The Odyssey of An Upper-floor Bookstore in Hong Kong

Written in December 3, 2014


Exposed to warm orange light, six people are reading out sentences from the 17th century work Two Treaties of Government in unison on Tuesday night, November 18th. This is not a scene that happens in a university. Instead, it is in the culture zone of an independent bookstore——the Hong Kong Reader.

Nestled on the seventh floor of an old tenement in the densely populated Mong Kok area, the 800 sq. ft. bookstore comprises nine chairs, four fans, three tables, one sofa, one cat and thousands of books about the Humanities and Social Sciences.

HK Reader is run by three former philosophy graduates from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In 2007, they decided to spend all their deposits in opening this bookstore, naming it “Introduction” in Chinese with the hope of starting a new journey for both their readers and themselves.

“Profits are not our main goal. We want to provide a free culture zone for those like-minded book lovers to spark new possibilities,” says shop co-owner Joe Li.

Besides the main part of the bookstore is the culture zone, where the study group is gathering. Every two or three paragraphs, they stop reading and start to share their opinions. During the discussion, some raise questions, some answers, some corrects, using alternate English and Cantonese.

In the study group, the youngest is a 19-year-old student and the eldest is a 48-year-old middle school teacher.

“After I posted a notice on the HK Reader Facebook Page, people interested in this reading program joined us in a short time,” says Peng Li Tsing, 40-year-old librarian and founder of this group. “When we read together, the differences of age, gender and occupation provide us with diverse angles to understand the book.”

Thomas Lee, master of law from the University of Hong Kong, is a new member of this group. He says, “Some original works are very obscure. If I just read it alone, I may give it up halfway. Reading with a group of people demands more devotion from me.”

The study group is one of those benefiting from this culture zone. The bookstore imposes no payment for their weekly gathering. Other than the study group, there are many activities held at HK Reader such as lectures, forums, book-review meetings, poem recitals and so on.

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At the beginning, in order to bring more people into their culture zone, the trio invited their familiar professors to deliver free speeches at HK Reader. After the first few years, more and more people volunteered to give lectures. Some are celebrities, like associate professor Chow Po Chung from CUHK; some are less prestigious, simply want to find a free platform to transmit their ideas, Li recalls.

The bookshelves at HK Reader are equipped with wheels. To prepare for speeches and other activities, Li will move the shelves to the walls and then set about 30 seats in the middle of the room. If there are more than 30 people, the latecomers will have to stand.

However, Li says, it’s not easy to maintain such a culture zone in Hong Kong due to the expensive downtown rent, which costs one third of the expenses of HK Reader and is still growing significantly.

In recent years, many independent bookstores have gone out of business because of the rising rents, the financial crisis and the competition with online and chain bookstores. An independent Hong Kong magazine, called Slowdown Town, reports that there were around 60 independent bookstores in 2008 in Hong Kong, however, only 41 is on business now.

Those who don’t support the independent bookstores have their own concerns. Billy Chong, a 27-year-old clerk working in Macau says, “Reading mode is changing. More and more people choose to read on the Internet and it’s unsurprising that the independent bookstores may fade out in Hong Kong one day.”

Compared with other surviving independent bookstores, HK Reader has to shoulder at least one more burden brought by its culture zone. At a maximum, HK Reader held 15 activities in a month in 2013. Before the Occupy Central movement broke out, the number of activities per month was at an average of six in 2014, which means the bookstore cannot do business as usual frequently.

Considering the sluggish revenue of the bookstore, another co-owner Timmy Wong is pessimistic on herself. “The money I earn can only support my basic living expenses, so I can hardly take the emergency and the future into consideration.”

The contradiction between dream and reality challenges HK Reader’s future. Li says, “we used to pass on a box during activities saying ‘Please Donate Some Money or the Bookstore Cannot Survive’ and people were really generous to help us out of financial difficulties.”

Donation has worked for a while, but for the long-term development, HK Reader has taken some other strategies to distinguish itself from other bookstores.

“The chain bookstores are like supermarkets, having plenty of species of goods, but all of them seem the same overall. Some customers come to HK Reader because it is different from the market trend,” Li says.

At HK Reader, there are no fashion magazines, no “forbidden” books featuring sensational and unreliable scandals of mainland government officials.

“Popular books are not popular here. They (shop owners) only choose valuable books to sell so reading books here is an interesting experience,” says Ni Zijuan, a mainland Ph.D. student majoring in Gender Study.

At chain bookstores, expensive academic books are mostly wrapped with plastic sheets and thus unable to touch, while it is not the case at HK Reader.

Ni perches on an orange sofa, with Jacques Lacan’s Anxiety in hand. A smell of fruit-flavored essential oil floats around her. The faint sound of pop music breaks away from the sleepless Mong Kok and slips through the window.

She decides to buy two books at a price of HK$500, “Although buying books is a luxury for me, it gives me great pleasure——sometimes you may come across an unexpected book that contains everything exactly into your heart in the independent bookstores.”

The rivalry among bookstores is one thing and the competition with high profit businesses is another. “As tourism grows, chain stores selling electronic devices, medicine, cosmetics and luxuries evict small Hong Kong-style shops away from Mong Kok,” says Wong.

When answering the questions, she softly strokes the “shop cat” Weiwei. Two years ago, Wong saved this injured stray cat and took it to HK Reader. Weiwei is relaxing itself gently on some newly arrived books.

She adds, with her eyes fixed on Weiwei, “Hong Kong is losing its identity, but nevertheless we are trying to conserve diversity in Mong Kok by creating and maintaining this culture zone.”

The answer for why HK Reader should exist is simple: Weiwei needs a place to live with joy; citizens need a place to read with thoughts.

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