The Last Memo

The Bleak House Books family (L to R) Albert, Aggie, Ysabelle, Angel, Maylene, Jenny, Ida, Charlie (miss you, Rachel)

How does one go about shuttering a happy, thriving and successful bookshop? This is a question that has been plaguing me for some time now. 

From the very beginning, my goal for Bleak House Books has been a modest one: to build a viable, self-sustaining, community-oriented bookshop on my terms. Four years later I can say that I have achieved that goal, thanks in part to the persistence and efforts of my wonderful bookshop family and also to the support of our readers and the community. 

So it is with great sadness that I need to announce that Bleak House Books will be closing. The last day the bookshop will be open to the public will be Friday, 15 October 2021, and the last day we will fulfill online orders placed with us will be Friday, 1 October 2021

The decision to close the bookshop follows another equally painful and sad decision, which is that my family and I will be leaving Hong Kong in the near future. As much as I would prefer not to have to disclose this in a public announcement, I believe I have a responsibility to the people who support the work that we do here at Bleak House Books to be honest and transparent about the reason for why I need to close the bookshop. 

The backdrop to these developments is, of course, politics. To be sure, what my wife Jenny, my kids, and I do in our daily lives is not overtly political. Jenny is a university professor, I sell books, and the kids are primary school students. But as George Orwell once remarked, ‘[i]n our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics”. All issues are political issues.’ This observation is as true today as it was in 1940 when Orwell first made it. And given the state of politics in Hong Kong, Jenny and I can no longer see a life for ourselves and our children in this city, at least in the near future. 

Some of you might be wondering why I decided to close the bookshop rather than sell or find someone else to run it. There’s no single answer to that question. Bleak House Books is an independent bookshop. And like any other independent bookshop, it has its own unique character, voice and mission. It is my preference to keep it that way. Also, to hand the reins over now after only four years of bookselling seems a bit premature to me. There are many things I still want to do and say, and of course, many more books I’d still like to share with everyone. 

My immediate concern for the next month-and-a-half will be keeping Bleak House Books open until the very last minute of the very last day for our readers, our community and Hong Kong. We have some fun stuff planned, so it’s not all doom and gloom from here on out. 

I recently put in a large order for new books — our last — that has brought to the bookshop some old favorites, special selections from our resident and far-flung bookworms, and also the random selection from Ye Olde Bookseller for which Angel, my trusty shop manager, will invariably tell me: ‘but no one’s going to buy that, boss!’ We will also have one last poetry reading with our good friends at Cha literary journal, the theme for which is ‘LOVE’.  And maybe I’ll finally break down and buy a beer fridge so I can have the proverbial ‘last beer’ with anyone who wants to have one with me at the bookshop before it closes. 

There will, however, be no farewell party, and no clearance sale. For those books we have left at the bookshop and in storage after the last day we will donate most of them to any independent bookshop or local institution that wants them. We will make sure our Pickwick Club subscribers and readers who have placed special orders with us get the books they are supposed to get. And we will return all the books given to us for sale on consignment back to their rightful owners.  

Having started this announcement with a question, it is perhaps fitting to end it with one as well, which is: what will happen to Bleak House Books after this? And my answer is: ‘I don’t know exactly’. We are living in uncertain, even dangerous times and for those reasons it is very hard to plan ahead. What I can promise everyone is that this is not the end. It is not the end of Bleak House Books. It is not the end of our journey. It is not the end of anything really. 

I was asked by a friend what I will miss most about Hong Kong when I leave. Strangely I couldn’t articulate to her what those things might be even though I knew I would miss a lot of things about this city. The truth is I don’t have the mental energy to ‘miss’ anything about Hong Kong yet because my focus is what I can do for the city here and now. Maybe there will come a time when I can spend a lazy afternoon thinking and reminiscing about what life was like in Hong Kong during this 大時代. But that time is not now. There is still a lot of work to be done and I intend to do as much of it as I can before my time here is up. 香港人,加油!

‘I Don’t Have a Poem to Read’: My Personal Reply to Our Lovely Readers, Here and Afar

Delivered by Albert Wan at Bleak House Books in San Po Kong, Kowloon, Hong Kong, on 17 September 2021 for LOVE: A Reading, organized by Cha: Asian Literary Journal (https://www.asiancha.com)

Photo credit: Dawna Fung (IG: @dawna_fung)

I don’t have a poem to read. But I would like to read this short statement. It is for everyone here and everyone who can’t be here today but who have sent us messages of support or have visited the bookshop since I announced that it would be closing. I am sorry that I haven’t been able to speak or write back to you all individually. Angel, my wonderful shop manager, tells me everyone deserves a response, and she is right. So this is what I would like to say in reply. 

If there’s one thing Hong Kong has taught me during the few years I’ve lived and had the bookshop here, it is that I now know what is possible. What’s possible that is good, and what’s possible that is bad. I would like to think that this bookshop represents the former — that is, the possible of what is good. 

Even though I might be the person people think of when they think of Bleak House Books, I am not the sole reason the bookshop is what it is today. What you see here tonight and what we have all seen happen since I announced that Bleak House Books would be closing — the messages, the crowds, the tears — is a reflection of something very human and very fundamental. Some might call it love. Some might call it defiance. Some might call it art. But whatever it is exactly it is something that we created and nurtured together, as family, as friends, as a community. And it is good. We all know that, in our minds and in our hearts. And no one can ever take that away from us. No one. 

Because I promised that this would be a short statement I am afraid I will be breaking that promise if I start speaking about the possible of the bad. At least as it relates to Hong Kong of the past few years. Suffice it to say that we too know what that is and what it might be in the future. 

But just as we have been able to nurture the possible of the good together, we too must remember and face up to the possible of the bad together, wherever we might be or whatever we might end doing with our lives. 

Many people have thanked us for having the bookshop and for doing the work that we do. I can’t speak for the rest of the bookshop family, but I’ve never done it for the thanks. If anything, giving life to Bleak House Books has become my way of thanking Hong Kong for being so good to me and my family. And so if there’s anyone who should be saying ‘thank you’ it should be me. 

 好多謝大家咁多年啲支持同埋關心. 我哋永遠唔會忘記你地. 香港人加油!

Coming Up For Air: Sometimes You Want to Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name

by Albert Wan

Originally published in Ming Pao on 12 April 2019 and reprinted here in full with the permission of the publisher

I know about a magical bookshop in Hong Kong. It’s on the island-side, so you can get there easily by your preferred mode of public transportation, but the best part of the journey there is the part that takes place on foot.

If you’re going by MTR, your first instinct when you exit the station may be to melt into the crowds. Don’t do that. There is a lot to see and you’ll miss it if you play it cool and join the herd.


Once you get your bearings, find a safe spot to plant yourself so you don’t get run over and stop to look around. You will catch glimpses of both old and new Hong Kong. On one street you might see traditional Hong Kong-style cafes serving familiar Cantonese fare adjacent to their newer, sleeker cousins of varying cuisines. On another, you might find a range of specialty shops — think handkerchiefs and plastic tarps — opened in an age when it was neither hip nor optional to operate such establishments.


The streets are narrow enough so that you know they weren’t designed with the automobile age in mind. Traffic signals are few and far between. Pedestrian crossings exist by way of subtle negotiations between the driver and walker rather than by marked signs.


I hope you’re in decent shape because you’ll have to negotiate a few steep stairways to get to the bookshop. Walking is serious, often sweaty business here in Hong Kong.


Once you get past the steep climbs, you will discover that the crowds and cars and bustle have all magically disappeared. Stretching in front of you will be one of several streets, almost certainly deserted and so quiet you will be able to hear yourself think again. Rather than busy storefronts and stalls you will see street art of the edgy and not-so-edgy variety.


You are close now. Walking down these eerily quiet streets you will feel like you’re floating down a jetway to a plane that is about to take you to your favourite vacation destination.


The bookshop is nestled at the end of a dead-end pedestrian side street, tucked away in an airy but cozy corner with chairs and tables arranged nicely in front. The corner is formed by a large stone and cement wall painted in a shade of pink. The wall shores up a large park that looms over the bookshop and gives it a kind of sanctuary effect one is more likely to find in a temple or a church than at a retail space.


When you step inside the bookshop you feel like you’ve stepped inside a home and not a store. It is the home of a person who not only loves books but also loves all the little things in life; ones that we take for granted all the time.


Look straight ahead and you’ll see a nicely appointed kitchen — coffee is made fresh to order — complete with a full size refrigerator in powder blue. Look to your right and you’ll see what might best be described as the ultimate picnic spread, not of food, but books, all personally curated by the owner and carefully set out. If you’re lucky the owner might be around but even if she isn’t you will find yourself in good hands with one of the bookshop’s many readers-turned-managers.


At first glance the shop might seem small. But there’s a pocket staircase leading up to a second floor. Mount it and you will find yourself in another room lined with more books and also a sunny seating area that overlooks the street below. An idyllic spot for reading, people watching, or both.


If you haven’t already guessed, I am describing the bookshop that is Mount Zero Books in Sheung Wan. It is the kind of bookshop that perhaps Ye Olde Bookseller would have opened up had he sold books in his past life. More importantly, however, it is the kind of bookshop that makes life worth living.


Today the resident bookworms at Bleak House Books will be “taking over” Mount Zero Books for the day so that we can finally experience the magic of Mount Zero Books for ourselves. And you, Dear Reader, are cordially invited to join us so that you too can see what the fuss is all about. We promise you won’t be disappointed.

Peril by Toni Morrison

“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind;
they are its necessity.”

Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril. They are not stupid enough to abandon control (overt or insidious) over media. Their methods include surveillance, censorship, arrest, even slaughter of those writers informing and disturbing the public. Writers who are unsettling, calling into question, taking another, deeper look. Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.

That is their peril.

Ours is of another sort.

How bleak, unlivable, insufferable existence becomes when we are deprived of artwork. That the life and work of writers facing peril must be protected is urgent, but along with that urgency we should remind ourselves that their absence, the choking off of a writer’s work, its cruel amputation, is of equal peril to us. The rescue we extend to them is a generosity to ourselves.

We all know nations that can be identified by the flight of writers from their shores. These are regimes whose fear of unmonitored writers is justified because truth is trouble. It is trouble for the warmonger, the torturer, the corporate thief, the political hack, the corrupt justice system, and for a comatose public. Unpersecuted, unjailed, unharassed writers are trouble for the ignorant bully, the sly racist, and the predators feeding off the world’s resources. The alarm, the disquiet, writers raise is instructive because it is open and vulnerable, because if unpoliced it is threatening. Therefore the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow. The history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself. And the efforts to censor, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place. Cultural and political forces can sweep clean all but the ‘safe,’ all but the state-approved art.

I have been told that there are two human responses to the perception of chaos: naming and violence. When the chaos is simply the unknown, the naming can be accomplished effortlessly — a new species, star, formula, equation, prognosis. There is also mapping, geography, landscape, or population. When chaos resists, either by reforming itself or by rebelling against imposed order, violence is understood to be the most frequent response and the most rational when confronting the unknown, the catastrophic, the wild, wanton, or incorrigible. Rational responses may be censure; incarceration in holding camps; prisons; or death, singly or in war. There is, however, a third response to chaos, which I have not heard about, which is stillness. Such stillness can be passivity and dumbfoundedness; it can be paralytic fear. But it can also be art. Those writers plying their craft near to or far from the throne of raw power, of military power, of empire building and countinghouses, writers who construct meaning in the face of chaos must be nurtured, protected. And it is imperative not only to save the besieged writers but to save ourselves. The thought that leads me to contemplate with dread the erasure of other voices, of unwritten novels, poems whispered or swallowed for fear of being overwhelmed by the wrong people, outlawed languages flourishing underground, essayists’ questions challenging authority never being posed, unstaged plays, canceled films — that thought is a nightmare. As though a whole universe is being described in invisible ink.

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination.

A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.

The Speech Carrie Lam Should Have Made

Last Saturday I stood before you and announced that the government would be suspending its efforts to pass the controversial extradition bill. I had hoped that this decision would temper the anger harbored by many Hong Kongers over the way the government had mishandled and in some cases ignored the objections raised by many interested parties against passage of the extradition law. I said then that rather than continue with our efforts to pass the bill, it was time to take a breather and step back to assess the situation.

On Sunday the public responded to my decision to suspend passage of the bill with still more protests. We saw Hong Kongers of all ages and from all walks of life exercise their freedoms, taking peacefully to the streets in record numbers to tell the government, and myself in particular, that they were still dissatisfied with the status quo.

I understand now that more needs to be done. Because the problem lies not simply in the extradition bill but in the differing visions of what Hong Kong will become ten, twenty years from now. For many Hong Kongers, especially among our youth, there exists a fear that the freedoms and rights they have enjoyed or have become accustomed to will be taken away from them as Hong Kong inches closer to the year when the guarantee of ‘one country, two systems’ will expire. That is a concern that this government, as the sole representative of the Hong Kong people, needs to address.

The government is not infallible. It is fundamentally a creation of human thought and human ideas. Laws that have, at one time, won the approval of the government and the public are sometimes revised or rescinded in their entirety because they lose their relevance or because they no longer reflect the values of contemporary society. So too people who were once elected or appointed to public office leave their posts because their policies and stances no longer reflect prevailing public norms. And that is as it should be in a democratic, transparent, and compassionate society like ours.

So today I announce that I will be resigning as Chief Executive. My vision of what Hong Kong should be or will be is not in line with that shared by many of my fellow Hong Kongers. And to try and push through the measures that I think are necessary to achieve this vision will only create more conflict, more bloodshed, and more hurt.

At this point in time it is appropriate and necessary for the people of Hong Kong, including our youth, to come together and to engage in a dialogue about what kind of Hong Kong they want to see in the future. It is a dialogue that will no doubt be fraught, contentious and painful. But it is one that needs to be had. Because only when we have a clear idea of the kind of Hong Kong we want will we be able to make the kinds of decisions and form the kinds of plans that we will need to realize that vision.

The spirit of Hong Kong is strong and it is just. I know that. You know that. And the world now knows that. Let us harness that spirit in unity and with mutual respect for one another as we work toward building a better, more hopeful future for Hong Kong.

BHB’s Neighborhood Talk @ Hong Kong Studies’ Inaugural Symposium (CUHK, May 11, 2019)

Thanks to Tammy and her fellow editors at Hong Kong Studies for inviting me here today, and to CUHK for hosting this wonderful event. It is a pleasure and an honor to be able to talk about my work at Bleak House Books at the first ever symposium for Hong Kong Studies.

Today is a very special day for me, not just because I get to stand before a bunch of strangers and force them to listen to me talk about myself. It also happens to be Charlie, my son’s birthday — he turns seven years old — and I’ve promised Charlie that I’d be back in time for his birthday dinner tonight. So for purely selfish reasons I will try to keep my remarks brief and to the point.  

As some of you may know I am the co-founder and owner of Bleak House Books, an English-language independent bookstore in Kowloon.

Jenny, my wife, is the other co-founder of Bleak House Books, but she has a real job as a college professor. So I have for better or worse become the face of the bookshop. To borrow from the recent testimony of Trump stooge and Steve Bannon look-alike, William Barr: Bleak House Books has become my baby.

Just like a baby has his or her moment of conception, there was a moment of conception for Bleak House Books as well. That would have been spring of 2016 when my wife and I and our 2 kids were still living in the United States. I had my own solo law practice doing criminal and civil rights work. My wife was teaching at Georgia Tech but had been offered a job at HKUST, which she accepted. So it was off to Hong Kong for the family.

I decided that rather than practice law in Hong Kong I would do something different. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next but I did have some criteria for what I wanted to get out of any such job. In my mind my next career had to be challenging, creative, and community-oriented.

Opening an independent bookstore, in the age of Amazon and Book Depository, and in a city that’s notorious for being a ‘cultural desert’ — an unfortunate and grossly inaccurate label by the way — seemed to fit the bill.

In December 2016 we moved to Hong Kong, and in February 2017 Bleak House Books was born.

At first we really just existed on paper. We had no physical space, no books, no website, and no customers. That would all change, of course, but not without a healthy dose of patience and fortitude.

You know what’s another unfortunate nickname that’s been given to Hong Kong? Capitalist paradise. It’s a paradise perhaps if you’re a capitalist with money to burn and others to do your bidding, but for regular people like myself, starting a business in Hong Kong from scratch was like taking a college entrance exam for the very first time: it was a painful, anxiety-inducing process that didn’t really make sense but you did it anyway because you had to.

For example, it took me almost an entire year to open up a business account for the bookshop at our local bank. We had to supply all sorts of information about ourselves and the bookshop to the bank before they would even look at our application. Once they started reviewing it the slightest discrepancy or question mark would cause the application to be sent to the reject pile, and we would have to start from square one again. The process was set up in such a way so that it seemed like we were asking the bank for money, when, in reality, we were trying to do the complete opposite: which was give them some of ours!

But I digress. The theme of today’s event, I am told, is the ‘neighborhood’. And my job is to talk to you all about what Bleak House Books has done to, and I quote, “build [a] creative, literary, culturally rich, safe and inclusive neighbourhood[].”

It’s humbling to think that Bleak House Books, now in only its second year of operation, might be considered a force capable of helping to build a neighborhood, let alone one that has pretensions of being ‘literary’, ‘safe’ or ‘culturally rich’. The sale of books does not a neighborhood make. And at its core, that is what we do at Bleak House Books: we sell books.

So what do we do at Bleak House Books, aside from selling books, that one might consider beneficial to the ‘neighborhood’ in a literary sense? First we support local artists and writers. We sell their works at the bookshop. We promote their causes if they have one. And we tell our readers about who these artists are and where they come from so that it might inspire others to take the plunge.

We’ve been lucky enough to have met artists and writers from all walks of life whose works run the gamut. For example, we have awesome poetry collections by Tammy Ho Lai Ming and Eddie Tay. We also have award-winning photography books and kids books created by some very talented and dedicated individuals: Agnes Ku, a sociology professor at HKUST and Ya Chin Chang, a young local artist, to name a few.

Something else we do at the bookshop is we offer our physical space to people who want to use it for events like book launches, poetry readings, and book club meetings.

After all neighborhoods need space too. Yes, they also need people and culture but without a discrete physical space you end up with the Wild West or maybe Twitter. That’s especially true for Hong Kong where there never seems to be enough land to satisfy the needs of the public. Housing, as we all know from news reports, is one of those needs. But so is art, especially when the artist is someone who is not famous, well-connected or independently wealthy.

But in today’s sensitive political climate the simple act of letting someone else use our space for an event can be fraught with difficulties and even risks.

Case in point, and we have Tammy to thank for this — thank you Tammy — Liu Xiaobo.

Last year Tammy asked if we would host an event entitled Liu Xiaobo Elegies on behalf of the literary journal Cha and PEN Hong Kong. When she asked I said yes without giving it much thought. In my mind and being from the U.S., holding an event to commemorate the death of a well-known and important human rights activist and political prisoner is natural, appropriate and uncontroversial; much as if we were to hold an event at the bookshop to commemorate the death of Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King, Jr.

Little did I know though that just hosting an event about someone who might be considered a critic of the Chinese Communist party can call into question my own political loyalties — not that I have any to speak of — and that that would somehow make me a target.

‘Don’t do it’, someone told me. ‘You’re putting yourself and your family in danger’, said another. We still held the event, of course, to a standing room only crowd, and I survived to tell the tale. But I feel like a part of me died in the process — the part of me that was taught from very early on that neighbors should be able to talk about their differences openly and that neighbors should not be afraid of each other.

Because that’s what China is to Hong Kong; right? A neighbor. Geographically. Historically. Economically. And yes even culturally.    

And if we’ve learned anything from history it is that bad things happen when neighbors stop talking to each other. I won’t get into specific examples — that’s beyond the scope of this talk and, frankly, we all know what some of them are. I will say, however, that given the present climate of fear and polarization that exists here in Hong Kong and beyond the neighborhood needs more not fewer forums for open and honest dialogue.

I’ve talked about supporting local artists and hosting events as two things we do at Bleak House Books to help create an open, inclusive and culturally rich neighborhood. Is there anything else that we do? I’m glad you asked because the answer is yes.

It may come as a surprise to some of you that our bookshop is located on the 27th floor of an office building in San Po Kong, a working-class, semi-industrial area of Kowloon, near the old Kai Tak airport. It’s a location that our past customers have described as being ‘far’, ‘out of the way’ and even ‘bizarre’.

There’s a lot of interesting history to San Po Kong though. We didn’t know much about it before we decided to open the bookshop there. But we came to learn a lot about the history of our new home from neighbors, customers and friends.

For example, did you know that San Po Kong used to be home to one of the biggest movie theatres in Hong Kong? Or that through San Po Kong flows one of few Spring-fed nullahs in Hong Kong?

As the name itself implies San Po Kong used to be just plain old “Po Kong” — the ‘San’ in San Po Kong means ‘new’ in Chinese. After World War II the Brits redeveloped Po Kong from an agricultural settlement into an industrial center, and gave it the name it has today: San Po Kong.

The area also played a central role in the riots of the 1960s. In 1967 workers at an artificial flower factory in San Po Kong clashed with their employers over poor working conditions. This dispute led to still more clashes, mostly between Communist sympathizers and the government, culminating in what would become known as the Leftist Riots of 1967.

The San Po Kong of today is very different from the San Po Kong of the 60’s. Gone are the factories, smoke stacks and the horde of workers who used to stream down Tai Yau Street, one of the main thoroughfares in San Po Kong, on their way to and from work. Today’s San Po Kong is sleeker, quieter, and, on the whole, more expensive.

Even so a lot of the San Po Kong of old remains. The buildings and the people who inhabit them are still decidedly working class. And our neighbors there are the types of folks who will, under normal circumstances, never step foot inside a bookshop, let alone one that sells vintage, English language books.

For example we have a neighbor downstairs in the building next to ours whom we call Si Fu. Si Fu is an 80 plus year old mechanic who still uses an abacus and takes cat naps inside his clients’ cars at lunch time.

Still it is important to me that our neighbors know we exist — not necessarily as purveyors of fine books — they can care less about what we do for a living — but as fellow Hong Kongers who have put down roots in their neighborhood. Because at the end of the day that to me is what a neighborhood is about: human bonds formed by a shared purpose and a common culture.

So if you see me shooting the breeze with someone on the street or having an afternoon drink at our local bar just know that I’m actually hard at work, building a stronger, more inclusive neighborhood — one bond, or maybe one drink, at a time.

Thank you all for listening to me today. I apologize if I put anyone to sleep. If you are such a person please see Tammy afterwards. She will see to it that you get a full refund of your admission fee.  

Thank you.

Everything You Can’t See in San Po Kong (A Bleak House Books/Spicy Fish Cultural Production Special Feature)

For last year’s San Po Kong Arts Festival we invited Christopher DeWolf to the bookshop to talk to festival-goers about San Po Kong and how it has been changing in the past few years, along with the rest of Hong Kong. He was such a hit that we asked Christopher to make a return visit for this year’s SPK Arts Festival but Christopher couldn’t make it. Instead, he has contributed a piece, which he wrote exclusively for the Arts Festival, in which he discusses San Po Kong’s forgotten history, what’s left of that history in today’s San Po Kong, and what might be in store for the San Po Kong of tomorrow.

Everything You Can’t See
In San Po Kong

by Christopher DeWolf

In San Po Kong, what you see is not what you get. At first, it seems interchangeable with many other parts of Hong Kong – the kind of neighbourhood that, if it were a television show, would be a generic TVB drama, the kind whose characters and plot twists you have seen countless times before.

Just look at it. There are industrial streets with hulking concrete warehouses, others with rows of working-class tong lau. Two massive housing estates rise on the neighbourhood’s fringes, one humble in appearance, with anonymous towers punctured by small windows, the other more extravagant, with a glitzy shopping mall capped by a private roof garden, above which soar high-rise blocks with large balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows. So far, so typical.

But San Po Kong is deceptive. Deep inside its industrial buildings are coffee roasters and craft brewers, painters and photographers. An exceptionally well-curated collection of books hides inside one anonymous commercial tower; the King of Soyabeans purveys Michelin-recommended Shanghai-style sticky rice rolls from the base of another. And floating around all of this is a 700-year history that shaped Hong Kong into the city it is today.

On a map, San Po Kong looks like an island. It is a tight grid of streets wedged into a kidney-shaped parcel of land that floats between the Kai Tak River on one side and the vast lands of the former Kai Tak Airport on the other. The entire neighbourhood covers less than half a square kilometre, but it is home to 24,000 people, a density that infuses its streets with a constant thrum of energy. You can walk from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes.

And yet a walk through San Po Kong reveals a richness of history and culture that should never be taken for granted. In the middle of the 14th century, a man named Ng Chung-tak settled with his family on the shores of a stream that flowed into Victoria Harbour. Ng was the patriarch of a large family that had three centuries earlier fled the northern edge of Guangdong province to escape the chaos of the collapsing Song dynasty. The family eventually splintered across Guangdong and Vietnam, but Ng Chung-tak’s branch made their way to Kowloon. In 1354, they built a temple in honour of Tin Hau in their new settlement, which eventually became known as Nga Tsin Wai.

Nga Tsin Wai is still there – in a way. After seven centuries as a walled village, it has now been mostly demolished by the Urban Renewal Authority to make way for luxury housing and a sort of heritage theme park. The area around it has changed beyond all recognition. Once a fertile plain ringed by hills, with a sandy beach along what is now Prince Edward Road East, its geography was altered in the early 20th century when a pair of entrepreneurs named Kai and Tak pooled their resources to fill in the waterfront, creating space for Hong Kong’s first airport.

If you cross the bridge from Nga Tsin Wai today, you will reach the heart of San Po Kong’s market district, where stands of fresh fruits and vegetables spill out onto concrete pavements. This development dates back only to the late 1950s, but it was long ago home to the village of Po Kong, which was settled by the Lam family some time after Nga Tsin Wai. Other nearby villages had banded together into an alliance known as the League of Seven, but Po Kong was an outlier, with its own Tin Hau temple that stood in rivalry to that of its neighbour.

For most of its history, Po Kong was a large and prosperous agricultural settlement, but its fortunes were tested by an influx of squatters in the 1930s. They built houses on Po Kong’s fields and refused to pay rent, throwing the village’s economy into chaos. Villagers blamed this misfortune on Tin Hau’s failure to provide protection, and in revenge they set her figure aflame. Po Kong’s neighbours in Nga Tsin Wai were aghast, and they were not surprised when Po Kong suffered a far greater indignity less than a decade later. After Hong Kong was invaded by the Japanese military in 1941, its new occupiers decided to expand Kai Tak Airport, wiping Po Kong off the map in a matter of weeks.

San Po Kong (“New Po Kong”) was one of the new industrial suburbs planned by the colonial British government to satisfy Hong Kong’s postwar economic boom. In 1967, a labour dispute at an artificial flower factory on Tai Yau Street mushroomed into six months of intense riots. The villagers of Nga Tsin Wai locked their gate and stood guard, ready to do battle if necessary. It seems they were still wary of Po Kong – even the new version.

Very little of this history is apparent when you walk around San Po Kong. There are no historical plaques, no acknowledgement of the centuries of history that have shaped this corner of Hong Kong. By contrast, the future of the neighbourhood is easier to divine. The former airport is now being redeveloped as a residential, commercial and entertainment district, complete with a monorail and major sports stadium. A new MTR station is under construction. And beyond that, the nearby districts of Kowloon Bay and Kwun Tong have been designated by the government as CBD2 – a new central business district.

Tai Yau Street and Tseuk Luk Street at lunchtime

You can already see how San Po Kong is changing as a result. New hotels have cropped up in the old industrial area, bringing with them tourists and the shops that cater to them. Factory buildings are being knocked down and replaced by office towers. As always, it’s easy to see the broad outline of what is happening to the neighbourhood. But the details are harder to read. It could well be that San Po Kong still has the potential to surprise.

Christopher DeWolf is a journalist who has written about cities, history, design, culture, travel, food and drink for more than 15 years. His first book, Borrowed Spaces: Life Between the Cracks of Modern Hong Kong (Penguin 2016), explores grassroots efforts to improve urban life. He is a regular contributor to South China Morning Post and Zolima CityMag. Christopher considers San Po Kong the ‘quintessential Hong Kong neighbourhood’, Pentahotel and all.

Bookstore Owner ‘Murdered’ (New York Magazine; July 9-16, 1979)

by Carol Brener

I have just made my debut as a cover corpse. I did once have a death mask made, but that was small potatoes. Now, on bookshelves across the country, I lie with a large kitchen knife sticking up out of my blood-drenched blouse. I am smartly dressed, befitting the model murdered in Octagon House, one of three classic Cape Cod mysteries of the thirties by Phoebe Atwood Taylor being reissued in paperback by Foul Play Press ($4.50 each). When I asked who killed her/me, I was told, “Many people had reason.” I have since read the book, and I/she deserved it.

“Brener: Foul Play gives Murder Ink. owner a taste of death.

The other two corpses in the series are artist Edward Gorey and Dilys Winn, founder of Murder Ink. (the bookstore that I now own) and Edgar winner for the best-selling Murder Ink, the Mystery Reader’s Companion.

Gorey was “stabbed” with an elegant silver dagger while in a rocking chair. Dilys has tumbled to the bottom of the cellar steps, a neat puddle of blood beside her head. I repose on a level garage floor. (I was fairly comfortable: A heater was nearby, and I sleep on an extra-firm mattress.)

Photo courtesy of www.ernstreichl.org

Lew Merrim, our cheerfully macabre photographer, made “my” murder weapon by sawing a kitchen knife off at an angle and soldering it to a flat metal plate, which was taped in place on my chest. My genuine 1930s blouse was then slit to fit and slipped over the knife and the area bloodied up with paint artfully splattered to cover any sign of the gray tape. In the interest of authenticity, I wore a bra and full slip, garments consigned to the back of a drawer some years ago; an innocuous gray skirt; period seamed stockings bought specially for the shooting; and my pet black pumps. I was not pleased to hear Dilys chirp, “Where did you get those dreadful shoes?”

The three Taylor books, with their cover corpses, are lined up smack at eye level in my store, but no one recognizes me or my cohorts. Elma Lipscomb, however, who cleans my apartment, knew me the instant she saw the cover. I am told she carries the book on all her jobs. No one messes with Elma these days.

BHB’s copy of Octagon House with Carol Brener as ‘murder victim’

Terms and Conditions for Bleak House Books’ Charity Auction of Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts (Special Autographed Edition)

WHEN: Friday, February 15, 2019 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Hong Kong Time)

WHERE: The Facebook page for Bleak House Books (www.facebook.com/bleakhousebooks)

WHAT: SPECIAL AUTOGRAPHED EDITION OF ANTHONY BOURDAIN’S HUNGRY GHOSTS

Pre-registration

  1. The auction is open to the general public and those who wish to participate in the auction must pre-register with us
  2. We will not recognize or entertain bids from anyone who has not pre-registered with us, this includes bidders who wish to remain anonymous
  3. The pre-registration deadline is 9:00 p.m. (Hong Kong time), Thursday, February 14, 2019
  4. To pre-register, please 1) click ‘Going’ on the auction’s Facebook event post and 2) send us an email (info@bleakhousebooks.com.hk) with the full name, address, and phone number of the bidder
  5. Bidders who wish to remain anonymous must still pre-register with us by sending us an email with the full name, address, and phone number of the bidder before the above deadline
  6. If you miss the pre-registration deadline you may still register with us while the auction is taking place by sending us an email; however, under no circumstances will we accept or entertain bids from anyone who has not registered with us and provided us with the requisite registration information as per the above

The Auction

  1. The auction will be conducted on Bleak House Books’ Facebook page from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (Hong Kong time) on Friday, February 15, 2019
  2. We will put up a standalone post on the Bleak House Books Facebook page the morning of the auction to serve as the ‘platform’ for the auction
  3. We will announce the start of the auction in the comments section of the post; under no circumstances will bids be accepted or entertained before we announce the start of the auction
  4. The starting bid is HKD $800.00
  5. Bidders place their bids by entering a dollar amount in the comments section
  6. The staff at Bleak House Books will be monitoring and moderating the auction throughout the day
  7. In order to view the latest/highest bid, bidders should REFRESH the page during the course of the auction
  8. Anonymous bidders who have pre-registered with us can place bids by:
    • sending an email to info@bleakhousebooks.com.hk with your name and your bid, OR
    • sending us a direct message via our Facebook page with the same information.
    • Once we receive the bid we will post it on behalf of the respective anonymous bidder in the comments section of the auction post
  9. Should we receive two or more anonymous bids of the same amount we will accept the one with the earliest time of receipt; those that arrive later will be rejected and their bidders so informed
  10. Anonymous bidders assume the risk that there will be a slight time delay between the time they send us their bids and the time it takes us to process and post them to the Facebook page
  11. We will announce the END of the auction in the comments section. Under no circumstances will we accept or entertain bids that are entered after the end of the auction
  12. The bidder with the highest bid at the close of the auction has purchased the item and is legally obligated to pay for it
  13. Bleak House Books will donate 100% of the proceeds received from the sale of the auction item to PEI HO (MING GOR) CHARITY FOUNDATION LIMITED ( 北河(明哥)慈善基金有限公司)
  14. Once we receive confirmation of payment, the winning bidder can elect to have the book shipped to an address of their choosing or pick up the book in person at our bookshop in San Po Kong
  15. In the event the winning bidder wishes to have the book shipped he or she is responsible for the full cost of the shipment, which we will calculate and then bill to the winning bidder separately
  16. We will not entertain or accept any requests for a retraction of a bid except in the situation that the bid is entered in error
  17. We will not entertain or accept any requests for a refund except in extraordinary situations; an ‘extraordinary situation’ is one that is by its nature very, very unlikely to occur

Payment:

  1. Payment must be made within 2 days of the close of the auction
  2. If we do not receive payment within that time frame the item goes to the bidder who has the second-highest bid prior to the close of the auction
  3. In a situation where we receive two or more winning bids of the same amount we will accept the one with the earliest time of receipt
  4. There are 2 ways for the winner bidder to pay for the item:
    • Cheque (drawn on a Hong Kong bank in Hong Kong dollars and made payable to ‘Bleak House Limited’)
    • Bank transfer (we will supply bank details to the winning bidder upon the end of the auction; please note that any and all bank fees that are incurred as a result of the bank transfer will be the responsibility of the winning bidder )

Coming Up For Air: First Kill All the Lawyers (January 2019)

Below is our January 2019 edition of ‘Coming Up For Air’, a monthly column we write for Ming Pao’s English language section, reprinted here in its entirety with the permission of the folks at Ming Pao.

【明報專訊】A few months ago I received a letter at the bookshop. It had all the trappings of an important document: London return address, personalised stationery, heavy stock paper. As I opened it I joked to Rachel our shop manager that it was probably a lawsuit. Luckily, I was wrong, but not by much.

The letter came from a large law firm and warned us not to sell a certain book. The book at issue was a newly released biography about a very rich and prominent individual who had at one point in time dated the likes of Paris Hilton but who is now considered a fugitive from justice.

The letter claimed that the biography was defamatory and full of lies. It did not mention of course that the biography had passed the vetting process of one of the world’s largest publishers, or that, at the time the letter was written, the book was already the subject of several talks that were scheduled to take place at prominent venues around Hong Kong, including the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and the University of Hong Kong.

The letter called on us to do two things: to avoid the book as if it were the plague — that meant we couldn’t stock it, sell it, distribute it, write about it, etc., — and to reply in writing with a pledge that we would avoid the book as if it were the plague. If we failed to do either of those things we would be sued.

My first reaction upon receiving this letter was to toss it in the trash. There was zero chance the book would end up on our shelves. Biographies about shady moguls are not the kinds of titles we stock at our bookshop, no matter how salacious or explosive their content.

Writing and sending threatening letters is also common practice among lawyers and I knew from past experience that not all such letters warrant a response, either because their claims have no merit or because it would never ripen into a full-blown lawsuit.

Nor did I want to start down the slippery slope of self-censorship. Even though I had no plans and never would have plans to sell this biography that was causing all this stir I wanted to leave the door open to the prospect of changing my mind. The last thing I wanted was to over-react to what may very well have been empty threats and box myself in to the point of no-return.

Lastly, I didn’t want to give the lawyer whose job it was to track down and threaten fledgling, indie booksellers like ourselves the satisfaction of a reply. Granted, my reply (if I sent one) probably wouldn’t have gone to the lawyer whose name appeared at the end of the letter but to one of his lowly, debt-ridden, nameless associates who did most of his dirty work.

But then I started thinking about our bookshop and all the time and effort everyone here has spent to make it into the special place we think it is today. It would be the height of irresponsibility if I put all that at risk just because I couldn’t get over my own feelings of anger and disbelief at having been singled out by this law firm.

And then my thoughts turned to the time I was a lawyer, all the demand letters I’ve sent or received during that time, and how important it was for me to receive a response to or follow up on these letters — mostly because it was the responsible thing to do, even if the end result was more litigation. So if the lawyer who handled this case was worth his salt he would make us feel the pain for not replying to his letter.

So at the end I decided to write him the response he wanted but on my terms. Here it is in full:

We are in receipt of the attached letter. We have no interest in your client, his life or any books that have been or will be written about him, including the one referenced in your letter. That means we will not waste our time or money to order or stock the book referenced in your letter or sell or distribute it in any way. Nor do we have any pre-sale orders for the book since we don’t sell it at our bookshop and have no plans to sell it. Hope that gives your client the peace of mind he is trying to buy.

So who won when all was said and done? The lawyer and his client received the commitment they demanded and the book hasn’t reared its ugly head in our bookshop. But they’ve also left us alone since then. No more threats. And thank god no lawsuits.

It is hard though not to think about what might have happened had we never received the letter. Was the threat of litigation all it took to scare regular folks like ourselves into submission? Would the book have made its way into the bookshop had it not been for the letter, even as a used book (not that anyone has tried to sell or give it to us)? Hard to tell. But one thing’s for certain: another book will be published, someone will be unhappy with it, and there will be no shortage of lawyers for this person to hire who will do their best to make this book disappear.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.