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The Strength That Binds

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The Strength That Binds

28 February 2020

Buying a book is easy. But how often do we think about how it’s made and who binds them? We sat down with SPD’s master craftsman, Mr. Gan Boon Leong, to learn more about the art of bookbinding and how it has shaped him.

Every morning, Mr. Gan takes a bus to the quaint Tiong Bahru neighbourhood, and starts his bookbinding work at the SPD Sheltered Workshop supported by Keppel, before 730am. He joins six others in repairing or binding leather and cloth books for all kinds of clients. 

“Reaching earlier [in the morning], means I get to avoid the crowd on the bus. It’s easier for me to move around,” Mr. Gan said, with his hands on his wheelchair.

At the tender age of 20, Mr. Gan noticed he had trouble walking, even if it’s for a short distance. He was later diagnosed with a spinal cord injury, and after an unsuccessful surgery, was left paralysed from the waist-down. “I was so depressed,” he recalled, “...I couldn’t even eat. How can one eat after being stripped off their ability to walk just like that?”

But a turning point came when his doctor and social worker encouraged him to take on a job at SPD –  a local charity set up to help people with disabilities. Now, close to 50 years later, Mr. Gan is a master craftsman and a mentor to the next generation of craftspeople at SPD.

As Mr. Gan tells us, everyone has a part to play in the bookbinding process. The Sheltered Workshop has differently-abled bookbinders taking on different roles like trimming text blocks, sewing the books together, and gluing and pressing book covers.

Mr. Gan himself specialises in creating book covers and hot stamping — a tedious task that requires the craftsman to assemble every alphabet from the brass typeset onto a label stamping mould. Today, there are two hot stampers in SPD’s workshop: Mr. Gan and his peer, Siew Lan.

But, of all the books, which is the hardest to bind? “Leather books,” Mr. Gan replied. “The leather needs to be pulled tight, and that requires a lot of strength. If not, it’ll fold and your cover won’t be as smooth.” That said, cloth-bound books can be just as tricky. Use too much glue, and it’ll soak through and dirty the cloth. Use too little, and it won’t be able to hold.

It’s no wonder then that Mr. Gan’s method is all about patience and precision. “When it comes to repairing books, I always tell [my mentees] not to rush. You have to look at the book and understand its condition first,” he said. “Some books can be repaired with the hole-punching machine and some can’t. Take a small antique book for example. It’s brittle due to its age and will break under a little pressure. I’d recommend mending it with glue, even if it may not be as long-lasting."

He even let us in on a tip: “A well-bound book isn’t about how good [the cover] looks, but about whether it can stand upright on its own,” he said, with a knowing smile. “Only then will you know if the cloth or leather has been evenly stretched and glued on well. If the cloth is pulled too much on one end, the book would topple.” Mr. Gan added as he grabbed one of our journals and demonstrated his point with much enthusiasm. 

The more Mr. Gan shares about bookbinding, the more one can tell it’s not just a job. It’s a reflection of his spirit — one that’s filled with patience, wisdom and a steady strength from overcoming his obstacles. “When I first started learning [bookbinding] I was still depressed. But as the days went on, I grew happier. Who knew I could do all this, even with my condition!” He recalled.

And perhaps, it is this strength that has sparked his drive to keep pushing his craft, and himself. Though he has been bookbinding for close to 40 years now, Mr. Gan hardly sees himself as a ‘master’. He believes there are still things about the craft he has yet to learn, like knowing when to use various types of glue on different kinds of books. “I’m always happy to learn something new,” he told us. Mr. Gan even spends his free time outside of the workshop trying to pick up a new skill, and is looking forward to take up some classes. When we asked what those classes would be, he gave us a hearty grin and said, “Learning how to use the computer.”

Explore SPD’s collection of hand-bound notebooks on KrisShop Cares – our concept store that aims to give back to the community by working with local partner communities. What’s more, if you’re a fan of the iconic Singapore Airlines’ batik print, stay tuned for our exclusive batik-print notebook collection, made with upcycled batik material and by the craftspeople of SPD.

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