Similar interiors, same books aligned on bookshelves, standardised display – we might be familiar with chain bookstores or even feel used to them. They can be found everywhere in Hong Kong, or in other words, have been dominating the market for so long that most of the citizens have been accustomed to this situation. Some might not care about it as long as they can purchase the books they want in these chain bookstores, convenience due to standardisation and chain store development does matter.
Nevertheless, there are some irreplaceable elements we could only discover in indie bookstores that overcome standardisation and convenience and currently gaining more citizens’ attention. Earlier this month, one of the most famous local English indie bookstores, Bleak House Books announced its closure on 15th October, followed by another indie bookstore Book B declaring that they would terminate the operation by the end of this month as well. Alongside book lovers, this news has also aroused the general public’s attention. The factors behind this are linked with people’s thoughts on our society and culture, related to political factors also.
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Since the anti-extradition bill in 2019 and its aftermaths, HongKongers’ local awareness has escalated to an unprecedented level. Not only citizens’ political senses have soared, but more people are concerned about society and culture at a significant level. As well as there was a wave of social organisation newborns popping up back then.
Meanwhile, literary and artistic creation is always here when people talk about local culture and identity, as far as the freedom of speech and press freedom are concerned but a lot as they are seemingly curtailing in recent years. These complicated factors eventually shaped out people’s demands and concerns of indie bookstores, by noticing the invaluable importance of indie bookstores for the local culture and society.
Protesters march on a street during a rally against the extradition law proposal at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong on Sunday, June 9, 2019. Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched against a controversial extradition bill. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)
The bookstore market in Hong Kong is now monopolised by the triumvirate – Joint Publishly HK, Chung Hwa Book and The Commercial Press, which are all owned by Sino United Publishing, a pro-Beijing publishing company. They dominate over half of all the bookstores in Hong Kong and manipulate a colossal portion of books for sale, according to research conducted by RTHK and revealed in “Hong Kong Connection” in 2018.
The situation is still exacerbating now. Most of the indie bookstores are located in old district areas or inside industrial buildings, namely Shum Shui Po district and Kowloon City district, as the rent is relatively low compared to shops in shopping malls and new residential areas developed by real-estate developers. But still, those who could not bear skyrocketing rents even or facing redevelopment in old districts could only put an end to it.
It is saddening, not only because we have fewer choices of bookstores to visit apart from standardised chain bookstores, but also because of the genre and variety of books, as well as the uniqueness of each indie bookstore.
After the official establishment of the Hong Kong National Security Law in 2020, many are concerned with the vague redlines for expression, especially for stakeholders in the writing and publishing industry. Amidst this situation, mainstream bookstores are putting off sensitive books, namely political books regarding pro-democracy ideologies or books documenting local social movements.
Indie bookstores became the only place possible to find and read these sensitive books eventually. Meanwhile, it is also hazardous as people are reminded by the Causeway Bay bookstore incident back in 2015, five staff of Causeway Bay Books, an indie bookstore well-known for selling prohibited books in China, went missing and disappeared in Mainland China. Indie bookstores somehow do not only work like a normal business, but also exist as a shelter for those politically or socially sensitive, yet noteworthy issues.
Causeway Bay Books, an indie bookstore on Lockhart Road in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, June 14, 2016. The indie bookstore which the bookseller had been missing. (Photo by Sam Tsang/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)
While from a milder perspective, each indie bookstore has there own uniqueness that attracts people to visit. Owners’ cat exploring around, indie music blasting loudly, books arranged disorderly – visitors in indie bookstores and not only consumers to purchase and leave, but intrigued by the bookstore and enjoy their time at ease there. People communicate here, share thoughts here, discuss various topics regarding their life or society. These could always link people in indie bookstores together and form a tight community.
Just like Books & Co., an indie bookstore located on Park Road, Mid-Levels. Located opposite St. Stephen’s Girls’ College, it is unique due to the owners’ preference of books and its location. They are not only a bookstore but also a mini cafe as well. They serve coffees, pasta and cakes at a relatively cheap price, as mainly designated for the students to have a place to enjoy reading and take a break from the pressure of studying.
It is dangerous when a bookstore business becomes an investment which prioritises profit only.
The staff of Books & Co., Esther said.
They all believe that indie bookstores do not exist for making big money or providing books for investment and examinations. It aims to be a comfortable place for everyone in the community to take a break and explore their world through reading.
In this fast-paced and utilitarian metropolitan, indie bookstores were once at the edge of disappearing. To capitalists, their market value and competitiveness might be low compared to chain bookstores, those with huge capital behind. With citizens’ awareness risen in recent years, nevertheless, the political redline is chasing them to shut down again. They are a crucial part of Hong Kong presenting the local culture and reflecting the society, which should not be rubbed out in our city.