In a suffocated Hong Kong, bookstores offer freedom to think

HONG KONG – When Hong Kong public libraries pulled dissent books from circulation last month, Pong Yat Ming made an offer to his customers that they could read some of the same books, for free, in his store.

Mr. Pong, 47, founded the Book Punch store in 2020, after Beijing imposed a national security law in response to the anti-government protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. The law broadly defines acts of subversion and secession from China, making much potentially illegal political speech, and he threatened severe penalties, including life imprisonment, for violators.

Mr Pong said he opened Book Punch precisely because he didn’t want the city to shut up under the pressure, and because he felt it was important to build a more empathetic and cohesive community as the law cast its shadow over Hong Kong.

“The social movement has changed the way people read and the value they place on books,” he said. “I want to bring out that kind of energy, that desire for change through reading.” He added: “Books are powerful, like powerful punches that respond to the social environment.”

The company is a potential minefield. The security law has resulted in mass arrests, a rout of pro-democracy lawmakers, changes in school curricula, a crackdown on the arts and growing limits on free speech. It also left booksellers wondering how long they would survive and how much they might have to compromise. A lack of clarity on why certain books are suddenly banned has complicated decisions about which titles to store.

As they navigate the constraints of radical law, many independent bookstores have strengthened their resolve to connect with their readers and crystallized their role as vibrant community hubs. In interviews, booksellers said more people had rushed to buy books and photo collections documenting the 2019 protests, motivated by fears the documents would one day disappear. Some customers, meanwhile, simply turned to their neighborhood bookstores for a sense of connection.

At Hong Kong Reader, a hushed upstairs space in bustling Mong Kok ruled by a one-eyed royal cat, visitors have created a “Lennon Wall,” leaving messages about their hopes for the city on notes colorful stickers in a narrow hallway back. At Book Punch, a spacious loft in the working-class neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, patrons come together to discuss democracy in Hong Kong and beyond. At Mount Zero, a jewelry box-sized bookstore in the Sheung Wan neighborhood, the owner hosts tours from politically controversial authors.

“There has been a greater need for people to gather around the fireplace and warm together,” said Sharon Chan, owner of Mount Zero.

After the passage of the National Security Law, changes swept through the city’s public libraries. Dozens of titles “likely to break” the law have been removed from their collections in recent months, according to the Hong Kong Department of Leisure and Cultural Services, which oversees the libraries. They include the memoirs of pro-democracy activists and treaties on political self-determination in Hong Kong, local media reported, citing publicly accessible library databases.

Among the documents removed is a 2014 book titled “Three Giants of Civil Disobedience,” which describes the philosophies of Gandhi, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Its author, Daniel Pang, a scholar of Christian theology, said he was dismayed to learn that it had disappeared from circulation.

“The only reason I could think of was that it contained recommendations from Benny Tai and Joshua Wong,” he said, referring to two well-known activists who have been charged under the security law. national. Notes of them appear on the back cover of the book. “Or because of its subject: civil disobedience,” Pang added.

The Department of Recreation and Cultural Services did not respond to questions about specific publications, but confirmed that 34 books and periodicals were suspended as part of a review of books suspected of violating the national security law. .

For some independent booksellers, the titles printed sent a clear signal, even if the new censorship standards remained obscure.

Daniel Lee, who has run Hong Kong Reader, a popular university bookstore, for 15 years, said that when there were clear markings on banned books, like their removal from libraries, he would most likely follow the government’s lead.

“We cannot fully defend freedom of expression, because the law has changed,” he said. “Whenever possible, we will try to run our bookstore without breaking the law. So if the government can explicitly say that there are problems with certain books, we will follow suit. It is a compromise.

Book Punch took a different approach, announcing online that it will loan customers copies of books and magazines that libraries review for possible national security violations.

“If you keep a low profile, you can operate for longer,” Pong said. “Book Punch and a few others have chosen to do more, and while we may no longer be able to do it someday, I think there are people we could pass the baton to.

Authorities did not respond to messages from Book Punch. But Mr Pong said people he did not recognize appeared during closed-door screenings of politically sensitive documentaries and took photos of the screen and the participants.

“Everyone has things that they cannot accept,” said Mr. Pong, who is currently abroad (he said he would be back in a few months). “For me, there is no reason to stop showing documentaries. There is no reason why I cannot sell books. If at the end you stop me, that’s okay. I am ready to persist until the end.

Mr. Pong’s shop, which continues to operate in his absence, reflects his local activism on issues such as increasing access to bicycles and the rights of marginalized communities. Last November, he hosted Chan Kin-man, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement, who read his prison memoir aloud to visually impaired readers.

The store rewards book buyers with perks like garlic paste and fresh greens, delivered each morning from a wet market. Visually impaired masseuses offer massages by appointment. Yoga teachers, groups and theater groups rent the space for the practice.

“‘Liberating Hong Kong’, so to speak, is not just about the political level,” Pong said, referring to a protest slogan that the government said could be seditious. “If you only care about electoral rights, and not what you might call the right to read or increased access for all, this understanding of freedom and democracy is very one-sided.”

At the height of the 2019 protests, pro-democracy chants sometimes erupted in front of Mount Zero in Sheung Wan. From now on, the low voices compete with the soft accents of jazz. Artists draw in the shade of a willow tree. Musicians stage impromptu outdoor performances. On hot, sticky days, owner Ms. Chan spoils guests with slices of watermelon or thick slices of Cantonese French toast from the open-air restaurant next door.

“When the pain is so collective, the biggest challenge for us is how to maintain a healthy attitude, continue to find books that our readers want, help them relax a bit,” she said. “I think they see it as a space where they can feel safe and find like-minded people.”

Mount Zero occupies only about 100 square feet. The books are stacked neatly in an order that only his traders can discern. Patrons climb to an attic with wide windows, past framed art prints, vintage posters, and a pro-democracy newspaper hand-drawn by a local artist.

“I thought my bookstore was very small,” Ms. Chan said. “But a reader once told me that, compared to his house, it was very big. I always remembered it.

Above the front door, a message is written in red, white and black tiles: “Ideas are bulletproof. This is a quote from the politically-themed action film “V for Vendetta” which has often been found among anti-government graffiti during protests. Ms. Chan said the tiles mysteriously appeared one morning last summer.

“Whoever installed it must have taken specific measurements,” she said. “I left it out because there must be a reason some of our readers wanted to see it here.”

Ms. Chan did not shy away from politically sensitive matters in her store. She hosts litigants, including Mr. Tai, who visited her months before being detained under the National Security Act. On the anniversary of this year of the Tiananmen Massacre, it gave discounts corresponding to the date of the murders, June 4, 1989: 60, 40, 80 or 90% off purchases.

“They might try to prohibit us from doing certain things in public, but that will not prevent us from doing it in private,” Ms. Chan said. “Justice is on my side and I am not afraid. “

As for Mr. Lee of Hong Kong Reader, he said it was worth staying with the company for as long as possible. He quoted a quote from Hannah Arendt: “There are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking in yourself is dangerous.

“As long as what is called a ‘bookstore’ is allowed to exist,” he added, “we will continue to sell books.”

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