One of Hong Kong’s last independent English-language bookstores is to close in October.
Founded in 2017 by Albert Wan and Jenny Smith, Bleak House Books in San Po Kong will close to the public on October 15.

Bleak House Books
Photo: Bleak House Books

Wan wrote in a blog post that he and his family had decided to leave Hong Kong, describing it as a painful and sad decision: “The backdrop to these developments is, of course, politics. To be sure, what my wife Jenny, my kids, and I do in our daily lives is not overtly political. Jenny is a university professor, I sell books, and the kids are primary school students. But as George Orwell once remarked, ‘[i]n our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues.'”

He added that he decided against selling, or handing of the reins, of the bookshop as it had a “unique character, voice and mission,” which he wanted to maintain.

See also: The art of bookselling under Hong Kong’s national security law

The American lawyer told HKFP that customers have been supportive since the announcement and that, aside from the day-to-day developments Hongkongers have seen, he had not faced safety concerns.

Bleak house books City on Fire Unfree Speech On Tyranny
Bleak House Books’ new arrivals display. Photo: Bleak House Books.

He said that books would be passed on to other independent bookshops or local institutions.

Dwindling options

“Sad news,” tweeted author Antony Dapiran. “Bleak House made a great contribution to HK’s literary landscape & will be sorely missed.”

Author Louisa Lim also tweeted that the closure was a blow: “The closure of independent bookstore @bleakhousebooks because the bookseller can no longer see a life for their family in Hong Kong is not just a data point; it’s a blow, as the bookstore was a thriving business, and at the heart of a community of readers and writers.”

Last July, Wan told HKFP he was concerned about the Beijing-imposed security law: “Under the new law, and based on what we know happens in mainland China, would it be a problem to stock 1984Animal Farm, or On Tyranny?… It’s hard to tell where the red lines are. Everyone’s saying it, but it’s true. It doesn’t help when the government willy-nilly comes out and makes statements about the law or how people might be violating it.”

Bleak House Books
On Tyranny. Photo: Bleak House Books.

Wan said that, since the 2020 HKFP article, Bleak House continued to stock political titles: “There is of course more pressure to self-censor now than before. But that it partly the reason for closing and leaving Hong Kong, as sad as that all that is.”

Bookworms will be able to still place orders until October 1, and a final edition of the Cha literary journal poetry reading will take place before the closure.

In recent years, bookstores such as Dymocks, Popular Bookstore and PageOne have closed, with most citing high rents and the rise of internet shopping. Bookazine remains open but has refused to stock some political titles.

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Tom Grundy

Tom is the editor-in-chief and founder of Hong Kong Free Press. He has a BA in Communications and New Media from Leeds University and an MA in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong. He has contributed to the BBC, Euronews, Al-Jazeera and others.