Hong Kong’s Independent Bookshops Nourish the Soul

Nearly ten years ago, a friend was visiting from New York when he made an observation about Hong Kong. “There aren’t many bookstores here, are there?”

It was true then – and it’s especially true now. For a city with 7.5 million inhabitants, Hong Kong has remarkably few bookshops, and the ones that do exist often belong to the same giant companies. Even some of the chains have disappeared, including Singapore-based Page One and Australian-owned Dymocks, which left the city two years ago after decades of business.

It’s easy to see why bookshops struggle. Rents here are among the highest in the world. And Hongkongers just don’t read that much. A study by researchers at Lingnan University found that 42 percent of the population doesn’t read anything other than newspapers and magazines, and many of the remaining 58 percent consume mainly books on finance, travel and self-help. “If books are nourishment for the soul, then the soul of our city must have gone on a diet,” bemoans local writer Jason Y. Ng.

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Browsing for books at a now-defunct bookshop

Yet there are indeed readers in Hong Kong, and despite the odds, there are bookshops that serve them. In fact, they do much more than sell books – they provide spaces to linger, discover new things, to escape from the strain of life in an urban pressure cooker.

And they are beloved for providing that space. When used book emporium Flow announced last year that rising rent would force it to close after 20 years, the public donated enough money to keep it in business. In Yuen Long, Living Bookspace was operating in a wet market stall, but it has done well enough that it is now in the process of moving to a bigger space where it can host events.

“Buying books is one thing – nowadays you can buy books online and not have to leave your house,” says Albert Wan, the owner of Bleak House Books in San Po Kong. “A book is a book no matter where you buy it from. But this is a space for the community.”

Wan was born in New York and he eventually moved to Atlanta, where he worked as a civil rights lawyer dealing with police misconduct and prisoners’ rights. When his wife, Jenny Smith, took a job teaching history at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology at the end of 2016, he decided to open a bookshop.

“I thought to myself it would be a good window of opportunity to switch things up and try something new,” he says. “The community aspect of it was important – people can come in and read books or chat. It was also a way for me to challenge myself to do something I’ve never done, to go out of my comfort zone.”

A selection of books at Hong Kong Reader

Wan built up a collection of second-hand books from Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and the United States and began selling them at markets around town. Last year, he found a space in a high-rise commercial building in San Po Kong and turned it into a permanent home for his business, which finally opened in January.

It’s a meticulously organised space with wooden bookshelves, comfortable chairs and soft lighting that invites customers to stay for awhile. “It took me a long time to figure out the lighting situation,” he says. “I wanted lighting that wasn’t too bright, that didn’t feel like an office – more like a place you’d go to have coffee or beer.”

The selection of books is eclectic. There’s a copy of John Le Carré’s The Honorable Schoolboy given to Wan by a woman whose Peak mansion served as a setting for the novel. Heavy boxes are filled with immaculately preserved vintage comic books. Local authors like Tammy Ho Lai-ming, Nicolas Wong and Louise Law Lok-man have curated their own selections of books. (Full disclosure: Wan recently invited me to Bleak House to speak about my book, Borrowed Spaces, during the San Po Kong Arts Fair.)

“We want to have quality literature as opposed to stuff you might find in an airport,” says Wan – although there are plenty of pulpy vintage paperbacks that might have been popular with air travellers in the 1970s. All told, Bleak House’s collection now includes 8,000 titles.

Books at Hong Kong Reader

There’s a similar number of books packed into Hong Kong Reader, a bookshop hidden inside the seventh floor of an unremarkable building on Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mongkok. After 11 years in business, it has become a haven for anyone interested in philosophy, politics and cultural studies – including topics like gender identity and Hong Kong issues that aren’t well represented at chain bookstores.

“We wanted to provide a space where people could read and immerse themselves in all kinds of thinking and culture,” says Daniel Lee, who opened the shop with two of his philosophy classmates from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Timmy Wong and Joe Li. At first, they hoped to open a café where people could linger for hours, but Hong Kong’s high rents and fast-paced culture made that an unlikely proposition. So they ended up focusing on books – although there is still a place where customers can enjoy a coffee while reading their books.

Lee says the biggest change over the past decade has been the explosion of interest in Hong Kong itself. “We did not have a Hong Kong studies section when we first opened, but now it’s booming – it’s one of the most sizeable collections we have,” he says. “That’s actually where most of our readership comes from.”

Hong Kong Reader has a small café inside the bookshop

Hong Kong Reader plays host to many readings and discussions, which Lee says are inspired by the reading groups he enjoyed in university. They’re often well attended – something that speaks to a pent-up demand for intellectual stimulation in Hong Kong.

It’s also a sign that people are growing frustrated with the limited selection of books at chain stores. Last year, local media revealed that the city’s two biggest bookstores, Chung Hwa Books and Commercial Press, are owned by shell companies controlled by the Communist Party’s Liaison Office. As a result, they do not stock many books on Hong Kong or other topics that the government in Beijing finds controversial. Lee says only independent bookshops can fill that gap. “It’s important for independent bookstores to carry titles that are censored,” he says.

That’s true as much for authors as for it is for readers. “When I had a faint initial idea to publish a book, I recall all the small conversations and advice that Hong Kong Reader gave me,” says designer and community activist Michael Leung. He ended up publishing his first book, Solidarity Street, last year. When he dropped off some copies at ACO, another independent bookshop, they invited him to do a sharing session. “This type of support only exists with independent bookshops,” he says.

On a weekday afternoon in Hong Kong Reader, a few customers are browsing through the shelves as the shop’s cat, Wei Wei, sits on the counter. The shop’s staff found Wei Wei beaten half to death on the street in 2011; he lost all of his teeth and one of his eyes. They adopted him and nursed him back to health. “When he first came here, he was shy and he hid a very long time,” says Lee. They named him in honour of Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese artist whose politically driven work led him to be detained by authorities and sent into exile.

It’s the kind of scene you’d only find in an independent bookshop. Because, when it comes down to it, they’re about so much more than just books.

Zolima CityMag’s favourite independent bookshops

ACO, 14/F, Foo Tak Building, 365 Hennessy Road

Bleak House Books, Unit 2705, Well Tech Centre, 9 Pat Tat Street, San Po Kong

Flow Bookshop, 1/F, Kai Fung Mansion, 189 Queen’s Road Central, Sheung Wan

Hong Kong Reader, 7/F, 68 Sai Yeung Choi Street, Mongkok

Living Bookspace is in the midst of relocation. Follow their Facebook page for updates

Parenthèses, 2/F, Duke Wellington House, 14 Wellington Street, Central

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