Hong Kong Reader (序言書室) is an independent bookstore in Hong Kong. Located in Mong Kok (旺角), the most commercialized area in Hong Kong, Hong Kong Readers has gained a reputation among intellectuals, artists, activists, and students across the city for being an important public and cultural space since its opening in 2007. With its frequent events and intimate communities, the bookstore has converged political and cultural energies in Hong Kong, establishing an important role during a time of great turmoil due to intense social movements and the costs of the pandemic.
This interview focuses on the history of the bookstore and its role as a public cultural space in civil society in the context of recent, rapid changes. It was conducted by Ting-Chun W., an independent researcher based in Taiwan, and Yihsuan Chiu, Haze Publication editor on 23 January 2021 via phone call.
TW: What was your vision for HK Reader when you started it?
HKR: The bookstore was founded in 2007 with a vision to promote academic and cultural discussion in Hong Kong. Our initial idea was actually to open up a café, like the salons of the West. But cafés in Hong Kong were only for food and drink back in those times. In order to attract more people who were interested in culture, the humanities, and social sciences to our space, we opened a bookstore. We still kept the idea of a café in the bookstore, and there’s a space to sit down, have coffee, and read. We also host talks and book clubs in the space.
TW: Have the past 13 years of HK Reader been as expected?
HKR: It’s been beyond what we expected! In fact, we didn't think that the bookstore would last more than five years, but here we are. Our initial idea was to create a base for groups of people who enjoyed the humanities and culture, and to assist them in achieving what they consider to be important. Now Hong Kong's intellectual circles know us more or less. Many students came to our bookstore and later initiated projects for social change. This is why I think the current bookstore situation has extended beyond us.
TW: What are the standards for the selection of books at HK Reader?
HKR: We mainly sell books on humanities and social science topics, many of them published in Taiwan and Hong Kong. We have a small collection of English language books that have a stronger academic orientation, especially books on left-wing theories. We also have two special genres which have been less common in other Hong Kong bookstores. The first is gender studies, and the other is Hong Kong studies. Such books were not common in Hong Kong when we opened in 2007, but now they are actually quite popular. There was no such thing as Hong Kong studies before. No one felt that Hong Kong had something worth studying. But it’s grown slowly and now has become a genre in itself. Many people write books about Hong Kong history, culture, and society. This has become such a big genre that it now contains different types of studies: from sociology and history, to cultural studies. If you look at our bestsellers list, you will find it is composed mostly of books on Hong Kong studies.
YC: HK Reader has a lot of left-wing content, but the bookstore is located in the busiest, most commercial downtown area. What do you think about this location?
HKR: It’s not a coincidence that our bookstore is in Mong Kok, the densest shopping area in Hong Kong. The problem for our city is that there are not enough people reading books. Usually a bookstore provides for the people in its neighborhood. However our problem in Hong Kong is that individual neighborhoods don’t have enough readers to support them. Mong Kok is the most well-connected commercial area by public transportation in Hong Kong. Everyone who lives outside of Mong Kok comes here to buy things that they can’t find in their own neighborhood. It’s a very hectic and bustling place where you can find anything. Mong Kok is therefore the area with the most bookstores in Hong Kong. The readers we serve are not only local residents, but also residents across all of Hong Kong. It is indeed the most capitalistic, commodified place, but this is also the gathering spot of great culture, including various alternative cultures.
TW: How does HK Reader differentiate itself from other independent bookstores?
HKR: It’s through our events. When you think about independent bookstores nowadays, it's natural to associate them with events such as talks and book clubs. When we opened the bookstore however, there was no such thing in Hong Kong. When we opened, we didn't fill the entire space with shelves. It was quite special at the time because other bookstores in Hong Kong had shelves that would display as many books as possible. I remember an elderly customer once told us that the way we young people ran the bookstore was wrong, since we were basically “wasting” space. He didn’t know that we wanted to hold events, and run a special kind of bookstore. Now in new bookstores in Hong Kong, having plenty of space to hold events is commonplace.
The biggest problem now however, is that there are no activities and events. Last year it was due to the pandemic. The year before, 2019, was a booming year for social movements in Hong Kong. Since our bookstore is in Mong Kok, which was one of the most heated places for protests, we were barely able to host events. We never knew when the streets below go into lockdown.
TW: Why did you want to have a salon in the city in the first place?
HKR: Hong Kong’s society was very, very different in 2007. In those relatively peaceful times, we thought that if we wanted to change a person, we started with his/her mind, ideas, and ideologies. We wanted to create an environment for that. We felt that Hong Kongers did not have time to read. There was no place to read. So our bookstore deliberately left some space for hosting events, or to just sit and read. Secondly, behind these events is the idea that Hong Kong people find reading difficult because of a lack of habit. Our working and living pace in the city is too fast, so we need an environment in which to slow and quiet down. Our mission has always been to organize activities, book clubs, community, and encouragement to share in the experience of reading. We’ve thus been able to create our own culture and atmosphere.
What Hong Kong people are most concerned about now is how to participate in the current democratic movement. Of course, it is very difficult to host any type of event now because of the pandemic. We also need to worry about political censorship. For example, if you talk about Hong Kong independence publically, you are now violating the law. There were no such restrictions in Hong Kong before. Two or three years ago, we could speak freely. Now, it is an era of the criminalization of words.
YC: During your years of running the bookstore, has the customer base changed?
HKR: I think our customers have always mostly been university students, cultural workers, and social activists. In the past two years, after the social movement gained strength, there have been more young people coming to our bookstores. In the past, most of our customers were around 30 years old. Now, many in their twenties or teens come by. Of course, this has been my own observation from my own bookstore, and does not necessarily represent the situation for the entirety of Hong Kong.
TW: Do you think more people will feel the need to read in response to social changes?
HKR: Yes, we did see such a phenomenon. Our sales have not dropped, which means that many people have started to consider reading important. The more urgent the times are, the more we feel that we should hold onto the freedom of reading. Many customers have recently told us that they were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to buy or read these books in the future, so they wanted to seize the last opportunity to buy them. This is also sad. Also due to the pandemic and stay at home orders, there is nothing else to do for many but to read!
In fact, every time there has been a social movement in Hong Kong, business has increased. I believe this must mean that many still feel the need to expand their knowledge base. We want to continue to provide the people with thinking tools that support their movements.
Independent Bookstore in the Time of Revolution
Interview with Hong Kong Reader by Ting-chun W. and Yihsuan Chiu