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 might learn a few of the similar books, free, at his retailer.
Mr. Pong, 47, based the store, Ebook 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 in opposition to China, making a lot political speech doubtlessly unlawful, and it threatened extreme punishment, together with life imprisonment, for offenders.
Mr. Pong mentioned he had opened Ebook Punch exactly as a result of he didn’t need the town to fall silent beneath the strain, and since he felt it was vital to construct a extra empathetic, tightknit neighborhood because the regulation forged its shadow over Hong Kong.
“The social motion has modified the way in which folks learn and the worth they place on books,” he mentioned. “I need to carry out that form of vitality, that need for change via studying.” He added, “Books are highly effective, like forceful punches responding to the social setting.”
The enterprise is a possible minefield. The safety regulation has introduced mass arrests, a rout of pro-democracy lawmakers, adjustments to high school curriculums, a crackdown on the humanities and quickly rising limits on free expression. It has additionally pressured booksellers to confront questions on how lengthy they are going to survive and the way a lot they may should compromise. An absence of readability about why sure books are immediately off limits has difficult choices about which titles to inventory.
As they navigate the constraints of the sweeping regulation, many impartial bookstores have strengthened their resolve to attach with their readers and crystallized their roles as vibrant neighborhood hubs. In interviews, booksellers mentioned that extra folks had rushed to purchase books and photograph collections documenting the 2019 protests, pushed by the worry that these data would at some point disappear. Some clients, in the meantime, have merely turned to their neighborhood bookstores for a way of connection.
At Hong Kong Reader, a hushed upstairs area within 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 town on colourful sticky notes in a slender again hall. At Ebook Punch, an ethereal loft within 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 within the Sheung Wan district, the proprietor hosts visits by politically controversial authors.
“There’s been a larger want for folks to assemble across the fireplace and hold heat collectively,” mentioned Sharon Chan, the proprietor of Mount Zero.
A Ebook on Civil Disobedience Vanishes
After the nationwide safety regulation handed, adjustments swept via the town’s public libraries. Dozens of titles “suspected of breaching” the regulation have been pulled from their collections in latest months, in response to Hong Kong’s Leisure and Cultural Providers Division, which oversees the libraries. They embrace the memoirs of pro-democracy activists and treatises on political self-determination in Hong Kong, native information shops reported, citing publicly out there library databases.
Among the many withdrawn materials is a 2014 guide 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 writer, Daniel Pang, a Christian theology scholar, mentioned he had been dismayed to be taught that it had disappeared from circulation.
“The one cause I might consider is as a result of it contained suggestions from Benny Tai and Joshua Wong,” he mentioned, referring to 2 well-known activists who’ve been charged beneath the nationwide safety regulation. Blurbs from them seem on the guide’s again cowl. “Or due to its subject material: civil disobedience,” Mr. Pang added.
The Leisure and Cultural Providers Division didn’t reply to questions on particular publications, nevertheless it confirmed that 34 books and periodicals had been suspended as a part of a evaluation of books suspected of violating the nationwide safety regulation.
For some impartial booksellers, the pulled titles despatched a transparent sign, even when the brand new requirements for censorship remained obscure.
Daniel Lee, who has run Hong Kong Reader, a well-liked educational bookstore, for 15 years, mentioned that when there have been clear guideposts about which books have been forbidden, equivalent to their elimination from libraries, he would most definitely comply with the federal government’s lead.
“We will’t utterly uphold freedom of speech, as a result of the regulation has modified,” he mentioned. “To the best extent attainable, we’ll attempt to run our bookstore with out breaking the regulation. So if the federal government can explicitly say that there are issues with sure books, we’ll comply with. It’s a compromise.”
Ebook Punch has taken a distinct 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 happen to hold a decrease profile, then you’ll be able to function for longer,” Mr. Pong mentioned. “Ebook Punch and some others have chosen to do extra, and even when we’re now not ready to do that at some point, I do imagine that there are some folks to whom we might move the baton.”
The authorities haven’t responded to Ebook Punch’s posts. However Mr. Pong mentioned folks he didn’t acknowledge had appeared on the store’s closed-door screenings of politically delicate documentaries and brought pictures of the display and the members.
“All people has issues they can’t settle for,” mentioned Mr. Pong, who’s at present abroad (he mentioned he would return in just a few months). “To me, there’s no cause to cease me from screening documentaries. There’s no cause to ban me from promoting books. If ultimately, you arrest me, it doesn’t matter. I’m able to persist to the tip.”
Come to the Bookstore, Get a Therapeutic massage
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. Final November, it hosted Chan Kin-man, a frontrunner of the 2014 pro-democracy protests often known as the Umbrella Motion, who learn aloud from his jail memoir to visually impaired readers there.
The shop rewards guide patrons with perks like garlic paste and recent greens, delivered each morning from a moist market. Visually impaired masseuses provide massages by appointment. Yoga academics, bands and theater teams lease out the area for observe.
“‘Liberating Hong Kong,’ so to talk, is not only in regards to the political stage,” Mr. Pong mentioned, referring to a protest slogan that the federal government has mentioned could possibly be seditious. “If you happen to care solely about electoral rights, and never what one would possibly name the best to learn or elevated entry for everybody, this understanding of freedom and democracy may be very one-sided.”
On the top of the 2019 protests, pro-democracy chants sometimes broke out outdoors Mount Zero, in Sheung Wan. Now, lowered voices vie with the mushy strains of jazz. Artists sketch beneath the shade of a willow tree. Musicians stage impromptu out of doors performances. On sizzling, 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 ache is so collective, the largest problem for us is how one can preserve a wholesome outlook, to maintain discovering books that our readers would need, to assist them calm down a bit,” she mentioned. “I believe they see this as an area the place they’ll really feel protected and discover like-minded folks.”
‘Concepts Are Bulletproof’
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 large home windows, passing framed artwork prints, classic posters and a pro-democracy newspaper hand-drawn by an area artist.
“I used to assume my bookstore was very small,” Ms. Chan mentioned. “However a reader as soon as mentioned to me that, in comparison with his house, it was very massive. I’ve all the time remembered that.”
Over the entrance door, a message is spelled out in purple, white and black tiles: “Concepts are bulletproof.” It’s a quote from the politically themed motion film “V for Vendetta” that was typically discovered amongst antigovernment graffiti through the protests. Ms. Chan mentioned the tiles mysteriously appeared one morning final summer time.
“Whoever put it up will need to have made exact measurements,” she mentioned. “I’ve left it up as a result of there have to be a cause a few of our readers wished to see it right here.”
Ms. Chan has not shied away from politically delicate topics at her retailer. She hosts contentious authors, together with Mr. Tai, who visited months earlier than he was detained beneath the nationwide safety regulation. On this 12 months’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 might attempt to ban us from doing sure issues in public, however that won’t cease us from doing so in personal,” Ms. Chan mentioned. “Justice is on my aspect, and I don’t really feel afraid.”
As for Mr. Lee of Hong Kong Reader, he mentioned it was price staying within the enterprise for so long as attainable. He cited a Hannah Arendt quote: “There aren’t any harmful ideas. Considering itself is harmful.”
“So long as one thing referred to as a ‘bookstore’ is allowed to exist,” he added, “we’ll proceed promoting books.”