Not long ago this humble HKFP columnist sought to rise above his lowly station to garner greater fame and fortune in the book publishing industry. And, remarkably, opportunity came knocking: a publishing contract was offered and agreed to, which was followed by a generous upfront payment transferred to my HSBC account.
With expert editorial and graphic assistance readily at my disposal, I began writing what I hoped would be a gripping, attractively-designed chronicle of Hong Kong’s raucous social and political development from the heady days of the 1997 handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, to the oppressive coronavirus present.
I thoroughly enjoyed the project, which was greatly aided by what at the time was an entirely friendly, collaborative and productive relationship with the publisher, FormAsia Books. My confidence was high as FormAsia has been in the publishing business for a venerable 45 years. I was in good hands, or so I thought.
In the end, I produced 12 essays, each around 1,000 words long, covering everything from Tung Chee-hwa’s rise and fall as Hong Kong’s first post-handover chief executive, to the 2014 Occupy movement, to current Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s calamitous reign. The book also included a raft of photographs of all the VIPs and crucial events described in the essays in what turned out, at least in my view, to be a most readable and visually appealing package.
I was satisfied with my work, and two copies of the book, Hong Kong On The Frontline 1997-2020, now sit proudly on a bookshelf in my home.
Unfortunately, however, no one other than my editor at FormAsia and loyal members of my loving family will ever read it. Why? Following the implementation of the national security law on June 30, FormAsia could not find a designer willing to be associated with the project, nor a printer willing to print it, nor a bookstore willing to sell it.
And all this dispiriting news came despite the fact that FormAsia had paid a group of lawyers to go over the proofs of the book with a fine-tooth comb to make sure it contained not a word that could potentially put us all in jail for violating the new, Beijing-imposed legislation. While the book is full of criticism of the way local and central government officials have managed Hong Kong in the last 23 years, the lawyers found nothing that they deemed a violation of the new law.
The book was scheduled to come out in late September or early October, but then came this September 19 email from my editor at FormAsia:
Kent, I have bad news. FormAsia has run up against a brick wall. Under current political circumstances FormAsia won’t (can’t) publish On The FrontLine for a string of reasons. The designers have withdrawn their accreditation from the work. Securing a printer willing to undertake the assignment has, till date, not been possible. But the biggest let-down is Bookazine. They have declined to distribute the book.
My editor also forwarded an email he had received from the book’s designers saying they had removed their names from the credit page and were in communication with the printer, who also may want to bow out.
And then there was this forwarded missive from a representative of Bookazine, the large, general-purpose bookstore with branches all over the city:
Hope you are well in spite of these unprecedented times.
I am writing in regards to Hong Kong on the Frontline 1997-2020. Only because we are trying to stay under the radar and because of the new legislation, we will not stock it at Bookazine.
Would you like us to return the sample copy? I can drop it off in one of the Bookazine stores?
I am so sorry about this and hope you understand.
Portals may have been closing all around us, but my editor nevertheless promised to “keep [the] door open” while awaiting a more favourable time to release the book. But that clearly isn’t going to happen, and when I last wrote to him, a couple of weeks ago after a long silence on his end, he was brief and blunt. The project had been dropped, he said, and FormAsia had “moved on.”
When an HKFP editor recently queried the publisher about the abandoned project, she received no reply. So apparently the good people at FormAsia have not only moved on; they have also clammed up.
Could FormAsia have found a pro-democracy “yellow” printer to print my book and some obscure third-storey walk-up bookstore to sell it? Probably. But they are running a business, not a cause, and so they minimised their losses, dropped the project and took up far safer subjects such as hikers’ guides and coffee-table albums featuring stunning photographs of Hong Kong past and present.
Should I self-publish? No, my book was dead on arrival in a city that may also be dying. It should stay that way.
Here are of the final words I wrote for the book’s epilogue:
Once again, Hong Kong is down, but is it out? Has that famous “can-do” spirit been lost?
If there is one lesson history has taught us, it’s this: Don’t bet against Hong Kong.
The problem is, I’m not sure I believe that anymore. But, hey, at least I got paid.
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