In the new Hong Kong, booksellers walk a fine line

Mount Zero, an independent bookstore in the Sheung Wan in Hong Kong on June 7, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - When Hong Kong public libraries pulled books about dissent from circulation last month, Pong Yat Ming made an offer to his customers: They could read some of the same books, free, at his store.

Mr Pong, 47, founded the shop, Book Punch, 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 defined acts of subversion and secession against China, making much political speech potentially illegal, and it threatened severe punishment, including life imprisonment, for offenders.

Mr Pong said he had opened Book Punch precisely because he did not want the city to fall silent under the pressure, and because he felt it was important to build a more empathetic, tight-knit 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 forceful punches responding to the social environment."

The venture is a potential minefield. The security law has brought mass arrests, a rout of pro-democracy lawmakers, changes to school curricula, a crackdown on the arts and rapidly growing limits on free expression. It has also forced booksellers to confront questions about how long they will survive and how much they might have to compromise. A lack of clarity about why certain books are suddenly off-limits has complicated decisions about which titles to stock.

As they navigate the constraints of the sweeping law, many independent bookstores have strengthened their resolve to connect with their readers and crystallised their roles as vibrant community hubs.

In interviews, booksellers said more people had rushed to buy books and photo collections documenting the 2019 protests, driven by the fear that these records would one day disappear. Some customers, meanwhile, have simply turned to their neighbourhood bookstores for a sense of connection.

At Hong Kong Reader, a hushed upstairs space in the bustling Mong Kok district where a regal, one-eyed cat reigns, visitors have created a "Lennon Wall", leaving messages about their hopes for the city on colourful sticky notes in a narrow back corridor.

At Book Punch, an airy loft in the working-class neighbourhood of Sham Shui Po, customers gather for discussions about democracy in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

At Mount Zero, a jewel-box-size bookstore in the Sheung Wan district, the owner hosts visits by politically controversial authors.

"There's been a greater need for people to gather around the hearth and keep warm together," said Sharon Chan, owner of Mount Zero.

A book on civil disobedience vanishes

After the national security law passed, changes swept through the city's public libraries. Dozens of titles "suspected of breaching" the law have been pulled from their collections in recent months, according to Hong Kong's Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which oversees the libraries. They include the memoirs of pro-democracy activists and treatises on political self-determination in Hong Kong, local news outlets reported, citing publicly available library databases.

Sharon Chan, owner of Mount Zero, an independent bookstore in the Sheung Wan in Hong Kong. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Among the withdrawn material is a 2014 book called "Three Giants of Civil Disobedience", which outlines the philosophies of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Its author, Daniel Pang, a Christian theology scholar, said he had been dismayed to learn that it had disappeared from circulation.

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

Hong Kong Reader, an independent bookstore in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Daniel Lee, who has run Hong Kong Reader, a popular academic bookstore, for 15 years, said that when there were clear guideposts about which books were forbidden, such as their removal from libraries, he would most likely follow the government's lead.

"We can't completely uphold freedom of speech, because the law has changed," he said. "To the greatest extent 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. It's a compromise."

Books about Tiananmen massacre at Book Punch, an independent bookstore in the Shum Shui Po district of Hong Kong. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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

"If you keep a lower profile, then you can operate for longer," Mr Pong said. "Book Punch and a few others have chosen to do more, and even if we are no longer able to do this one day, I do believe that there are some people to whom we could pass the baton."

A Book Punch book store employee buys vegetables at a wet market in Hong Kong on June 7, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

At the height of the 2019 protests, pro-democracy chants occasionally broke out outside Mount Zero, in Sheung Wan. Now, lowered voices vie with the soft strains of jazz. Artists sketch under the shade of a willow tree. Musicians stage impromptu outdoor performances. On hot, sticky days, Ms Chan, the owner, treats customers to slices of watermelon or thick slabs of Cantonese-style French toast from the open-air diner next door.

"When the pain is so collective, the biggest challenge for us is how to maintain a healthy outlook, to keep finding books that our readers would want, to help them relax a bit," she said.

"I think they see this as a space where they can feel safe and find like-minded people."

'Ideas are bulletproof'

Mount Zero takes up only about 100 square feet. Books are stacked tidily in an order that only its shopkeepers can discern. Patrons climb up to an attic with wide windows, passing framed art prints, vintage posters and a pro-democracy newspaper hand-drawn by a local artist.

Mount Zero, an independent bookstore in the Sheung Wan in Hong Kong. PHOTO: NYTIMES

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

Over the front door, a message is spelled out in red, white and black tiles: "Ideas are bulletproof." It's a quote from the politically themed action movie "V for Vendetta" that was often found among anti-government graffiti during the protests. Ms Chan said the tiles mysteriously appeared one morning last summer.

As for Mr Lee, of Hong Kong Reader, he said it was worth staying in the business for as long as possible. He cited a Hannah Arendt quote: "There are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking itself is dangerous." "As long as something called a 'bookstore' is allowed to exist," he added, "we will continue selling books."

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