NUS Chinese Library: A Closer Look

In our last update, with the New Year just behind us, we explored the new and improved NUS Central Library with a whirlwind tour of its six floors. This update promises a slower, closer look at one of the NUS Libraries’ collections; and in the spirit of Chinese New Year, features the Wan Boo Sow Chinese Library, housed on the fifth and sixth floors.

History of the Chinese Library  

The Wan Boo Sow Chinese Library began as the Chinese Collection in 1953, to support the teaching and research needs of the Department of Chinese Studies in the then University of Malaya. Housed at the current Bukit Timah Campus, the Library grew rapidly in its initial years, thanks to financial support from prominent local businessman and philanthropist Lee Kong Chian and Yeap Chor Ee, a wealthy banker from Penang. The Library also received a huge boon in 1964, when the family of Koh Siow Nam gifted it 7,000 volumes covering Chinese poetry, dramas and novels from the Song dynasty, among other classical works. 

H.E. Inche Yusof bin Ishak, President of the Republic of Singapore and Chancellor of the University of Singapore, looking at a Chinese thread-bound book in the Chinese Library on 18 October 1965

In 1980, during the merger of the Nanyang University with the University of Singapore that formed the National University of Singapore, approximately 140,000 Chinese language items were transferred from Nanyang University to the Chinese Library. 

In 1982, the Singapore-Malaysia Chinese Collection was started. With the collection’s expansion in 1986 to include materials on Southeast Asia, it was renamed the Chinese in Southeast Asia Collection, and remains one of the most comprehensive collections worldwide, comprising publications by Chinese clan associations, schools, trade unions and religious institutions in Southeast Asia.

The Chinese in Southeast Asia Collection

Key Collections

The Chinese Library happily took a transfer of over 30,000 volumes on philosophy from the Institute of East Asian Philosophies when the latter closed in 1992. Other key collections include a 70,000-volume collection of Japanese literature, history, language, social studies, and materials on China and Southeast Asia. The Library also counts traditional thread-bound books, a complete collection of the Four Treasure Library (四库全书) and historical Chinese newspapers in Southeast Asia among its treasures. 

The Four Treasure Library

Today, thanks to the support of NUS and generous contributions from donors, the Library is considered among the top 10 academic libraries on Chinese Studies outside of the Mainland and its Special Administrative Regions, with over 700,000 volumes of Chinese language books.

A New Name, and a New Face: The Wan Boo Sow Chinese Library 

Since 1995, the Library has been receiving support from the family of Wan Boo Sow to strengthen its collection. The Wan family intensified its support in 2015 with an endowed fund for acquiring resources on Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, and bilingual materials, and over 137,000 print and electronic titles have been purchased with funds from the family over the last quarter century.

With the Library’s renovation now completed, it was renamed the Wan Boo Sow Chinese Library on 3 Dec 2021 in recognition of the continuing support of the Wan family, and aims to offer library users a more conducive and pleasant study space.

The newly revamped Chinese Library

Contributed by:
Charmaine Tan
LAS Publications Committee Member
(Written with the assistance of NUS Libraries)

All images courtesy of NUS Libraries