The Popular Group



The Popular Group comprises companies with core businesses in book publishing, distribution and retail, and electronic learning. It is best known for its chain of Popular retail bookstores. The group has subsidiaries and companies across the world, and has also ventured into property development. Popular Holdings is listed on the Singapore Exchange.

Origins
In 1924, Chou Sing Chu set up Cheng Hing Company in the Tanjong Pagar area to distribute Chinese language books and magazines.1 An immigrant from Zhejiang, China, Chou came to Singapore to seek his fortunes after becoming an apprentice to relatives in the book trade.2

Chou incorporated World Book Company, a book distributor and publisher, in 1934.3 Just two years later in 1936, he opened his first retail bookstore on North Bridge Road. Named Popular, the store sold Chinese language books and stationery.4 Branches in Malaysia and Indonesia followed soon after. However, World War II and the Japanese Occupation (1942–45) halted expansion plans, and Chou fled to Kunming, China, with his family to wait out the war.5

After the war and the installation of a Communist government in China, Chou anticipated that the supply of Chinese language books from China would be interrupted.6 In 1949, he incorporated the World Publishing Company in Hong Kong to publish Chinese language books for the Asian market. In 1952, Popular began to publish Chinese language textbooks by setting up publishing houses in Singapore and Malaysia, followed by Hong Kong in 1960.7 At the time, Chou’s elder son Cheng Chuen ran the book business in Singapore and Malaysia. His younger son Cheng Ngok took charge of operations in Hong Kong from 1964.8

New business model and expansion
In the 1960s and early ’70s, Popular had huge amounts of debts owed to it by small book retailers. The difficulties in recovering these debts meant that the book distribution business was not viable. Chou  thus pushed for an exit from the wholesale trade by writing off debts, discarding some 50 lorry-loads of unsold stock and selling the company warehouse.9

In keeping with the company’s philosophy of promoting knowledge and education, Popular decided to emphasise quality, value-for-money and convenience for customers.10 To fill a gap in the market, Cheng Ngok proposed setting up a chain of modern, air-conditioned and centrally managed bilingual retail bookstores under the Popular brand. The first new concept store was opened in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1984.11 Cheng Ngok would run the bookstore business in Singapore and Malaysia under Popular Book Company, while his brother Cheng Chuen would take over the publishing and stationery business of the World Book Company in Malaysia.12

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Popular expanded its network of bookshops in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.13 The network included the largest bookstore in Southeast Asia at the time – the Bras Basah branch in Singapore.14 In 1991, CD-RAMA was launched to retail music and audio products.15 In 1994, Popular entered the Canadian market by incorporating Popular Book Company (Canada) Limited in Toronto to publish assessment materials.16

By 1995, Popular had become the top three bookstore chains in Singapore, with 14 bookstores and nine franchise shops. It also had 15 bookstores in Hong Kong and 10 in Malaysia. In addition, Popular began retailing comics, costume jewellery and papercraft products.17

To penetrate the office supplies market in Singapore and Malaysia, Popular invested S$15 million in a new warehouse-cum-office complex in 1997 as their distribution centre for this business.18

Business diversification
In the 1990s, Popular’s publishing business was a key contributor to its growth. In 1996, publishing accounted for 16.2 percent of its turnover and 59.7 percent of pre-tax profit. In Hong Kong, Popular held a 70 percent share in the market for pre-school educational books and a 25 to 30 percent share in the primary school market.19

Popular Holdings was listed on the Singapore Exchange in 1997. Its initial public offering of 56.25 million shares was 28 times over-subscribed,  bringing in some S$25.3 million.20 By this time, Popular’s retail chain had grown to 37 stores and 40 franchise outlets across Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong.21

In 2002, Popular announced plans to enlarge its publishing and retail networks across the Asia-Pacific region, and to grow its online publishing and electronic learning businesses.22 Part of these plans entailed turning its library of over 5,000 educational titles into online textbooks.23 With China identified as a new emerging market, a sum of S$30 million was earmarked for investment in the Chinese electronic learning sector.24 By 2004, Popular’s retail network had grown to around 400 shops across Asia, and the company reported annual sales of S$374.4 million and profit of S$15.6 million.25

Popular diversified into property development in 2006 when it incorporated Property Land, and purchased a 15,000-square-feet site on Robin Road for S$12.5 million.26 Popular’s first luxury condominium development project was built on this site.27 The company also bought a S$27 million, 29,000-square-feet site on Shelford Road for another condominium project. By end 2007, Popular had acquired two more sites in the Balestier/Thomson area for a total of S$32 million.28

In 2006, Popular launched the Harris chain of bookstores in Singapore, which sold mainly English language titles.29 It also sought to entrench its position in Hong Kong’s educational publishing market by offering English textbooks.30 In addition, the group began revamping its retail chain by offering more lifestyle products as well as modernising bookstore layouts with additions such as cafes to reflect changing consumer tastes.31

In 2009, Popular opened a franchise outlet in Myanmar.32 It also launched a series of pre-primary textbooks in China while building up its Chinese distribution network at the same time. In Singapore, the group opened a lifestyle concept stationery store, UrbanWrite, and introduced three e-learning portals and a new line of digital educational assessments.33



Author
Alvin Chua



References
1. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 418. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
2. Lui, J. (2009, September 7). Staying Popular. The Straits Times, p. 36; Ong, S. F. (1997, May 2). Dad said: You do whatever they ask you to do. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 418. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
4. Wong, W. K. (2006, November 8). Popular builds on core values. The Business Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Ong, S. F. (1997, May 2). Dad said: You do whatever they ask you to do. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Ong, S. F. (1997, May 2). Dad said: You do whatever they ask you to do. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Koh, T., et al. (Eds.). (2006). Singapore: The encyclopedia. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet; National Heritage Board, p. 418. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
8. Lui, J. (2009, September 7). Staying Popular. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Lui, J. (2009, September 7). Staying Popular. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Wong, W. K. (2006, November 8). Popular builds on core values. The Business Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Lui, J. (2009, September 7). Staying Popular. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Lui, J. (2009, September 7). Staying Popular. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Popular Book may go public to fund expansion. (1995, April 17). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Popular Singapore. (n.d.). Corporate milestones: 1980.  Retrieved 2018, January 4 from Popular Online website: http://www.popular.com.sg/about-us
15. Popular Singapore. (n.d.). Corporate milestones: 1991.  Retrieved 2018, January 4 from Popular Online website: http://www.popular.com.sg/about-us
16. Popular Singapore. (n.d.). Corporate milestones: 1994.  Retrieved 2018, January 4 from Popular Online website: http://www.popular.com.sg/about-us
17. Popular Book may go public to fund expansion. (1995, April 17). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Tan, P. (1997, April 19). Bookstore chain Popular may be listed on mainboard soon. The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Tan, P. (1997, April 19). Bookstore chain Popular may be listed on mainboard soon. The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Popular Holdings’ IPO 28 times subscribed. (1997, May 9). The Business Times, p. 18; Popular shares over 20 times subscribed. (1997, May 8). The Business Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Tan, C. (1997, April 30). Popular and cheap, but not exciting. The Business Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Tan, A. (2002, January 25). Popular sets sights on China market. The Business Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Tan, A. (2002, January 25). Popular sets sights on China market. The Business Times, p. 6; Tan, P. (1997, April 19). Bookstore chain Popular may be listed on mainboard soon. The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Tan, A. (2002, January 25). Popular sets sights on China market. The Business Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Low, A. (2004, June 30). Popular posts 15% growth in profit. The Straits Times, p. 21. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Teo, J. (2010, February 20). From story plots to plots of land. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Chow, C. (2009, August 24). Popular’s property play. The Edge Singapore. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Ong, S. F. (1997, May 2). Dad said: You do whatever they ask you to do. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Chow, C. (2009, August 24). Popular’s property play. The Edge Singapore. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
29. Nayar, P. (2006, March 10). New kid on the books block. The Business Times, p. 29. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Wong, D. (2007, December 17). Popular Holdings ready to launch property arm, acquires more land. The Edge Singapore. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
31. Lui, J. (2009, September 7). Staying Popular. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Popular Holdings Limited. (2014–2018). Retail. Retrieved 2018, January 4 from Popular website: http://www.popularworld.com/en/Retail.php
33. Chou, C. N. (2009). Annual report 2009. Singapore: Popular Holdings Limited, pp. 8–9. (Call no.: RCLOS 338.761381 PHLAR-[AR]); Popular Singapore. (n.d.). Corporate milestones: 2009. Retrieved 2018, January 4 from Popular Online website: http://www.popular.com.sg/about-us



The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

Subject
Corporations--Singapore
Book industries and trade--Singapore
Commerce and Industry>>Trade
Publishers and publishing--Singapore
Trade and industry
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Services>>Retail and wholesale
Business enterprises
Organisations>>Companies