【明報專訊】One question I still get asked a lot is why I decided to open up the bookshop in San Po Kong. Having fielded this enquiry enough I have, unconsciously perhaps, come up with a few stock responses to this question. Convenience (mostly for myself). Economics. Community.
But way before San Po Kong came to my attention there came into my life a nice person named Ron. Ron had discovered the bookshop online before we had a physical shop and he asked us if we were looking for space to open one up. I said yes and met with him in Central of all places. Logical choice, I guess, if you want to go big, early, in the retail scene. And Ron was then working to find tenants for an upscale arts building that was being constructed in the heart of Central. But I politely declined. Among other things, I didn't think Bleak House Books belonged in such a fancy and exclusive building. And so it was back to the drawing board (從頭再來), and Ron came up with another location for us: San Po Kong.
I mention this story because the lease that I ended up signing for our present location three years ago expires this month. And what a three-year period it has been. For myself and most other Hong Kongers it feels more like ten years with all the heartbreak and trauma that we have experienced during this time. Worse yet the state of this city and the world at large continues to deteriorate. So there are many reasons to be pessimistic.
Independent or indie booksellers in Hong Kong do not seem to share this pessimism, however, at least as far as their business prospects are concerned. In July we saw the closure of Swindon, a mainstay (中流砥柱) of the English-language independent bookshop scene in this city for years. Other indie bookshops in Hong Kong are carrying on in the absence of the literary giant though, and not just that, they seem to be thriving as well. We are even seeing new bookshops crop up around the city like Book Punch 一拳書館 in Sham Shui Po.
So what is fuelling (帶動) this optimism among Hong Kong's indie booksellers? There is no question that people are buying more books from indie bookshops than they used to. This is partly an act of resistance by the reading public. For starters, most indie bookshops in Hong Kong are considered 'yellow shops' that support the protest movement.
More than that though indie bookshops are also acutely attuned to (熟悉) what people in their immediate communities want to read, and what most people want to read these days are books about the protests. Not necessarily books that document the protests in photos and words but also books that help put the protests in a greater historical, socio-political or philosophical context. The books that fall into the latter category are diverse and include titles by such writers as Toni Morrison, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hannah Arendt, Václav Havel, James Baldwin and George Orwell.
One might say that Hong Kong is undergoing an indie bookshop renaissance of sorts, even in this unprecedented age of political oppression. Just as Lennon Walls once served to channel the grievances and frustrations of the public against government ineptitude and mendacity, today indie bookshops serve a similar function. Communication and camaraderie (志同道合) take place not through Post-It notes but through books and the ideas they contain.
So back to our expiring lease.
We have decided to renew it. Why? Because we don't want to miss out on this historic moment in Hong Kong's indie bookshop movement. But more importantly, because we believe it is our civic duty to stay.
■by Albert Wan
Albert is the co‑founder and proprietor of Bleak House Books, an English language bookstore in San Po Kong.