In Hong Kong, a Sanctuary for Banned Books (Updated)

In Hong Kong, a bookstore has found a profitable niche by selling books banned in China to visitors from the mainland. The Atlantic interviews Paul Tang, the owner of People’s Recreation Community, about how he grew his business:

[…] 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 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 .

Update: See a Reuters video about the market for banned books, which includes an interview with Paul Tang, from November 2012: