At least three leading bookstore chains in Hong Kong have declined to stock a new book written by the city’s last governor Chris Patten, even as the title sells out at independent shops.

Bookazine. Photo: Wikicommons.

Commercial Press, Bookazine and Eslite told an HKFP reporter posing as a customer that they were not carrying The Hong Kong Diaries. A Commercial Press representative added that the chain “would not be selling it,” and advised ordering the book online from overseas stores instead. Bookazine claimed it “could not find a supplier” for the title.

The Hong Kong Diaries was published last month to mark the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to China. According to a summary on publisher Penguin’s website, the title delves into “how Hong Kong was run as a British colony and what happened as the handover approached.”

Patten was Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, overseeing the city’s final years under British rule until its 1997 transfer of sovereignty. He has authored a number of earlier books about his time leading Hong Kong, some of which are being carried by Commercial Press and Bookazine.

Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten’s new book, “The Hong Kong Diaries,” on publisher Penguin’s website. Photo: Screenshot, via Penguin.

Both Commercial Press and Bookazine have also hosted Patten’s book signings in the past.

The former governor told HKFP in an emailed reply that he was “not surprised” to hear that the two leading bookstores were not stocking it, adding that it was a “bestseller” in the UK.

Asked whether there may be censorship at play, Patten said: “The questions you ask are for the booksellers. The answers will interest many.”

Commercial Press, Bookazine and Eslite did not return HKFP’s calls and emails. A publicity director at Penguin said The Hong Kong Diaries “was available to purchase,” but that it was for “individual retailers to respond about their buying decisions.”

Chris Patten. File Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

This is not the first time that a mainstream bookstore has refrained from carrying a political title. In December 2020, Bookazine declined to stock a book by columnist Kent Ewing, citing the national security law in email correspondence seen by HKFP.

The law, enacted by Beijing two years ago in the wake of pro-democracy protests and unrest against a controversial extradition bill, criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts.

While authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city, critics say the legislation has silenced civil society groups and prompted censorship in cultural spaces, including at bookstores.

A Commercial Press bookstore. Photo: Commercial Press Publishing, via Facebook.

Since the passing of the law, the government has pulled books off public library shelves over national security concerns. Titles removed included those written by pro-democracy figures and critics of Beijing.

When asked by a lawmaker earlier this year for a list of books that have been banned from libraries, the government refused to publicise the information, adding that doing so would be “unfavourable to the safeguarding of national security.”

‘One of our best selling books’

Meanwhile, independent bookstores that are carrying Patten’s book said the title has been heavily sought after.

Sheung Wan bookstore Mount Zero offered pre-order services for customers to purchase the book ahead of its release. “We have sold more than 100 copies,” Sharon, from the bookstore, told HKFP.

She added that they had sold out of The Hong Kong Diaries but are ordering another shipment that is expected to arrive next week.

Across the harbour, the owner of Hunter Bookstore in Mong Kok said it had also sold over a hundred copies, with only a “small number” left.

Chris Patten’s “The Hong Kong Diaries” at Hunter Bookstore in Mong Kok. Photo: Supplied.

“I would say it is one of our bestselling books this year,” Leticia Wong, a former district councillor, said.

Kelly and Walsh, under Swindon Book Group, told an HKFP reporter asking as a customer that there was significant interest in The Hong Kong Diaries. The book is currently sold out and the store is ordering more, a shop assistant said.

The release of Patten’s title came amid reports that a series of new secondary school textbooks state that Hong Kong was never a British colony, but an occupied territory, as the Chinese government did not recognise the “unequal treaties” with Britain. Last week, authorities said books about national security would be distributed to kindergartens, primary and secondary schools.

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Hillary Leung

Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.