In Hong Kong, a Sanctuary for Banned Books

How much of your shelf space is devoted to banned books these days?

Half of the books in our shop are related to mainland politics, the other half is culture or literature.

What percentage of book customers do you estimate are from China?

Roughly 90 percent of our book sales are to mainland Chinese and tend to be about politics. Sometimes a Hong Konger will come in and buy a book about, say, Wen Jiabao. But we know that quite often they're buying on behalf of their mainland clients or friends, maybe their uncle. Hong Kongers are not terribly interested in politics, especially mainland politics.

And the mainland market is much larger than the Hong Kong market anyway.

[Laughs] Right, right.

So you didn't start out with any political agenda or a plan to specialize in selling books that are banned in China?

No, it developed rather organically, we just followed the market. When Russell Street [the street on which the store is located] became a shopping destination for mainland travelers, people started coming into our shop and asking for these kinds of books. I began to think that this was a future market that we could serve.

When did you realize that the bookstore had become well-known?

The tipping point was in the summer of 2008 when Hong Kong was holding its annual book fair. That year we were visited by a journalist from the mainland magazine Phoenix Weekly that was here to cover the book fair. She was writing about the political books published in Hong Kong. She stopped by and chatted with us for an hour or two. Then she asked what our top 10 bestselling books were. I gave her our bestseller list and she left. The book fair wrapped up, she went back to Beijing and her article was published.

Nowadays in news kiosks and even convenience stores like 7-11 they're starting to sell banned books. They know it's already a good market.

As it happened, as soon as the article was published, loads of people grabbed a copy of the magazine and came to Hong Kong asking for the bestseller list -- one copy of each book. We'd just bundle them up and sell them as a set. It was pretty crazy. It really put us on the map. For three months we were selling a lot of books just because of one article.

I heard that issue of Phoenix Weekly was only on bookshelves for a couple of weeks before the central propaganda bureau ordered it confiscated and blocked their website for a month. It was a pretty severe punishment, but the reporter told me that she didn't regret it, and her boss supported her.

Well, a lot of Chinese journalists don't necessarily agree with government censorship, it's just one of the conditions under which they work.

That's true. A lot of reports don't make it past the censors, but I'm not quite sure how this one did. The cover of the magazine read: "Hong Kong: City of Banned Books". It was very in-your-face. After that, word got around and many Chinese who'd never been to Hong Kong learned about us.

On top of that, lots of travel blogs began to mention "that bookstore in Causeway Bay". We even made it onto a lot of the "must-visit" lists, right after Ocean Park. We were pretty happy that we had customers singing our praises.

Sounds like you were very well-received.

Definitely. For mainlanders these kinds of materials are very difficult to obtain. Nowadays in news kiosks and even convenience stores like 7-11 they're starting to sell banned books. They know it's already a good market.

Of the banned books that People's Recreation Community sells, what topics have historically sold the best?

We typically separate the banned books into two categories. One category is historical books. The other is hot topics, things like the Bo Xilai case. When news breaks we sell a lot of the second category, but not long afterward sales will dry up. We'll order 100 books the first time around and sell out quickly and then maybe another 20 and that's enough. One of the main reasons is that the stories develop quickly. In the beginning of the Bo Xilai case, all the books were about Wang Lijun. Then it was Bo Xilai. After that, the attention shifted to Zhou Yongkang. The story is evolving constantly, so we won't commit to large stocks of those types of books.

The historical book category is different. Books like The Deng Xiaoping Era, Zhao Ziyang's Prisoner of the State ; books like those are classics. From the moment they're published right up until today, they sell well. Of course were not selling dozens of copies a week of each of those books, but they are guaranteed to sell. Gao Hua's How the Red Sun Rose is another example.

Some customers already have digital copies of the book, but they want to have a physical copy they can hold in their hands or place on their bookshelf to show that they're true readers. We might sell 300 copies of a book about Bo Xilai or Gu Kailai, but we'll sell 1,000 of Gao Hua's book.

What areas of China send you the most customers?

We get customers from all over China, but of course the coastal cities are better represented. People in those areas are wealthier and have more opportunities to come to Hong Kong. We get a higher percentage of customers from Fujian, Zhejiang, Shanghai, Beijing, those kinds of places.

Chris Horton is a journalist based in Hong Kong. 

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