Hong Kong’s annual book fair is under way, with volumes about Chinese leader Xi Jinping prominently on display at the entrance but an absence of publications on more controversial events in Beijing’s history.
Crowds flocked to the opening day at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre on Wednesday but the congestion of previous years did not spill over into Wan Chai district.
Most people passed by the works on Xi without picking one up. But Mr Chiu, a grey-haired man in his fifties who visits the fair every year, spent more than 15 minutes examining a photo album documenting the hundred-year history of the Chinese Communist Party.
Chiu told HKFP he was drawn by how the country had achieved prosperity when it was in poverty decades ago. “Every Hongkonger should learn about this,” he said.
He described the event as better this year, since some booksellers who “had been causing chaos” were barred.
Organisers turned down applications from at least three independent booksellers, Hillway Press, One of a Kind, and Humming Publishing. They had published books with the 2019 pro-democracy protests and unrest as their theme.
Hillway Press and One of a Kind attempted to host an independent book fair elsewhere, along with several other independent publishers, but were blocked by the venue owner.
Books about the 2019 protests and about sensitive topics in China, such as the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, were notably absent from this year’s book fair.
A form four secondary student was outside the booth of Whitepaper Publishing – which had intended to take part the axed independent book fair.
The student said she would have visited the unofficial fair had it not been cancelled. Although she wanted to show support for independent publishers, she said she had not spent money on their booths as there were not many new books. Many authors who created the comics and novels she enjoyed had left the city.
Three political cartoonists left Hong Kong between April and June, citing anxiety about shrinking freedom of expression in the city and fears that they would be arrested under the national security law or for sedition.
The student said she felt freedom of publishing had been impaired in Hong Kong. “I want to read books on history, but many [sold at the book fair] are about China only, there aren’t a lot of books on Western history.”
A customer who gave his name as David brought a suitcase to the fair. The 45-year-old clerical worker said his primary target was books on philosophy and the social sciences.
David said he mainly shopped at major booksellers such as Joint Publishing. Although he was aware that some independent publishers were excluded, their absence did not affect him personally and he was not interested in the books they sold.
“People who have interests in those topics can still buy those books elsewhere,” David added.
But at the same time, he felt the cancellation of their self-initiated book fair was a loss to Hong Kong. “Though I didn’t plan to visit, some form of censorship is occurring in society – and it will certainly bring some negative effects,” he said.
Some independents allowed
While several were excluded, some independent booksellers were still allowed to set up booths. They included Ggrassy, the publisher of three travel books written by veteran local journalist Allan Au.
Au was arrested by national security police in April for allegedly conspiring to publish “seditious materials” as he was previously a columnist for the now-defunct Stand News. The online media outlet shut last December following a police raid.
Two former editors of the publication are currently detained on sedition charges, while Au is on police bail.
Leslie Ng, the founder of Ggrassy, told HKFP he was not worried that Au’s legal issues would affect business. “They were travel books only!” Ng said with a smile. Au had come to the booth to sign books for customers.
Ng said that while the exclusion of some publishers would definitely have some impact on people’s willingness to visit the book fair, the reader base of the exhibition was nonetheless very large.
A few booths away, a weary-looking online writer Sapeier was also signing books for buyers.
He and three other online storytellers founded their own publishing company Welcome Back Limited, in 2018 to sell their books directly to readers rather than going through a publisher.
But this also meant that their work would not appear in major bookstores, Sapeier said, making the book fair a very important shop window.
He said he could not gauge the popularity of this year’s book fair until the weekend, but he expected some supporters of the excluded booksellers would skip a visit.
Louis told HKFP that he bought nearly HK$1,000 worth of books during his four-hour visit to the book fair on Friday, while his friend Eddie – who joined him – purchased eight books for under HK$500.
However, both frequent shoppers said the fair this year felt “boring,” as they were buying mainly discounting old titles due to a comparative lack of new ones. They said the whole exhibition also lacked focus.
Eddie said Hong Kong’s book fair had invited some big literary names in the past, such as John Chan and Han Han, to share their views on important cultural or political issues. Their speeches would then become a point of interest for the whole exhibition, he added.
For example, Eddie said John Chan had shared his thoughts on the democratisation of Hong Kong in 2014. “I think this is what a book fair should be – people were not only buying things, there was an exchange of culture and opinion.”
Aside from speakers, both visitors noticed that books about Hong Kong’s democracy movement were almost absent. Publishers known for Chinese studies did not publish new findings on China’s party-state system or the Mao Zedong era either. “It means something, when you can see new books about Joseph Stalin, but not Mao Zedong,” Louis said.
Eddie noted that, while there were still new titles on Hong Kong issues, they were mostly “depoliticised,” such as books about wealthy families in Hong Kong, stories of undercover officers who worked for the city’s anti-graft watchdog, or publications introducing different wet markets.
Louis said that, when he first went to the book fair as an 18-year-old in 2012, it presented a rare opportunity for him to encounter political titles: “At that time, how would you know about where to find [independent bookstores]? You can only see them at the book fair,” he said.
“The book fair opened a window for you,” Eddie told his friend.
Despite the drought of political titles this year, Louis and Eddie were able to spot a book written by a Hong Kong activist and both bought a copy. Neither said they would actually read the book, but they felt certain that it would not be available elsewhere. Louis voiced concern that “booksellers would be banned” for selling sensitive volumes.
“Or that they will be reported to the authorities,” Eddie added.
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