The government has come under fire after public hygiene officers removed a public bookcase and a notice board collectively run by residents in Sai Ying Pun.

The items, located on Third Street, were part of a citizen-led initiative to promote community building and freecycling – the giving away of unwanted items to people who need them. Not owned by any one group, the objects were maintained by residents in the area.

An FEHD worker removing the bookcase. Photo: Cecilia Lee.

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) admitted having removed the objects last Tuesday after receiving two complaints in March. It said they were roadside publicity materials not authorised to be displayed in public space.

Resident Cecilia Lee, who alerted a social media group of Sai Wan residents about the removal, called the government and the district councillor responsible for the area “garbage.”

Other supporters of sharing communities were also outraged by the incident.

“Why is the government so keen on killing ideas that make a difference? These bottom-up initiatives are a response to the lack of public policies that benefit communities, but our government cannot even tolerate a tiny bookcase,” citizen-led group Food Sharing Hong Kong said.

FEHD workers removed the community board. Photo: Cecilia Lee.

‘Global trend’

Cheung Kai-yin of civil group Sai Wan Concern told HKFP that the bookcase, set up two years ago, was popular among many residents.

It also played a part in fostering a sense of community. Cheung said the bookcase gradually turned into a “community cupboard” where people left items ranging from food to electrical devices. People voluntarily looked after the box, such as repairing it and taking it under shelter on rainy days.

She added that these community-driven initiatives breed creativity. “Some people call Hong Kong a cultural desert. But it is the mainstream society that ignores or even clamps down on cultural activities.”

“Public bookcases are a global trend – we see them in Japan, Taiwan and many other places,” she said. “Must community building be exclusively done by the government or democratic representatives?”

There are many similar public bookcases in the city. Bookcrossing club Lore HK, for example, places bookcases in shops and cafes across the city for people to drop off or pick up reading material.

A map of public bookcases run by Lore HK. Photo: Lore HK/Goole Map.

It has so far not put out bookcases in public space, and Tuesday’s action has deterred it from considering doing so in the future, Kiki Lam of Lore HK told HKFP.

She described the government as acting like a “hygiene freak” who removes anything from public view whenever it receives complaints. “It won’t encourage community initiatives, let alone going all the way to preserve them,” she said.

Lam argued that public bookcases are effective in building community and hoped the government would take a more supportive approach.

A Lore HK public bookcase outside a cafe. Photo: Lore HK.

‘Rubbish’

Not everyone welcomes public bookcases, however. Sai Ying Pun resident Ms. Lau, in her 60s, told HKFP that she passed by the Third Street bookcase every day and found it to be a public nuisance.

“The bookcase was not very useful. It rarely had any books – people left all kinds of rubbish they didn’t want,” she said. “I think the FEHD was right. The bookcase had a negative impact on the appearance of the cityscape.”

She also disapproved of handmade flower pots that community members made and put on the roadside. The containers were made from used materials such as Crocs shoes and plastic bottles.

“They are rubbish,” Lau said. “Why did the FEHD not remove them too?”

Cheung Kai-yin said in response that “rubbish” is a vague term. “Take the government’s flower pots as an example, they usually need replacement every few months because people put cigarettes in them,” she said. “Meanwhile, ours lift the spirits for some people.”

The upcycled flower pots. Photo: Cheung Kai-yin.

“Is rubbish defined as anything not owned by the government? Is it defined as anything that is not ‘beautiful’?”

Lawyer and Centre Street District Councillor Sydney Lee Chi-hang told HKFP that opinion is divided over the roadside displays. He denied having discussed or complained about the matter to the authorities.

“I think it is a good thing that people take initiatives, but we also cannot stop others holding a different opinion,” he said. “It’s like street performance – some people enjoy it, others find it to be noise pollution. You have rights, others have rights too.”

“I won’t object to these initiatives, but I also won’t encourage them,” Lee added. “If everyone puts things out in public space, it could become a problem.”

There is one public bookcase left near Third Street in Sai Ying Pun. Its fate remains uncertain.

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Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.