Sandwiched between a cosmetics shop and an electrical appliance store on the bustling Sai Yeung Choi Street in Mong Kok is a narrow stairwell plastered with posters promoting an anarchist book fair, stickers declaring support for Hong Kong independence, and ads for community art initiatives. This inconspicuous yet quietly rebellious building on 68 Sai Yeung Choi Street has – for ten years now – been home to Hong Kong Reader Bookstore.

With an orange couch, the aroma of coffee, and the calming presence of one-eyed cat Wei Wei, Hong Kong Reader is a sanctuary for book lovers seeking moments of tranquillity in busy Kowloon. But this is not your ordinary bookstore: the shop boasts a catalogue different from all others in the city. There are no traces of popular fiction titles anywhere on the shelves, and the largest category of books at the shop is Hong Kong Studies.

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Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

On Hong Kong Reader’s all-time bestselling list are three titles on the Umbrella Movement, three books written by scholar Professor Chow Po-chung, one on land hegemony in Hong Kong, as well as Chin Wan’s Hong Kong City-State — an influential title on contemporary localism. Topping the charts is Hong Kong Nationalism, a compilation of essays from the University of Hong Kong’s student publication Undergrad – propelled to fame after former chief executive Leung Chun-ying publicly criticised the books in his policy address.

“We can control what books we bring in, but we can’t control what gets sold,” founder Daniel Lee told HKFP – referring to his belief that a bookstore’s character is not shaped by its founders, but by its readers. This is perhaps why Hong Kong Reader has both been dubbed a “left-plastic” bookstore — due to the neo-Marxist and anarchist titles Lee favours — yet has also become known for its books on localism ideas. The bookstore is “a platform where readers could meet with all views,” Lee has written.

Over the past decade, the store has hosted over 700 book releases, readings, and discussion sessions with individuals from across the political spectrum, and 90 percent of the events were organised by readers. Hong Kong Reader’s popularity with left-wing organisations, philosophy groups, as well as social activists has in time earned it the nickname of “social activism bookstore” – a testament to how the space has become an important breeding ground of alternative ideas.

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Daniel Lee. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Lee admits the bookstore is quite “weird” and notes with slight pride that Hong Kong Reader tends to make decisions that are counter to traditional business sense, catering to a rather niche audience rather than the general public. Opening a bookstore in the city is a gamble to begin with: when Lee consulted Professor Chow at his alma mater, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, over a decade ago, Chow’s reply was simply to tell him not to waste money.

But the experiment paid off for Lee and his two co-founders. Years ago, the bookshop struggled financially, but these days they have a thin profit margin just enough to pay staff salaries. And at a time when “second-floor bookstores” are becoming endangered, academic freedom in universities is gradually eroded and fears of censorship loom over the city — particularly after the kidnapping of booksellers across to China two years ago — Hong Kong Reader is still here.

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Lee, Chow, Chung and Cheng at Hong Kong Reader’s rooftop discussion session. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

On December 24, 2017, the bookstore celebrated its 10th anniversary with friends and regulars on the roof of the building, an event that featured the self-deprecating tagline: “We still haven’t sunk yet.” For the occasion, the founders invited theatre critic Damian Cheng, Professor Chow, and Eason Chung Yiu-wah – who left activism behind to run a bookstore of his own in the New Territories. The event also saw the publication of a book that marks the milestone – the shop’s first endeavour at publishing: 10 years at the corner: All these years in Hong Kong Reader.

At the talk, Chow recalled a time when the flourishing bookstore scene in Mong Kok was Hong Kong’s cradle of civilisation, with landmark bookstores such as Redleaf Bookstore, Greenfield Bookstore, and Luckwin Books. As a teenager, he himself spent many afternoons after class at Homantin Government Secondary School reading. It was a “very important scenery” in the intellectual and cultural sector in the city, Chow said. Hong Kong Reader inherits from that legacy.

A ‘third place’

The bookstore in its current form is an accident of sorts, one Lee and his two partners built together with readers. They had originally intended on opening a coffeeshop, not a bookstore; what Lee envisioned was a “third place — that which falls between a public and private space, where people could meet and discuss issues.” They were quickly discouraged by the local coffeeshop culture, and Lee mused: “It doesn’t have to be a coffeeshop. And it doesn’t mean that once you run a coffeeshop, this third place will automatically appear.” 

A quick glance at the list of events documented in “10 years at the corner” and one can see that topics could range from feminism to American politics, “sexual liberation amongst city girls in a capitalist society” to “China and Hong Kong in the age of rioting.”

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Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

In 2010, the bookstore hosted a discussion on land hegemony premised on the 2005 book Land and the Ruling Class in Hong Kong by Alice Poon; shortly after, the book’s Chinese translation was released and the term “land hegemony” entered mainstream vocabulary, even becoming one of the themes of the 2011 July 1 march.

Lee wrote in 10 years at the corner that although Hong Kong Reader was not the initiator of the movement, it played a certain role in the germination stage of the ideas – and it was a joy to be able to run a bookstore and take part in the metamorphosis of societyThe bookstore’s Chinese name is “Prologue” – which, according to Lee, indicates that a bookstore is only the beginning of education and change.

Many of the bookstore’s regulars seem to believe that they have succeeded in building this “third place”: at the event, Professor Chow commends the bookstore on its “distinct character” and said it is “a response to the issues of this generation.” In the book, he also wrote that Hong Kong Reader is not just a bookshop, but a public space and a community that holds a set of values.

Another who has benefited from this “third place” is Jaco Lam of Socialist Action – one of the many who organised forums at the bookstore. The group has hosted discussions related to overseas political events and movements such as the 2011 Jasmine Revolution, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and Slutwalk at Hong Kong Reader – where agreement is never guaranteed, but all can share their views without fear of repercussions.

Lam says that the bookstore’s laissez faire attitude means that organisers have free rein and control over the events. “They don’t care about the audience numbers, or pressure you to invite only prominent guests or legislators. Anyone can give their viewpoints on any topic at the bookstore.”

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Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

This freedom is especially welcomed at a time of growing concerns over academic freedom at higher institutions. “These days, if you want to book a university lecture hall to talk about democracy in Hong Kong or China, it would be difficult because professors are worried that their positions will be affected if they assist us in booking the space.”

“It’s also difficult on the streets, because there will be those who disturb you. On the streets you can motivate the public, urge them to take action – and we do have street stations for that purpose – but [at Hong Kong Reader] the discussion would be deeper in terms of our exploration of political ideologies, and different factions will be able to interact and debate with one another,” he said.

“That’s what makes Hong Kong Reader such a rare and special place,” Lam said, adding that after every event at the bookstore, they always pass around a donation box amongst the audience members. “This is an important culture – it’s not free, and everyone needs to contribute,” he said.

Debunking bookstore myths

In Hong Kong, the book industry is dominated by three giants: Chung Hwa Books, Joint Publishing and Commercial Press. They are fully owned subsidiaries under Sino-United Publishing, and it is no secret that they are controlled by Beijing’s Liaison Office.

As Beijing tightened its grip around the city, hushed whispers of censorship also began haunting the business. Just last August, HKFP reported that Commercial Press removed a preface from a philosophy book after the writer Dr Wong Kwok-kui refused to amend a passage referencing the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement and Hong Kong’s “political decay.”

In this climate, the responsibility of selling more political books often falls onto the shoulders of indie publishers and bookstores, many of which are also facing increasing pressure – as shown in the case of the missing Causeway Bay booksellers. After the kidnapping incident, Lam noted, many smaller bookstores have closed down.

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Wei Wei the cat standing guard over Hong Kong Reader’s Bookstore. Photo: HK Readers Wei Wei/Facebook.

The bookstore is one of the few locations Socialist Action’s monthly zine can be sold. “More commercial bookstores – or those like Commercial Press – would think it’s too political and they’re scared of the trouble that comes with that. If we want to continue selling the zine and ensure that the content isn’t censored, one method is to sell it on the streets – and the other is through small bookstores like these.” Lam even called the bookstore “a physical manifestation of freedom of publication.”

Hong Kong Reader has thus far been spared the harsher side of this industry. Lee said that while the bookstore has faced problems trying to distribute a title to the three bookstore giants, they’ve never received explicit warnings or direct pressure.

In fact, the prevalence of censorship in the industry sometimes even worked in their favour. “[The three giants’] political inclinations benefited Hong Kong Reader – it was because they refused to sell Hong Kong Nationalism that Hong Kong Reader was able to exclusively sell it,” another founder, Timmy Wong said in an interview with freelance writer and photographer Cloud.

But Wong does not want readers to see them as noble, idealistic booksellers who are unafraid of oppression. Wong told Cloud that, after the booksellers’ kidnapping, many praised them for continuing to sell politically sensitive books. But it was not true that they were fearless; it just had not reached them yet, Wong said.

“If there comes a day that we won’t be able to go into China or get threatened, maybe we will engage in self-censorship too. And many ask us – what if it’s our turn to be arrested? My answer is just – of course we’d give up on selling books.”

In recent years, international headlines and local media have also been fond of writing eulogies to the bookstore and publishing climate in Hong Kong. While it is true that chains such as PageOne and Dymocks have exited the city, there are still at least 46 independent bookstores in Hong Kong, according to a map in a book by writer Chow Ka-ying. The book, which details Chow’s visits to 12 of the bookstores, debunks the myth that the scene is anything less than vibrant.

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Hong Kong Reader’s best-sellers of the month in November. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Although Lee cites Japan, New York, London, Taiwan, and San Francisco as examples of cities with a great bookstore culture, he said he is not envious.

“Bookstores aren’t just bookstores – like I always say, Hong Kong Reader is made by the participants and readers. If you don’t have the suitable climate, you just implant their model into Hong Kong, they may not be able to survive… I’m not opening the bookstore for myself. It’s about how it interacts with the city, communicate with its people.

“Bookstores in other cities may be prettier, but we’re in Hong Kong, and I want to create a space for this city… some things are more important than opening your ‘dream’ bookstore, like connecting with the city’s culture. The advantage of Hong Kong Reader is, our readers were able to make use of us. I feel very honoured in this regard.”

Lee was once told by his peer that “Hongkongers don’t deserve a good bookshop” — a comment that baffled him. After ten years, it appears Lee and his partners have proven this wrong by building a bookstore Hongkongers deserve.

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Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.