“Though I sit alone on a pillar — I exist! I see the sun, and if I don’t see the sun, I know it’s there. And there’s a whole life in that, in knowing that the sun is there.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Nothing makes me happier than milling about in bookstores. Put me in front of a well-stocked shelf and you might as well be looking at an Augustus Gloop who’s been given carte blanche to run wild at the Wonka Chocolate Factory.
Naturally then, those who own bookstores hold a special charm for me, which is why I approached Daniel Lee, owner of two independent academic bookshops – HK Reader and The Coming Society, with an interview request. Daniel was gracious enough to accept my offer, and the happy result was a long litera-chat last week, during which we talked about the whys and hows, ins and outs of his bookstores, as well as the high and low tides in Hong Kong’s reading culture.
What is the relationship between the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and a recent surge in the local reading population? Why has the rise of e-books not really affected Daniel’s book business? Who are the people visiting HK Reader on a regular basis, and what does their taste in books bode for the city’s literary culture?
Most of all, how do we get the public to realise that reading, writing and thinking about literature matter to each of our lives and the future of our society? Read on to find out the cultural crusader’s take on these questions, and more.
- Part 1 – Bookstore as Passion: from reading Philosophy to setting up HK Reader
- Part 2 – Bookstore as Business: The Ins and Outs of HK Reader and Coming Society
- Part 3 – Do Hong Kongers actually read? Reading in Chinese vs. English, Print vs. Digital
- Part 4 – Beyond the Bookstore: What is the Intercommon Institute and how it could help bring scholarship back
(Clicking on each link will take you to the respective section)
Part 1 – Bookstore as Passion: from reading Philosophy to setting up HK Reader
J: Did being a philosophy major inspire you to open up an academic bookstore?
D: Definitely. Back when I was studying Philosophy at CUHK, upperclassmen and postgraduates would lead discussion forums and book clubs. These were set up to help make the reading and understanding of academic texts easier. This hope to ‘demystify’ scholarly books is partly why my partners and I set up Coming and HK Reader in the first place.
J: Your bookstores mainly focus on two genres of books – philosophy and literature. How do they compare in terms of popularity among your customers?
D: Philosophy books tend to draw more readers, only because the demand for literary classics has always been limited to a niche market.
J: What is your favourite genre/book?
D: I’m a history and philosophy buff, but my personal favourite would be Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
J: Isn’t that more fiction than philosophy?
D: Well, sure, but Dostoevsky’s novel is also an exploration of existentialist philosophy, religion, human and social relations etc. I enjoy books that portray the pursuit of values, describe psychological struggles and human conflict, as well as those that temper with the possibility of a modern world creating its own destruction. I read the Chinese version of Karamazov, by the way.
J: Do you sell a lot of translated works?
D: Quite a lot. In terms of our entire stock, about fifty percent of it falls under the umbrella of ‘local literature’, with the remaining half being made up of Taiwanese and translated works.
J: Regarding the recent Lee Bo incident, I was wondering if HK Reader and Coming Society accept donations and contributions of political sensitive publications and books?
D: If we’re talking about banned books, then no, simply because they don’t come within the ambit of our targeted genres – philosophy and literature. But if we’re looking at academic titles on modern Chinese history or scholarly tomes that may express politically sensitive views, then yes, we will consider taking them in or even selling them.
Part 2 – Bookstore as Business: the ins and outs of HK Reader and Coming Society
J: I’d like to talk a bit about the design/configuration of both Coming Society and HK Reader. I’ve visited both, and I’m especially interested in the sofas and ‘café’ corner – has this element helped secure a group of customers?
D: It does contribute to building a community of ‘loyal’ readers and visitors, who sometimes just want a place to read while chilling out or waiting for friends.
J: Do you consider the ‘cafe bookstore’ setting to be the most ideal business model, then?
D: Well, ‘ideal’ in terms of the public’s taste, but personally I think the best bookstore would be literally just that – a shop that sells books and nothing else. My favourite is Tonsan Books in Taipei.
J: Who are your clients? Are they mostly local Millennials/post-90s, or do a lot of foreigners frequent Coming Society and HK Reader as well?
D: Not a lot of foreigners visit our shop – perhaps one in a hundred, and probably not even that…
J: But you seem to stock quite a lot of second-hand English books at Coming, especially the more obscure and scholarly tomes and classics. Where are they from?
D: Those are collected from different sources; some of them are gifts from retired editors, university professors and teachers, while others are donations from collectors of philosophy and literary books.
But the majority of our customers go for Chinese books anyway, so the English ones usually stay on the shelf for long periods of time. It’s fair to say that they don’t exactly sell like hotcakes.
J: I’ve noticed that HK Reader hosts a lot of talks, book club discussions and promotional events. Do they help boost sales?
D: They do to a certain extent, but indirectly. We don’t automatically sell more books just because we hosted an event on a specific day. Rather, it’s more a case of people gradually becoming interested in what we do after getting to know us personally and familiarising themselves with our ‘brand’. What potential customers look for are signs of passion and friendliness, and once they see both traits in us, they’ll naturally want to support our business. It all boils down to the effect of brand-building. One exception is hosting a book launch, after which we may be able to sell 10 or more books than we do on a normal day, but even so, the increase isn’t that significant.
Part 3 – Do Hong Kongers actually read? Reading in Chinese vs. English, Print vs. Digital
J: What is your view on Hong Kong’s current English-reading culture?
D: In general, HK people have never been that keen on reading English books. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case. I lecture part-time at the HKCC, and most of my students are averse to reading anything in English, so much so it has developed into a kind of phobia. Even among the select few who are avid readers of ‘serious’ literature, very few would opt for English classics or novels as their go-to reading material.
J: I was quite surprised by the closing down of Dymocks a while back. (Daniel himself was surprised by my relaying of the news) What do you make of an English chain bookstore’s inability to capture a readership market in HK?
D: I think the local English-reading community has been diminishing [interviewer’s note: ever since the 1997 Handover]. While a general lack of interest in English reading must have contributed to Dymock’s demise, the rise of Amazon, Kindle and e-books has also substantially changed the way readers purchase English books.
A friend of mine owns an English second-hand bookstore (Flow Books on Lyndhrst Terrace), and according to him, the e-book wave has dealt a major blow to his business. This phenomenon is mirrored in foreign markets as well. Take Borders, for example: it closed down back in 2011 despite having been the 2nd largest bookstore in the US for almost half a century.
J: Has the business of HK Reader been affected by the rise of e-books, then?
D: There’s been virtually no effect on our Chinese book sales, because there isn’t – at present, at least – an online Chinese bookselling market or platform. There are no ‘e-copies’ for Chinese books. The most you could do is manually scan a Chinese novel page-by-page, but that would be pirating and as such, not accessible to most of the public readership anyway. There’s just not an official channel for the digitalisation of Chinese books. If this were to happen, then I reckon that our business would see a turn for the worse.
J: But surely true book lovers would still prefer the material book over digital reading apparatuses?
D: It depends on the reader’s purpose, I suppose. Frequent flyers and travellers would probably find a Kindle to be more practical. I have friends whose parents, despite having been long-time book collectors, stopped buying books altogether and became digital reading converts right after Kindle came out. This shift has to do with the general lack of space in HK as well.
But if you were to leave practical considerations aside, I trust that most people would still prefer the experience of holding and reading a material book, but given the pros and cons, the majority is likely to go down the e-book route at the end of the day.
J: Given the gradual decline in HK’s reading culture, can you suggest any constructive ways to promote reading, especially among the Millennial Generation?
D: To be honest, that’s a really tall order, especially since the global reading population has also been decreasing, whether it be in HK, the UK or the US. Having said that, I would argue that there has actually been a slight increase in the local readership in the past decade, with the key reasons being growing political instability, an overall rise in civic consciousness and the emergence of Liberal Studies as a compulsory subject at high school.
From as early as the Article 23 controversy in 2003 to the Umbrella Revolution last year, HK’s worsening political environment has actually motivated more locals to seek out books on Hong Kong history and politics, as well as to ‘foster’ HK’s cultural roots by way of supporting ‘home-grown’ literary writing. For example, the subscription circle of Fleur des Lettres, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent youth literary magazines, has witnessed a gradual increase in recent years, which I think attests to there being a renaissance of literary interest among the public.
J: So has the rise in political consciousness among the post-90s generation contributed to more writing of ‘home grown’ literature?
D: In terms of writing by local Millennials, there hasn’t been much at present. However, there’s definitely been a growing interest in reading ‘home grown’ literary works. This trend started about ten years ago, back in 2007, with the emergence of ‘Hong Kong Studies’ as both a research field in scholarship and a genre in publication. These books would cover topics relating to Hong Kong’s autonomy, the implications of the 1997 Handover, the city’s struggle with its postcolonial identity etc.
What’s most significant is that public interest in this genre has never waned, and as such there have been more people writing this type of literature and establishing it as a best-selling category in the HK book market. Hong Kong Studies is the most popular genre with our customers.
Part 4 – Beyond the Bookstore: What the Intercommon Institute is and how it could help bring scholarship back
J: Apart from running HK Reader and Coming Society, what other projects are you involved in?
D: I’m a part-time lecturer at the HKCC, but I’m also heavily involved in running the Intercommon Institute, which is a community-based academic collective.
J: Tell me more about the Intercommon Institute – did you establish it and what is its vision?
D: I’m one of the founders. The Intercommon Institute started off as a collaborative brainchild between The Coming Society and Liber Research Community. The goal is to promote public knowledge and set up a network of public intellectuals in Hong Kong. We believe that academic discussions, scholarly research and tertiary-level teaching should take place not just within the Ivory Tower, but also among the general public – being both for and by the people.
The Umbrella Revolution marked a watershed for us: after it had concluded back in late 2014, we officially established the II. In fact, quite a substantial portion of those who first signed up for our courses came to us because of the Revolution, which explains the largely political and socio-cultural bent of the II curriculum.
Topics range from Leftist Thoughts to Social Design to Agricultural Studies. We’ve even recruited a professional campaigner to teach classes on Social Campaigning.
J: ‘Social Design’ sounds really interesting – is it about urban planning?
D: Not really urban planning as such, but more like how we could incorporate design techniques to make our surroundings more liveable, sustainable and easy on the eye.
J: Are the courses free of charge?
D: We do charge course fees, which actually distinguishes us from other community-based academic groups. If our courses were free of charge, then our teachers wouldn’t be paid, which means they would be doing this either as a pro bono favour or a personal hobby. But this defeats our purpose, which is to develop an autarkic space in which intellectuals can earn their living. Besides, the II would die out very quickly if we were to adopt the ‘free of charge’ model, because then there wouldn’t be a steady, dedicated community to uphold its existence or to believe that it actually matters.
Ultimately, we aren’t looking to develop ‘interest’ or cultivate dilettante-type learning, but to bring academic rigour to the public learning sphere. We’re currently planning on launching our own journal, to which researchers in our community may submit articles.
J: What are the criteria for the publication of these research articles?
D: The articles must show evidence of serious and rigorous thinking, comparable to the standard demanded by peer-reviewed academic journals. But unlike a lot of ‘Ivory Tower’ research, the kind of content that we’re looking for must be relevant to the actual lives of citizens, an example of which could be methods for effective social campaigning.
After all, the true value of academia lies not in toeing the line of institutional ‘rules’ or in fulfilling establishment-prescribed ‘criteria’, but in bearing relevance to the actual ‘doings’ and ‘being’ of everyone in society.
(More details about the courses here: http://goo.gl/forms/GKAtcLLtXS)
To sum up my admiration of and support for Daniel and those involved in running HK Reader, The Coming Society and the Intercommon Institute, I quote the following lines from Wordsworth’s pastoral ‘Michael’ (1800):
There is a comfort in the strength of love;
‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would overset the brain, or break the heart.
Trust Wordsworth to know what it takes for a labour of love to last.