Information wants to be free, so the saying goes, and in China's repressive media environment, millions still manage to circumvent government censorship to access sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Subverting the so-called "Great Firewall" can be as easy as paying for a virtual private network (VPN) service, and once past the firewall, Chinese internet users are free to check out whatever forbidden websites they want. They can even download banned books on which, tellingly, only has a Chinese-language version.
For mainland Luddites who prefer to sit down and read a book that their government has determined unsuitable for general consumption, the closest thing to a 3-D VPN is People's Recreation Community, a tiny bookstore in Hong Kong's Causeway Bay known for selling the widest range of banned books available in greater China.
Hong Kong is part of China, but during negotiations between Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, Deng agreed to grant the former British colony 50 years of autonomy after its return to Chinese rule in 1997. Thus, in Hong Kong, mainland Chinese people can purchase pornographic magazines at 7-11, read the New York Times on their iPads and buy books about the carnage of Tiananmen Square in 1989 at a neighborhood bookstore.
Inside People's Recreation Community, a computer monitor at the bookstore's entrance announces the previous month's top sellers. Current titles include: The Great Collapse of 2014, The Wen Family's Wealth Storm or, March's top seller, Xi Jinping Bites Back at Jiang Zemin. First-time visitors chat excitedly with friends in Mandarin while casting glances around the shop. Return customers, who tend to be alone, quietly leaf through new arrivals.
I sat down with 38-year-old Hong Kong native Paul Tang, founder of People's Recreation Community, for a caffeinated chat about China's most famous source for banned books.
It seems like business at People's Recreation Community is brisk, how did you get to this point?
I opened the bookstore in 2002. It was originally called People's Bookstore. Shortly afterward, SARS hit the Hong Kong economy hard. I initially thought I'd be able to go to Shenzhen or Guangzhou, spend 10,000 or 20,000 RMB (about $1,500 to $3,000) on books, bring them back here and sell them at a markup. It wasn't that easy. Compared to Taiwan and mainland China, not that many people read books in Hong Kong. The number of people that wanted to read simplified character books in Hong Kong was much smaller than I'd imagined.
In 2004 I decided to change my business model and convert the bookstore into a book bar. At that time, Hong Kong didn't have any places combining the café and bookstore experiences. I had worked for years as a Starbucks store manager, so I was familiar with the café concept. I wanted to give the book bar a distinctive style, so I renamed it People's Commune [People's Recreation Community in English], painted the walls red and tweaked the design a little bit before reopening. There weren't many individual mainland tourists coming to Russell Street then; most of our customers were from Hong Kong. But we scraped by and made it through.
Later that year we began to get mainland visitors from cities like Beijing and Tianjin who were traveling on their own. Our sign said "People's Commune" in Chinese, and our logo was Mao Zedong's face, so maybe that caught their eye. Sometimes, customers would ask me questions like, "Hey boss, do you have any copies of Zhou Enlai's Later Years?' At the time I didn't get it, I still wasn't so familiar with books published in simplified characters. I would tell them that I'd look into it and found a couple of Hong Kong publishers with that book or maybe The Private Life of Chairman Mao. I wasn't really into politics - we were primarily selling books about art and culture.
I thought it was strange. Why were mainlanders coming to my shop and asking me about these kinds of books? It turns out they were coming in out of curiosity, wondering what was going on in the People's Commune.
We began selling more and more banned books in late 2004. People were interested in the power transition from [President] Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao [which was drawn out over two years]. Customers would come back and ask, "What else do you have?" They were really interested in what was going on during the leadership change and were unable to read anything about it on the mainland. We started off with a tiny shelf of political books, eventually it grew to take up a counter, and as sales continued to improve more of the store was taken up by banned books.
Where are most of the banned books that you sell published?
Most of the political books we sell are published in Taiwan or Hong Kong.
The Taiwanese books are more analytical and data-oriented, they don't tend to be sensational in their approach to Chinese politics, focusing on facts and comparing different historical reference materials. Those books are quite good, but they're not published often.
In Hong Kong we have a lot of magazines covering current political events that will compile previously published content about a hot topic and republish it in a book format. These books are usually designed to catch the eye, and the information tends to be fresher than the Taiwanese books. How much of what is inside the Hong Kong books is true? I wouldn't dare to guarantee the accuracy. However, we find the Taiwan-published books to be very trustworthy.
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.
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.
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.]
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.