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In the new Hong Kong, booksellers walk a fine line

Mount Zero, an independent bookstore in the Sheung Wan in Hong Kong
Mount Zero, an independent bookstore in the Sheung Wan in Hong Kong, June 7, 2021. Some independent shops flout the new limits on free expression. Others try to come to terms with them. For readers, they offer a sense of connection in a changed city. (Photo: NYTimes)
HONG KONG — 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.اضافة اعلان

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.

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 crystallized 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 neighborhood 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 colorful sticky notes in a narrow back corridor. At Book Punch, an airy loft in the working-class neighborhood 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.

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,” Pang added.

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