure of Kino Liang Court, it wasn’t just about the decline of the brick-and-mortar bookstore in an age of online retail. In a way, the shutdown also represents the demise of a cultural cornerstone that once upheld the Japanese appeal of a shopping mall.

Sure, there are the occasional weekend activities celebrating Japanese culture like Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year) and Hinamatsuri (Japan Doll Festival), coupled with the presence of Japanese expats at Meidi-Ya Supermarket — a longtime tenant — and Japanese restaurants at the basement level.

The cashier/information counter at Books Kinokuniya’s 36-year-old Liang Court store on April 21, 2019, the store’s last day of operation. Image: Terry Tan

Otherwise, Liang Court in the quiet weekdays is less reminiscent of its unofficial Japanese heritage. In the early 2000s, there used to be a small tea ceremony school at a secluded part of the mall. That vestige of Japanese culture had since vanished along with other shops. In recent years, Liang Court opened up to a more diverse selection of non-Japanese services, an ironic, close realization of its early business plan.

Books Kinokuniya’s 36-year-old Liang Court store on April 21, 2019, the store’s last day of operation. Located on the third floor of Liang Court, the store is sandwiched between two other levels which have seen several changes of tenants over the years. Image: Terry Tan

In that regard, Kino Liang Court was a survivor of changes. It managed to adapt for as long as it could, achieving a 36-year record which is extremely remarkable by the standards of major bookstore brands in Singapore. It had even outlived the Daimaru department store, a former major tenant of the mall. And, the generous amount of space it enjoyed at the third floor leaves an indelible mark in the wake of its closure.

Indeed, an era for Kino Liang Court has come to an end.

Nevertheless, memories of what was once a serene retreat for bookworms linger on.