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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 last month, Pong Yat Ming made an offer to his customers: They could read some of the same books, for free, at his store.

Mr. Pong, 47, founded the shop, Book Punch, in 2020, after Beijing imposed a national security law in response to the antigovernment 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.

Mr. 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, tightknit 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 curriculums, 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 that 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, the owner of Mount Zero.

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, the Rev. Dr. 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,” Mr. Pang added.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department did not respond to questions about specific publications, but it confirmed that 34 books and periodicals had been suspended as part of a review of books suspected of violating the national security law.

For some independent booksellers, the pulled titles sent a clear signal, even if the new standards for censorship remained obscure.

Daniel Lee, who has run Hong Kong Reader, a popular academic bookstore, for 15 years, said that when there were clear guideposts about which books were forbidden, such as their removal from libraries, he would most likely follow the government’s lead.

“We can’t completely uphold freedom of speech, because the law has changed,” he said. “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 different tack, announcing online that it will lend customers copies of books and magazines that libraries are reviewing for potential national security violations.

“If you keep a lower profile, then you can operate for longer,” Mr. Pong said. “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 have not responded to Book Punch’s posts. But Mr. Pong said people he did not recognize had appeared at the shop’s closed-door screenings of politically sensitive documentaries and taken photos of the screen and the participants.

“Everybody has things they cannot accept,” said Mr. Pong, who is currently overseas (he said 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 shop, which continues to operate in his absence, reflects his grass-roots activism on issues like increased bicycle access and the rights of marginalized communities. Last November, it hosted Chan Kin-man, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests known as the Umbrella Movement, who read aloud from his prison memoir to visually impaired readers there.

The store rewards book buyers with perks like garlic paste and fresh greens, delivered every morning from a wet market. Visually impaired masseuses offer massages by appointment. Yoga teachers, bands and theater groups rent out the space for practice.

“‘Liberating Hong Kong,’ so to speak, is not just about the political level,” Mr. Pong said, 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 height of the 2019 protests, pro-democracy chants occasionally broke out outside Mount Zero, in Sheung Wan. Now, lowered voices vie with the soft strains of jazz. Artists sketch under the shade of a willow tree. Musicians stage impromptu outdoor performances. On hot, sticky days, Ms. Chan, the owner, treats customers to slices of watermelon or thick slabs of Cantonese-style French toast from the open-air diner next 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 said. “I think they see this as a space where they can feel safe and find like-minded people.”

Mount Zero takes up only about 100 square feet. Books are stacked tidily in an order that only its shopkeepers can discern. Patrons climb up to an attic with wide windows, passing framed art prints, vintage posters and a pro-democracy newspaper hand-drawn by a local artist.

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

Over the front door, a message is spelled out in red, white and black tiles: “Ideas are bulletproof.” It’s a quote from the politically themed action movie “V for Vendetta” that was often found among antigovernment graffiti during the protests. Ms. Chan said the tiles mysteriously appeared one morning last summer.

“Whoever put it up must have made precise measurements,” she said. “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 sensitive subjects at her store. She hosts contentious authors, including Mr. Tai, who visited months before he was detained under the national security law. On this year’s anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, she gave discounts that corresponded to the date of the killings, June 4, 1989: 60, 40, 80 or 90 percent 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 said. “Justice is on my side, and I do not feel afraid.”

As for Mr. Lee of Hong Kong Reader, he said it was worth staying in the business for as long as possible. 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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