by Dennis Ong
A star was born on Saint Valentine’s feast day in 1890 – the Xing Bao (also Sing Pau, Sing Po or Sing Poh), literally Star Newspaper, or Xing Newspaper – “Xing” as in Xing Jia Po or Xing Zhou (variations of the word for Singapore in Chinese). The first issue of this eight-page spread came hot off the press at the Koh Yew Hean Press located at Nos. 100, 101 and 102 Teluk Ayer Street, Singapore.
Published daily, except on Sundays and public holidays, the newspaper’s political agenda has been described as either vague or unclear, although it did take on a pro-China political stance while retaining its commercial interests as a business. Politically strategic and functional at the same time, it displayed three dating systems on its front page – the imperial calendar showing the regnal calendar of the Chinese emperor, the lunar calendar, and the Gregorian calendar. From this, we are able to take a learned guess of the composition of its target market and the general cosmopolitanism of the area in which the newspaper was circulated.
Through Huang Nai Siang’s contribution as chief writer of Xing Bao, readers had for themselves a medium through which they could be informed and ponder about the current affairs in China while better understand their civic roles within the local Chinese community. Alongside him was Lin Hengnan (a.k.a Lim Kong Chuan), founder and editor of the newspaper. Lin, who was also the father-in-law of Dr Wu Lien-Teh and Dr Lim Boon Keng, both distinguished personalities in Malaya-Singapore, likely envisioned Xing Bao to share the same entrepreneurial optimism he had for Koh Yew Hean Press. This press had been well known for its respected printing and publishing repertoire, such as the Tong Yi Xin Yu, a Chinese-Malay dictionary published in 1877, which secured a reprint in 1883 as Hua Yi Tong Yu; the first volume of the Straits Chinese Magazine in 1897; and the second edition of Hikayat Abdullah in 1880.
From the song ti font of the individual Chinese characters and the meticulous, strict typesetting in the content, we can very certainly tell that Xing Bao was printed using the letterpress printing technique – a technique that although was mechanised still relied on the skilful and tedious attention of the printer to align the letterpresses, to say the least. On the other hand, a striking visual contrast is conjured in its branding where a thicker kai ti font is used for the newspaper’s masthead. Content wise, it was evidently written in relatively modern classical Chinese style. Characteristic of classical Chinese literature, Xing Bao’s contents boasted no punctuation marks albeit with sparring section breaks between titles and sections, with vertical and horizontal lines, white spaces or with advertising visuals. Helpful to one while navigating the pages, the newspaper came with a simple table of contents.
The story of Xing Bao cannot be disassociated from Koh Yew Hean Press, which remained in business for over a century until 2006. The last reported owner of the Koh Yew Hean Press was Zhang Gensong, who revealed that the 70-80 year-old business had been managed by his family – his father and grandfather. Over the course of over a century, the business had put up its book press, hand press, lithographing machines, cutting, perforating and rolling machines, and English and Chinese type for auction at least two to three times. By comparison, Xing Bao was short-lived, being in circulation for roughly nine years until 1898 and succeeded by Rixin Bao of the same Press, for just four years. While the peak of its daily circulation at 970 in 1896, beating Lat Pau, it was Lat Pau (founded in 1881 by See Ewe Lay) that fared better at the endurance category, having lasted in business for 52 years. Be it Xing Bao or Lat Pau, these newspapers played a crucial role as a source of information and a vehicle to transport ideas, not only for those in the past but also those in the present, in a way, they are our time-machines.
You can access digitised copies of Xing Bao in the digital realm here: https://digitalgems.nus.edu.sg/collection/1524
Jaime Koh, Koh Yew Hean Press, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_2016-04-06_161840.html
Bonny Tan, Lat Pau (Le Bao), https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_33_2005-01-11.html
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