Inside a dimmed and quiet vault at the National Library, senior librarian Makeswary Periasamy gently opens a blue box to reveal five books on Japanese fairy tales. These publications are more than a hundred years old and they were painstakingly-translated by Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century author known for his books about Japan.
As Makeswary picks up one of the books, she half-opens it gently to protect its spine, revealing the intricate hand-coloured illustrations inside. “These books are my favourite because the artwork is very nice,” she says beamingly.
Makeswary is one of the custodians of National Library’s Rare Collection. Located on the 13th floor of the library, the temperature and brightness controlled room plays home to 15,000 materials, including unique books, photographs and maps. These materials were mostly published in Singapore, Malaya or the Straits Settlements before 1945. Some of them were published overseas before 1900 but contained information about Singapore and the region. The oldest book for example, is a 1577 travelogue titled The History of Trauayle in the West and East Indies, and Other Countreys Lying Eyther Way, Towardes the Fruitfull and Ryche Moluccaes. You can also find Malay and Southeast Asian dictionaries, Chinese classics and romances which have been translated into Baba Malay, among these literary jewels. There is also a box set of Japanese fairy tales that came into the library’s possession during the colonial period and have stayed as part of the collection
It falls on librarians such as Makeswary to make sure these aged materials are kept in good condition. “You need patience and you need to be careful,” she says. “You can’t flip them like a normal book.” To ensure they are preserved well, “not just for the current generation”, Makeswary emphasises, they are kept in a climate-controlled environment.
To ensure that the public gets access to their content, most of these items have been microfilmed or digitised. They can be accessed at Level 11 of the National Library and via BookSG. One can also write in to request permission to see the physical copy for research purposes. The library also regularly features items from the collection at its exhibitions and magazines.
To save you some legwork, Makeswary picks five of rare items in this collection to share with us.
1. Plan of the Seletar rubber estate, Singapore [AND] Collection of business documents and letters on the Estate [1910–1923]
#Didyouknow that before the British built their air force base in Seletar in 1923, it was a rubber plantation? The Seletar Rubber Estates Limited cultivated rubber trees in the area in the 1910s.
This collection of business documents include sales agreements, lease agreements and trust deeds. There is also a hand-drawn manuscript plan of the estate that details the layout of its rubber and pineapple planting. Such items are useful reference materials on the early economic history of this former British colony, says Makeswary, providing insights into “one of the most important industries in early Singapore”.
2. Early days of ship surveying in Singapore and of the shipping company, Ritchie & Bisset [1866–1928]
This set of reports written by a former staff of Ritchie & Bisset provides a fascinating historical account of ship surveying in Singapore. The surveying company established itself in Singapore in 1866. Today, the company is still in existence and has developed business in Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea too.
3. Plan of Hospital at Pearl’s Hill 
Unlike most plans that were produced on paper, this one detailing the original site of the Chinese Pauper Hospital (today’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital) and the Seaman’s Hospital was produced on cloth. Maps of such material were most common during the war “because they were easy to hide and they don’t get torn easily when you are fighting,” explains Makeswary, but it is unclear why this plan was created this way. This item also has an unexpected origin — the library’s Lee Kip Lin Collection, the personal collection of a pioneering Singaporean architect better known for its black and white photographs of early and modern Singapore.
4. The Singapore Herald [1939–1940]
While some may be familiar with the short-lived 1970s newspaper of the same title, this is actually a pre-war English language daily published six days a week. “There are many newspapers published before the war but not many people knew about this because it had a very short run,” says Makeswary.
The Singapore Herald was started in 1939 by Shohei Nagao, a newspaper publisher in Singapore who also published the Chinese newspaper, Singapore Nippo. Except for a few missing issues, the Rare Collections has the entire year-long run of this newspaper. Bound into three volumes of A2-sized books, they originally belonged to the newspaper’s editor, Bill Hosakawa, a young Japanese journalist educated in the United States.
5. Japanese fairy tales by Lafcadio Hearn. [circa 1926]
Lafcadio Hearn (his father was British and his mother was Greek), a writer who took on the Japanese name, Koizumi Yakumo, when he lived in Japan, translated these and many other Japanese folklores into English. His books introduced the world, especially Western readers, to Japanese culture which was considered exotic, after the country had ended its isolationist foreign policy in 1853.
This box set of five fairy tales are printed on Japanese crepe paper that are filled with lovely woodcut illustrations. The stories include Chin-chin kobakama, The goblin-spider, The old woman who lost her dumplings, The boy who drew cats, and The fountain of youth.