All The Books In China: Justin Taylor Tours Hong Kong’s Bookstores
I make most of my living as an adjunct professor. A few years ago, I started spending one month out of my cyclical unemployment (read: summer break) with my cousin Caryn and her family in Hong Kong. Even after several extended visits, there are still new sights to see, foods to try, trails to hike, etc., but I find myself less and less inclined to play the tourist. Most days, I’d rather leave the camera and guidebooks in my suitcase and experience this city the way I experience my own, New York: as another anonymous urbanite making his way.
Of course, the thing about being away from home is that you have no way to make. I don’t actually have anything to do or anywhere to be, and owing to the twelve-hour time difference most of the people I know on this planet are asleep while I’m awake—I couldn’t waste my vacation on g-chat if I wanted to. What this means is that I spend a lot of my time reading books, and reading books requires having books to read. I usually bring along two novels, expecting to read most of one on the ride over. (The best plane read I’ve ever had is Lush Life by Richard Price, which sucked up eight of the fifteen and a half hours of flight-time before I even realized what was happening.) I’ll supplement the novels with a book of stories or a nonfiction collection, and one book of poems, usually a Selected that I’ve been meaning to get re-acquainted with. (My memories of the Stephen Mitchell’s Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke are at least as strong as anything I did in Hong Kong last year. This year it’s The Selected James Schuyler—less forceful, but more fun.) But the meat and potatoes of my reading is novels, so I go in knowing that I’m going to need more books than I’ve brought with me.
This might be the perfect place to transition into an encomium for e-readers, but somebody else is going to have to write that essay. I have nothing against e-readers or e-reading—after all, I’m writing this on a laptop, for eventual consumption on a website—but I have come to view the state of English-language book availability in Hong Kong as a productive constraint, a structural or epistemological condition akin to the rules of a challenging and rewarding game. My interest is in playing to win, not in devising ways to cheat. Moreover, I find that setting a bookstore (and its surrounding neighborhood) as my destination gives me enough inertia to get me off the grounds of my cousins’ country club–style apartment building (one could easily waste a week poolside), without compromising the pleasure of a fundamentally shapeless day.
The first bookstore I ever visited in Hong Kong was Cosmo’s in Wan Chai, which is the old red light district. (Though a handful of nudie bars remain, most of the action in Wan Chai these days is in cheap apparel and designer sneakers). When you get to 30 Johnston Road you are presented with two staircases: one goes down to the Chinese books in the basement, the other goes up to the English-language books on the first floor. (In HK second floors are called first floors, because what we call the first floor they call the ground floor.) The store is generously sized and has strong sections covering philosophy, religion, nonfiction and Hong Kong/China. Poetry, essays, short fiction, and anthologies are all grouped together on a couple of small shelves, so that David Sedaris keeps company with R.A. Tagore and the better of McSweeney’s. I’ve since learned that this arrangement is not uncommon.
In his new book of essays, The Tao of Travel, Paul Theroux offers some “rules” for travelers, one of which is to “read a novel that has no relation to the place you’re in.” To my credit, I knew this before I read it—in fact, my intuition is so strong that I’ve never read a book by Paul Theroux, especially not Kowloon Tong, a novel set in Hong Kong that has been emphatically recommended to me as long as I’ve been telling people that I travel here. So I only know this because a guy named Darren quoted it in a letter to the Paris Review Daily. Basically, Darren wanted to know if this advice could be trusted—Paris Review Editor and letter-answerer Lorin Stein vouched for Theroux, and Darren was spared reading Bukowski while visiting L.A. For my own part, I got on the MTR (Hong Kong’s cheap, clean, fast, reliable mass-transit system) and went out to the titular locale of the Theroux book I hadn’t read. My destination was an English-language bookstore called Page One in the Festival Walk mall.
Page One is a small chain, but they have big reach and big plans. They are based in Singapore, and have stores in Taiwan, Thailand and China, in addition to their several locations in Hong Kong. Page One also publishes books (mostly architecture and design titles) and serves as a distributor for markets across Asia. According to their website, the company’s aim is to become “a global emporium specialising in the creation, acquisition, distribution and sale of international publications, focusing on cultural content with a contemporary character and a unique identity.” They say they hope to open stores in “the brightest international cities.” Page One would be redundant in New York or San Francisco, but I’d be glad to see one open up in, say, Chicago or Miami.
When I went to Page One I was about to finish a pocket edition of Antony and Cleopatra that I’d found used at an otherwise disappointing secondhand store called Books & Coffee (10 Park Road in the Central Mid-levels). I decided to double down on my Shakespeare, and picked up Hamlet. (Since Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 until 1997, you could argue that reading British authors violates Theroux’s rule, but good luck making that argument without sounding like an imperialist asshole.) I finished Hamlet a few days later at Kubrick (45 Tung Kun street in Yau Ma Tei) also located in Kowloon. Kubrick, an offshoot of the art-house movie theater which it adjoins, caters to cinephiles (you can rent DVDs there) and fashion/design types. It seems to fancy itself some kind of analog to the American hipster coffee shop, but it is far too clean and its cafe offers full meal service, which for some reason is heavy on Italian food. The books are a bit overpriced, but the selection is eclectically curated and legitimately global in its scope. Books are shelved by their author’s nationality. For some obscene reason, each book is individually sealed in a plastic bag like a piece of Kraft cheese, making it impossible to try before you buy.
Kubrick is a ground-floor shop with a facade of floor-to-ceiling windows, so it’s a solid spot for people-watching. The surrounding neighborhood has a lot to be said for it, too—there’s a public garden with a Buddhist temple, countless restaurants and shops, the famous Jade Market, and a relatively short walk North on Nathan Road will take you to Mong Kok, which is a great place to get cheap street food on a stick. I recommend squid tentacles slathered in sharp Chinese mustard and barbecue sauce.
Another place to get your squid slathered is Causeway Bay, where I went to check out People’s Coffee and Books. You go up a ratty staircase at 18 Russell Street and step into a narrow, windowless single room ironically festooned with Communist regalia. (The store specializes in political and economics titles censored by the Chinese government, but available in Hong Kong.) Supposedly they have an English-language section, but I couldn’t find it. I could have asked for help but decided instead to show deference to the barista’s general attitude of not wanting to deal with me. A flatscreen TV on one wall showed a live feed from a camera mounted at street level. Was this a wry commentary on surveillance culture or just a way of keeping customers apprised of the weather? Instead of asking what the deal was, I lingered over a cup of iced, French-pressed Ethiopian coffee, read my New Yorker (US$9—ouch) and tried to look cool.
My favorite bookstore in Hong Kong is a secondhand shop called the Book Attic (2 Elgin Street). It is owned by Jennifer Li, a born-and-raised Hong Konger who was eager to talk to me about her store and about literary culture in general. When she was a young woman, she told me, she was fired from several jobs because of her poor English skills. After several failed attempts at mastering the language through academic efforts, someone advised her to try learning English by reading English books. The experiment worked, and a lifelong love was born.
Despite the rusticity of its name, the Book Attic’s scrupulously uncluttered shelves are in starkest contrast to other secondhand shops in Hong Kong—especially Flow, a dusty overstuffed closet hidden a few blocks away beneath the Central-Midlevels outdoor escalator. “In Hong Kong,” Li told me, “people are so busy and lack space. You might have five or six people in a three- or four-hundred square foot apartment. I wanted to provide a relaxing space and time—even just five or ten minutes. When they are in here they should feel at home.” I bought Yasunari Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes.
I finished the Kawabata about the time that my girlfriend arrived in Hong Kong. Since it was her first visit, I ended my ad hoc ban on tourist activities. We took a sampan tour of Aberdeen harbor, had lunch on a floating restaurant, and took my cousin’s two-year-old to the zoo. On a stroll through the heart of downtown we popped into the Hong Kong Book Centre (25 Des Voeux Road, Central) for a break from the heat but we didn’t buy anything. She had brought a small library along with her—just one of the many important ways in which we are well-suited for each other. We took a ferry to Macau and saw the ruins of Saint Paul’s church and then ate Portuguese food until we thought we’d be sick. At a hotel on the South China Sea I read her copy of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men—secure in the knowledge that I was about as far away from Texas as I was ever going to get.
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