In Hong Kong, a Sanctuary for Banned Books

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.

Over the years have the kinds of banned books that you offer changed at all?

Sure, we ask our customers what types of books they're looking for and what kinds they don't like. The books that are edited or written with an obvious bias seem to turn a lot of our customers off, books published by the Falun Gong, for instance. Those books often say things like "The Communist Party is horrible, they must be exterminated," things like that. This makes a lot of readers uncomfortable, they don't like it.

Have you ever had tourists from the mainland get upset that you're selling books that are illegal on the mainland?

Maybe they have a car with China and Hong Kong plates, maybe they have their wives put the books in a very large suitcase. Everyone has their own methods.

Not yet. We have had some visitors get a bit excited, saying things like "All these books are fake. What they're saying is impossible! Our Party is the greatest!" Things of that nature. They might be vocally critical, but that's as far as it goes.

When we first opened our store, some people saw that we were using Mao Zedong's face on our sign and maybe weren't so happy about it. It might have been Hong Kongers that had bad experiences because of the Cultural Revolution - they would spit on our sign. But that was only in the very early days. Now it doesn't ever happen. People know that this is a place to relax and read.

Do you have many long-time customers?

Yes, quite a few have been coming for years. But they don't come regularly, maybe once or twice a year. Every time they come to Hong Kong they come here, and they stock up on books. They've been doing it for a while and they know how to get the books back into the mainland.

Maybe they have a car with China and Hong Kong plates, maybe they have their wives put the books in a very large suitcase. Everyone has their own methods. Some people carry the books on a direct flight to one of the more remote cities with customs, like Kunming. If you fly from Hong Kong to Kunming, the chances of you getting searched are very low if you take books in your carry-on luggage. The chances of being searched if you fly into Beijing or Shanghai are much higher, of course.

What about Hong Kong's border with Shenzhen?

The chances of being searched at the border crossings at Lo Wu or Lok Ma Chau are still pretty high. You might get away with it one time but the next time your books are confiscated. I tell first-timers to try one or two books first and see how it goes. They often have long lists of books they want to take back, but if you have one backpack and it's filled with nothing but books, you're going to look suspicious to customs officers. They're trained to notice that kind of thing.

I usually tell newbies to buy one or two books, take them back, and read them slowly. [Laughs.]

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Chris Horton is a journalist based in Hong Kong. 

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