Within the New Hong Kong, Booksellers Stroll a Superb Line

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HONG KONG – When Hong Kong public libraries withdrew books on dissenting opinions last month, Pong Yat Ming made an offer to customers: they could read some of the same books, free, in his shop.

Mr. Pong, 47, founded Book Punch in 2020 after Beijing passed a national security law in response to the anti-government protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. The law broadly defined acts of subversion and secession against China, bringing up a lot of political utterance, potentially illegal, and facing severe sentences, including life imprisonment, for the perpetrators.

Mr. Pong said he opened Book Punch precisely because he didn’t want the city to fall silent under the pressure and because he felt it was important to build a more empathic, closer community as the law casts its shadow on Hong Kong.

“The social movement has changed the way people read and the value they place on books,” he said. “I want to express this energy, this desire for change through reading.” He added: “Books are powerful, like powerful blows that react to the social environment.”

The company is a potential minefield. The security bill has brought with it mass arrests, a defeat for pro-democracy lawmakers, curriculum changes, a crackdown by the arts, and rapidly growing restrictions on freedom of expression. It has also forced booksellers to wonder how long they will survive and how many compromises they will have to make. A lack of clarity about why certain books are suddenly banned leads to complicated decisions about which titles are in stock.

Many independent bookstores have reaffirmed their determination to connect with their readers and crystallize their roles as vibrant community hubs as they move through the restrictions of comprehensive law. In interviews, booksellers said that more and more people had rushed to buy books and photo collections documenting the 2019 protests, driven by fear that those records would one day disappear. Some customers have now simply turned to their neighborhood bookstores for a sense of connectedness.

In Hong Kong Reader, a quiet room in the bustling Mong Kok district ruled by a majestic, one-eyed cat, visitors have created a “Lennon Wall” that leaves messages of their hopes for the city on colorful sticky notes on a narrow spine Gear. In Book Punch, an airy loft in the working-class Sham Shui Po district, customers meet for discussions about democracy in Hong Kong and elsewhere. At Mount Zero, a jewelry box-sized bookstore in the Sheung Wan district, the owner hosts visits from politically controversial authors.

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

Changes swept through the city’s public libraries after the National Security Act was passed. Hong Kong’s Recreational and Cultural Services Division, which oversees the libraries, said dozens of titles have been removed from their collections in recent months that are suspected of violating the law. These include the memoirs of pro-democracy activists and treatises on political self-determination in Hong Kong, local news agencies reported, citing public library databases.

Withdrawn materials include a 2014 book entitled “Three Giants of Civil Disobedience,” which encompasses the philosophies of Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela outlined. Its author, Daniel Pang, a Christian theological scholar, said he was dismayed to learn that it was being withdrawn from circulation.

“The only reason I can think of is that it had recommendations from Benny Tai and Joshua Wong,” he said, referring to two prominent activists charged under national security law. Blurbs of them appear on the back of the book. “Or because of its subject: civil disobedience,” added Mr. Pang.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department did not respond to questions about specific publications, but confirmed that 34 books and magazines had been banned as part of a review of books suspected of violating national security law.

For some independent booksellers, the titles drawn were a clear signal, even if the new censorship standards remained in the dark.

Daniel Lee, who has run the popular Hong Kong Reader academic bookstore for 15 years, said that if there were clear directions as to which books were banned, such as removal from libraries, he would most likely follow the government’s lead.

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

Book Punch has taken a different route, announcing online that it will loan customers copies of books and magazines that libraries are screening for potential national security violations.

“If you keep a lower profile, you can operate longer,” said Mr. Pong. “Book Punch and some others have chosen to do more, and even if one day we may not be able to do it anymore, I believe there are some people we could pass the baton to.”

The authorities have not responded to Book Punch’s contributions. But Mr. Pong said that people he did not know appeared at the store’s closed screenings of politically sensitive documentaries and took photos of the screen and the attendees.

“Everyone has things they can’t accept,” said Mr. Pong, who is currently overseas (he said he would be back in a few months). “For me there is no reason to stop myself from showing documentaries. There is no reason to forbid me from selling books. If you end up arresting me, it doesn’t matter. I’m ready to hold out until the end. “

Mr Pong’s store, which continues to operate in his absence, reflects his grassroots activism on issues such as improved access to bicycles and the rights of marginalized communities. Last November, Chan Kin-man, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement, was a guest, reading from prison memories to visually impaired readers.

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

“The ‘Liberation of Hong Kong’ is not just about the political level, so to speak,” Pong said, referring to a protest slogan that the government said could be inflammatory. “If you are only concerned with the right to vote and not what one could call the right to read or more access for all, this understanding of freedom and democracy is very one-sided.”

At the height of the 2019 protests, pro-democracy chants occasionally erupted outside Mount Zero in Sheung Wan. Now deeper voices compete with the gentle sounds of jazz. Artists sketch in the shade of a willow tree. Musicians stage improvised performances outdoors. On hot, humid days, Ms. Chan, the owner, pampers the customers with watermelon slices or thick platters of Cantonese French toast from the open-air diner next door.

“When the pain is so collective, the biggest challenge we face is maintaining a healthy mindset, finding books that our readers would want to help them relax a little,” she said. “I think they see this as a place where they can feel safe and find like-minded people.”

Mount Zero only takes up about 100 square meters. Books are neatly stacked in an order only shopkeepers can see. Visitors climb an attic with wide windows, past framed art prints, vintage posters, and a pro-democracy newspaper hand-drawn by a local artist.

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

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

“Whoever set it up must have taken precise measurements,” she said. “I left it off because there must be a reason some of our readers wanted to see it here.”

Ms. Chan did not shy away from politically sensitive topics in her shop. It houses controversial writers, including Mr. Tai, who visited months before he was arrested under the National Security Law. For this year’s anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, she gave discounts that corresponded to the date of the murders, June 4, 1989: 60, 40, 80 or 90 percent off purchases.

“You could try to keep us from doing certain things in public, but that won’t stop us from doing it in private,” Ms. Chan said. “Justice is on my side and I am not afraid.”

Hong Kong Reader’s Mr. Lee said it was worth staying in business for as long as possible. He quoted a quote from Hannah Arendt: “There are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking in itself is dangerous. “

“As long as there is a so-called ‘bookstore'”, he added, “we will continue to sell books.”