The Hong Kong Book Fair starts with fewer political books

HONG KONG (AP) – The annual Hong Kong Book Fair kicked off on Wednesday, with several publishers of political books blocked from attending the fair and others saying they had to be careful about what they exhibited.

The fair’s main organizer, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, said it had not seen the books for sale at the fair. But Hong Kong authorities tightened controls on free speech and arrested dozens of pro-democracy activists after a tough national security law came into force in 2020, and the council stressed exhibitors must comply with the law.

Independent publisher Hillway Culture, which publishes books on Hong Kong and political events, was not allowed to attend. Another publisher, One of a Kind, which has published several books about the 2019 protests in the city, was another.

Publishers are having a difficult time amid the pandemic’s impact on the city’s economy and concerns about censorship and rejection of independent publishers, said Kaying Wong, guest curator at The House of Hong Kong Literature, the city’s largest literary organization.

“It’s certainly not an easy task for us to set up a booth at the book fair and be selected (to exhibit),” Wong said.

The Book Fair is one of the largest in Asia. In recent years it has been known for exhibiting a variety of books, including politically sensitive ones and those banned in communist-ruled mainland China.

In 2020, the city has postponed the fair several times due to the pandemic. The event finally took place in person last June after a year-long hiatus. This year’s book fair will take place from Wednesday to Tuesday, July 26th.

Novelist Gabriel Tsang, who works with publisher Spicy Fish Cultural Production Limited, said writers need to consider whether to publish in the current environment.

“I think a lot of writers have their own agendas… and they have to think a lot about getting their work published. They may use allegory or a lot of rhetorical skill instead of directly expressing what they originally wanted to express,” he said.

Complaints were filed last year against Hillway Culture, one of this year’s banned publishers, for exhibiting politically sensitive books that could be seen as violating national security law.

“Last year we had (exhibited) political books at the book fair and so did another banned publisher,” said Raymond Yeung, founder of Hillway Culture. He was one of the few publishers allowed to exhibit political books about Hong Kong at last year’s book fair.

Yeung tried earlier this month to set up an independent book fair as an alternative to the main fair, but was forced to cancel after the venue’s landlord accused Hillway of violating its lease by subletting its space to other publishers.

Authorities should be clearer and more transparent about what types of activities are allowed, said Hui Ching, research director of the Zhi Ming Institute of the Hong Kong political think tank.

“If there is no transparency, it is reasonable for citizens to suspect that their rights are being taken away,” Hui said.

Visitors continue to appreciate the fair as an opportunity to browse and buy a wide range of books.

“I read out of habit and today I came to look for Chinese novels and short stories that interest me,” said Grace Ng, a 22-year-old university student who attended the fair with her boyfriend.

Ng usually attends the annual fair and said this year’s looked a bit muted. “It’s not as crowded now as it was before the pandemic,” she said.

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