With high rents and the dominance of chained bookstores, the city’s independent bookstores are finding it harder to operate. Hong Kong has less than 30 independent bookstores in total. Located on the fourteenth floor of an inconspicuous old building in Wan Chai district, Art and Cultural Outreach (艺鵠) is one of them.
Hong Kong’s publication market has long been dominated by three companies: Chung Hwa Books, Joint Publishing and Commercial Press. They are all fully owned subsidiaries of Sino-United Publishing, which is owned by the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government.
As Beijing tightened its grip around the city by enacting the National Security Law in June, Hong Kong libraries and chain bookstores have pulled down books written by some localists and democracy activists. Art and Cultural Outreach is one of the independent bookstores that is committed to resisting this type of self-censorship, which has attracted a lot of people to visit the bookstore.
“You can find books written by prominent Hong Kong democracy activists here and I don’t think you can find these in chained bookstores,” said Timothy Yau, a loyal customer of the bookstore.
According to Chow Ka Ying, a local author, independent bookstores are important to a city because they reflect the culture of the place, especially the changes in the social environment.
The bookstore is also well-known for its great selection of alternative readings, ranging from photography books to children’s books. Apart from this, the owner of Art and Cultural Outreach has been working hard on building a place for everyone to think, talk and exchange ideas, such as organising different cultural events and art exhibition. For instance, the bookstore had been conducting a series of film forums in October. It also hosts workshops at almost every weekend to support local craftsmanship.
Yet, the high rent in Hong Kong makes independent bookstores very hard to survive. In contrast, there are over 800 independent bookstores in Taiwan, according to the recent survey conducted by the Taiwan Association for Independent Bookshop Culture. Art and Cultural Outreach often learns from the independent bookstores in Taiwan and incorporates suitable business strategies to attract more people to visit the store, such as seasonal exhibitions by different artists.
Apart from selling books, the bookstore is now also offering various cultural and creative products on consignments, such as bags, posters, postcards and hand-made products.
Even though the bookstore is facing numerous challenges, it is still determined to continue its work in representing the different facets of Hong Kong.