HONG KONG – When Hong Kong public libraries recalled books on dissent last month, Pong Yat Ming made his customers an offer: They could read some of the same books, for free, at his store.
Pong, 47, founded the store, Book Punch, in 2020 after Beijing imposed a national security law in response to anti-government protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019. The law broadly defined acts of subversion and secession against China doing much political speech was potentially illegal and threatened harsh punishments, including life imprisonment, for offenders.
Pong said he had opened Book Punch precisely because he did not want the city to fall silent under pressure and because he felt it was important to build a more empathetic and united 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 blows that respond to the social environment.”
The company is a potential minefield. The security law has brought mass arrests, a defeat for pro-democracy lawmakers, changes in school curricula, a crackdown on the arts, and ever-increasing limits on freedom of expression. It has also forced booksellers to face questions about how long they will survive and how long they will have to commit. The lack of clarity on why certain books are suddenly off limits has complicated decisions about which titles to store.
As they navigate the limitations of the general law, many independent bookstores have strengthened their determination to connect with their readers and have crystallized their roles as vibrant community centers. In interviews, booksellers said more people had rushed to buy books and photo collections documenting the 2019 protests, fueled by fears that these records would one day disappear. Meanwhile, some customers have simply turned to their neighborhood bookstores for a sense of connection.
At Hong Kong Reader, a quiet upstairs space in the bustling Mong Kok district where a kingly, one-eyed cat reigns, visitors have created a “Lennon Wall, ”Leaving messages about his hopes for the city on colorful sticky notes in a narrow back hallway. At Book Punch, a spacious loft in the working-class neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, clients gather to debate democracy in Hong Kong and elsewhere. At Mount Zero, a jewelry box-sized bookstore in the Sheung Wan district, the owner receives visits from politically controversial authors.
“There has been a greater need for people to gather around the fireplace and warm themselves together,” said Sharon Chan, owner of Mount Zero.
A book on civil disobedience disappears
After the passage of the national security law, the changes spread through the city’s public libraries. Dozens of titles “suspected of violating” the law have been removed from its collections in recent months, according to the Hong Kong Department of Cultural and Leisure Services, which oversees libraries. They include the memoirs of pro-democracy activists and treaties on political self-determination in Hong Kong, local media reported, citing publicly available library databases.
Among the removed material is a 2014 book called “Three Giants of Civil Disobedience,” which describes the philosophies of Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela. Its author, Daniel Pang, a scholar of Christian theology, said he had been dismayed to learn that it had disappeared from circulation.
“The only reason I can think of is that it contains recommendations from Benny Tai and Joshua Wong,” he said, referring to two well-known activists who have been charged under national security law. Smudges of them appear on the back cover of the book. “Or because of its theme: civil disobedience,” added Pang.
The Department of Cultural and Recreational Services did not respond to questions about specific publications, but confirmed that 34 books and periodicals had been suspended as part of a review of books suspected of violating national security law.
For some independent booksellers, the retired titles sent a clear signal, even if the new censorship standards remained obscure.
Daniel Lee, who has run Hong Kong Reader, a popular academic bookstore, for 15 years, said that when there were clear indications as to which books were banned, such as removing them 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. “To the greatest extent possible, we will try to manage our bookstore without breaking the law. So if the government can explicitly say that there are problems with certain books, we will follow through. It’s a compromise “.
Book Punch has taken a different tack, announcing online that it will loan customers copies of books and magazines that libraries are reviewing for possible national security violations.
“If you keep a lower profile, you can operate for longer,” Pong said. “Book Punch and a few others have chosen to do more, and even if we can’t do this anymore one day, I think there are some people we could pass the baton on.”
Authorities have not responded to Book Punch’s posts. But Mr. Pong said that people he did not recognize appeared at closed-door screenings of politically sensitive documentaries and took photos of the screen and participants.
“Everybody has things they can’t accept,” said Pong, who is currently abroad (he said he would be back in a few months). “For me, there is no reason for me to stop showing documentaries. There is no reason to forbid me to sell books. If you arrest me in the end, it doesn’t matter. I am willing to persist to the end. “
Come to the bookstore, get a massage
Mr. Pong’s store, which continues to operate in his absence, reflects his grassroots activism on issues such as greater access to bicycles and the rights of underserved communities. Last November, it hosted Chan Kin-man, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement, who read his prison memoirs aloud to visually impaired readers there.
The store rewards book buyers with perks like garlic paste and fresh vegetables, delivered every morning at a wet market. Visually impaired masseurs offer massages by appointment. Yoga teachers, bands, and theater groups rent the space for practice.
“‘Liberate Hong Kong’, so to speak, is not just about the political level,” said Pong, referring to a protest slogan that the government has said could be seditious. “If you only care about electoral rights, and not what you might call the right to read or greater access for all, this understanding of freedom and democracy is very one-sided.”
At the height of the 2019 protests, chants for democracy occasionally broke out outside Mount Zero in Sheung Wan. Now, low voices with soft jazz chords. The artists draw under the shade of a willow tree. Musicians perform improvised performances outdoors. On hot sticky days, Chan, the owner, treats customers to watermelon slices or thick Cantonese-style French toast from the open-air restaurant next door.
“When the pain is so collective, the biggest challenge for us is how to keep a healthy perspective, keep finding books that our readers want, help them relax a little,” he said. “I think they see this as a space where they can feel safe and find like-minded people.”
‘Ideas are bulletproof’
Mount Zero occupies only about 100 square feet. The books are neatly stacked in an order that only merchants can discern. Clients climb into an attic with large windows, pass framed art prints, vintage posters, and a pro-democracy newspaper hand-drawn by a local artist.
“I used to think my bookstore was too small,” Chan said. “But a reader once told me that, compared to his house, it was very big. I’ve always remembered it. “
Above the front door is a message written on red, white and black tiles: “Ideas are bulletproof.” It is a quote from the political action movie “V for Vendetta” that was often found among the anti-government graffiti during protests. Ms. Chan said the tiles mysteriously appeared one morning last summer.
“Whoever placed it must have taken precise measurements,” he said. “I quit because there must be a reason some of our readers wanted to see it here.”
Ms. Chan has not shied away from politically sensitive issues in her store. She harbors contentious authors, including Mr. Tai, who visited him months before being detained under the national security law. On this year’s anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, he gave discounts corresponding to the date of the killings, June 4, 1989: 60, 40, 80 or 90 percent off purchases.
“They might try to forbid us to do 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.”
As for Mr. Lee from Hong Kong Reader, he said it was worth staying in business as long as possible. He quoted a quote from Hannah Arendt: “There are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking of yourself is dangerous. “
“As long as something called a ‘bookstore’ is allowed to exist,” he added, “we will continue to sell books.”