In the New Hong Kong, Booksellers Walk a Fine Line

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HONG KONG — When Hong Kong public libraries pulled books about dissent from circulation final month, Pong Yat Ming made a suggestion to his clients: They may learn a few of the identical books, without spending a dime, at his retailer.

Mr. Pong, 47, based the store, Book Punch, in 2020, after Beijing imposed a nationwide safety regulation in response to the antigovernment protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. The regulation broadly outlined acts of subversion and secession towards China, making a lot political speech probably unlawful, and it threatened extreme punishment, together with life imprisonment, for offenders.

Mr. Pong stated he had opened Book Punch exactly as a result of he didn’t need the metropolis to fall silent underneath the stress, and since he felt it was necessary to build a extra empathetic, tightknit neighborhood as the regulation cast its shadow over Hong Kong.

“The social movement has changed the way people read and the value they place on books,” he stated. “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 enterprise is a potential minefield. The safety regulation has introduced mass arrests, a rout of pro-democracy lawmakers, modifications to high school curriculums, a crackdown on the arts and quickly rising limits on free expression. It has additionally compelled booksellers to confront questions on how lengthy they may survive and the way a lot they may need to compromise. A scarcity of readability about why sure books are out of the blue off limits has difficult choices about which titles to stock.

As they navigate the constraints of the sweeping regulation, many unbiased bookstores have strengthened their resolve to attach with their readers and crystallized their roles as vibrant neighborhood hubs. In interviews, booksellers stated that extra individuals had rushed to purchase books and picture collections documenting the 2019 protests, pushed by the worry that these information would someday disappear. Some clients, in the meantime, have merely turned to their neighborhood bookstores for a sense of connection.

At Hong Kong Reader, a hushed upstairs area in the bustling Mong Kok district the place a regal, one-eyed cat reigns, guests have created a “Lennon Wall,” leaving messages about their hopes for the metropolis on colourful sticky notes in a slim again hall. At Book Punch, an ethereal loft in the working-class neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, clients collect for discussions about democracy in Hong Kong and elsewhere. At Mount Zero, a jewel-box-size bookstore in the Sheung Wan district, the proprietor hosts visits by politically controversial authors.

“There’s been a greater need for people to gather around the hearth and keep warm together,” stated Sharon Chan, the proprietor of Mount Zero.

After the nationwide safety regulation handed, modifications swept via the metropolis’s public libraries. Dozens of titles “suspected of breaching” the regulation have been pulled from their collections in current months, in line with Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which oversees the libraries. They embody the memoirs of pro-democracy activists and treatises on political self-determination in Hong Kong, native information shops reported, citing publicly obtainable library databases.

Among the withdrawn materials is a 2014 ebook referred to as “Three Giants of Civil Disobedience,” which outlines the philosophies of Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Its creator, Daniel Pang, a Christian theology scholar, stated he had been dismayed to be taught 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 stated, referring to 2 well-known activists who’ve been charged underneath the nationwide safety regulation. Blurbs from them seem on the ebook’s again cover. “Or because of its subject matter: civil disobedience,” Mr. Pang added.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department didn’t reply to questions on particular publications, but it surely confirmed that 34 books and periodicals had been suspended as a part of a overview of books suspected of violating the nationwide safety regulation.

For some unbiased booksellers, the pulled titles despatched a clear sign, even when the new requirements for censorship remained obscure.

Daniel Lee, who has run Hong Kong Reader, a common tutorial bookstore, for 15 years, stated that when there have been clear guideposts about which books had been forbidden, akin to their elimination from libraries, he would most definitely observe the authorities’s lead.

“We can’t completely uphold freedom of speech, because the law has changed,” he stated. “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.”

Book Punch has taken a completely different tack, asserting on-line that it’s going to lend clients copies of books and magazines that libraries are reviewing for potential nationwide safety violations.

“If you keep a lower profile, then you can operate for longer,” Mr. Pong stated. “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.”

The authorities haven’t responded to Book Punch’s posts. But Mr. Pong stated individuals he didn’t acknowledge had appeared at the store’s closed-door screenings of politically delicate documentaries and brought images of the display and the individuals.

“Everybody has things they cannot accept,” stated Mr. Pong, who’s at present abroad (he stated he would return in a few months). “To me, there’s no reason to stop me from screening documentaries. There’s no reason to ban me from selling books. If in the end, you arrest me, it doesn’t matter. I am ready to persist to the end.”

Mr. Pong’s store, which continues to function in his absence, displays his grass-roots activism on points like elevated bicycle entry and the rights of marginalized communities. Last November, it hosted Chan Kin-man, a chief of the 2014 pro-democracy protests often called the Umbrella Movement, who learn aloud from his jail memoir to visually impaired readers there.

The retailer rewards ebook consumers with perks like garlic paste and contemporary greens, delivered each morning from a moist market. Visually impaired masseuses provide massages by appointment. Yoga lecturers, bands and theater teams hire out the area for follow.

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

At the peak of the 2019 protests, pro-democracy chants sometimes broke out outdoors Mount Zero, in Sheung Wan. Now, lowered voices vie with the comfortable strains of jazz. Artists sketch underneath the shade of a willow tree. Musicians stage impromptu out of doors performances. On scorching, sticky days, Ms. Chan, the proprietor, treats clients to slices of watermelon or thick slabs of Cantonese-style French toast from the open-air diner subsequent 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 stated. “I think they see this as a space where they can feel safe and find like-minded people.”

Mount Zero takes up solely about 100 sq. toes. Books are stacked tidily in an order that solely its shopkeepers can discern. Patrons climb as much as an attic with huge home windows, passing framed artwork prints, classic posters and a pro-democracy newspaper hand-drawn by a native artist.

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

Over the entrance door, a message is spelled out in pink, white and black tiles: “Ideas are bulletproof.” It’s a quote from the politically themed motion film “V for Vendetta” that was usually discovered amongst antigovernment graffiti throughout the protests. Ms. Chan stated the tiles mysteriously appeared one morning final summer time.

“Whoever put it up must have made precise measurements,” she stated. “I’ve left it up because there must be a reason some of our readers wanted to see it here.”

Ms. Chan has not shied away from politically delicate topics at her retailer. She hosts contentious authors, including Mr. Tai, who visited months earlier than he was detained underneath the nationwide safety regulation. On this year’s anniversary of the Tiananmen bloodbath, she gave reductions that corresponded to the date of the killings, June 4, 1989: 60, 40, 80 or 90 p.c off purchases.

“They could try to ban us from doing certain things in public, but that will not stop us from doing so in private,” Ms. Chan stated. “Justice is on my side, and I do not feel afraid.”

As for Mr. Lee of Hong Kong Reader, he stated it was price staying in the business for so long as attainable. 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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