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Independent bookstores in Hong Kong: the spirit lives on

Walter Benjamin, a solitary German Jewish cultural critic in the early 20th century, never visited Hong Kong. His spirit, however, traveled across continents and oceans, years and cultures, and settled down in the form of an independent bookstore in this city, where most of the people are too occupied to read his volumes.

In 1984, Kwok-ming Ma, a Hong Kong scholar who indulged himself in studying Benjamin’s philosophic legacy, set up Dawn bookstore in a seventh-floor cubby in Wan Chai. At that time, his ambition was to make it a frontier academic source for the local intellectual communities. Through the 1980s and the early 1990s, his bookstore was a dreamland for local thinkers and students craving knowledge from the outside world.

But Dawn started to struggle after the mid-1990s. The golden age of Dawn had disappeared due to the economic recession and the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong in the early 2000s. Meanwhile, the growth of chain stores and online vendors intensified the competition. “The time of Dawn has come to an end,” said Ma. “I guess the purpose of Dawn has been fulfilled.”

Ma went back to teaching after 2006, but the spirit of the bookstore didn’t die with its brick and mortar. Ma was often asked to give comments on the local publishing and to give advice on running a bookstore. Despite being pleased answering those questions over and over again, he did not dodge the hardships when young people came to seek encouragement from him. “There’s no doubt that an independent bookstore only works for a niche market,” Ma said. “It’s not a business that can earn you a fortune.”

“My biggest gain from the bookstore is the joyfulness I experienced in those days,” said Ma. Now that the joy of yesterday became the memories of today, Ma’s family was concerned about the state of his health. Ma told them, “I would feel depressed only if I missed my meal.” His cheerful personality has made him an inspiration and a friend to a young generation, among who are the co-founders of Zeoi-jin.

One year after Dawn was closed, Daniel Lee and his two classmates, a philosophy graduate trio from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, established Zeoi-jin, a bookstore tucked in an old building in Mongkok and that sells handpicked titles in social sciences, a category with few readers in Hong Kong.

Zeoi-jin is the Chinese word for the preface, an introductory essay preceding the main body of a book that usually functions as a recommendation. Moreover, Lee said that, in Cantonese, it sounds similar to a brilliant Chinese word that means “gathering people of virtues”. Lee thinks the word perfectly explains their expectations to Zeoi-jin’s role in Hong Kong culture.

“We hope to build a bridge over the gap between the public and the academics,” said Lee, also an organizer of a civic group called Intercommon Institute. “We don’t think universities and government are the only places where academics have a role to play.” Intercommon Institute holds educational programs for anyone interested in indigenous academic developments at an independent bookstore known as The Coming Society. “Ordinary people should also be encouraged to acquire their own understanding of academics and knowledge,” said Lee.

The Zeoi-jin bookstore owner intends to make it more than a place for a small group of book-lovers to hunt for treasures. He aims to build a platform for open discussion that can involve a growing number of citizens, as he believes in “more thoughts, less numbness”. In the past eight years, the bookstore has seen numerous talks going on, covering a range of topics from nuclear power in a global world to the local social movements calling for political independence and speech freedom.

For practicality’s sake, Lee thinks the talks in turn identify the targeted customers of their books, thus giving him directions on how to adjust to the market changes and balance the owners’ ideal with the reality. “An independent bookstore is like a social enterprise,” said Lee. “To make it work you need a business mindset, even though it’s not a profitable business.”

Zeoi-jin is doing well at this stage, and Lee admitted that it is possible to share the same fate with Dawn, “For independent bookstores to survive in Hong Kong, we need social conditions including less monopoly, more freedom, a slower work pace and a culture that values reading and knowledge as enjoyment rather than tools for competition.”

Lee said that they tend to live in the moments and not think too far ahead. In his mind, the life of independent bookstores in Hong Kong is like a torch relay. “We tend to go with the flow,” said Lee. “Without us, there will be others, many others, doing what we’re doing now and making it continue.”