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.

Coming Up For Air: A Very, Merry San Po Kong Christmas (December 2018)

Below is our December 2018, holiday 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.

Coming Up For Air: A Very Merry, San Po Kong Christmas

by Albert Wan, Jenny Smith and Rachel Parnham
December 14, 2018

【明報專訊】What do the winter holidays mean to you? Last year at this time we were still getting things set up at our bookshop in San Po Kong. Rachel, our awesome shop manager, had just started working at Bleak House Books. We still had a lot of shelves to fill and books to price. And we had just hosted our first ever event complete with a plastic “Charlie Brown tree” from Ikea.

This year things are a bit different. Our shelves are now well-stocked with a carefully curated selection of new as well as used books. We have hosted our fair share of events from school field trips to poetry readings to book launches. And the dinky tree that we bought for last year’s inaugural event makes a return appearance, this time serving as both holiday decor and as the Bleak House Books “local interest” tree.

This year we also decided to have a little fun for the holidays. As bookshop employees we have ready access to a lot of literature written by a wide range of authors but we rarely get to write any of our own. So in what we hope will be the start of an annual holiday tradition, we are treating everyone to some home-made poetry and jingles, Bleak House Books-style!

Although each piece is penned by a different member of the Bleak House Books family, we decided not to attribute authorship to any of them. This is because the last time anyone here wrote a piece of fun, nonsensical prose, we were all a lot younger and there was, frankly, less on the line. Needless to say those days are long gone. Folks who want to know who wrote which poem will just have to engage in some guesswork. But we don’t think that will be too hard.

So without further ado we bring you A Very, Merry San Po Kong Christmas, a joint production of Bleak House Books and its three resident bookworms!

The 12 Days of Christmas (Hong Kong Edition)

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me|
A char siu way too salty

On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two jade rings

And a char siu way too salty
On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three hairy gourds,
Two jade rings,
And a char siu way too salty.

[By now we all know the lyrics and the song is, to be honest, a bit tedious so let’s pretend we’ve cycled through all the days and are now at day 12]

Twelve fish balls floating,
Eleven mooncakes moulding,
Ten ducks a-roasting,
Nine butchers chopping,
Eight eggs a-pickling,
Seven fish a-sunning,
Six screens a-glowing,
Five steaming baos,
Four suckling pigs,
Three hairy gourds,
Two jade rings,
And a char siu way too salty.

The Perfect Gift

The night before Christmas, lights were off at Bleak House
One creature was stirring and it was a mouse;
She scuttled through the stacks and the shelves
Half-empty, ransacked of books by the elves;
While the folk of Hong Kong were asleep catching zees
Sneaky elves placed book-shaped gifts ‘neath their trees.

Christmas at the Mall

In late November the displays appear
giant Snoopys, animatronic reindeer

peppermint, cranberry, eggnog, nut toffee
seasonal flavor shots enhance the coffee

Holiday jazz standards get piped in on a loop
Muzak more outmoded than shark fin soup

shoppers hunt crackers, tinsel & gingerbread
CFL lighting makes them look like the living dead

Vinyl cling candy canes are pressed on with care
Cheap plastic pine garlands are strewn everywhere

fake glittery snow dusts pine boughs of foam,
Santa’s toboggan is done up in chrome

Christmas at the mall is slightly off-kilter
but that can be fixed with an instagram filter

This ersatz winter wonderland is uncanny, unhealthy
But Christmas is coming so let’s take a selfie!

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Coming Up For Air: Grey, Grizzled But Still Going (November 2018)

Below is our November 2018 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.

Coming Up For Air: Grey, Grizzled but Still Going

by Albert Wan
November 16, 2018

【明報專訊】This past October we quietly celebrated our first birthday. It was around this time last year when we signed our lease to become what we jokingly refer to as the world’s first and only 27th floor bookshop. Since then we’ve learned a thing or two about the book-selling business.

One is that appearances matter. Before we opened our bookshop we believed that as long as we stocked good books — crudely defined as literature and non-fiction that has stood or will stand the test of time — sales will follow. To borrow from the great anonymous prophet of Iowa: “If you stock it, they will come.”

To a great extent that is still true. Good books sell themselves. Period. Full stop.

But being on the 27th floor also means that the bookshop is, for better or worse, largely hidden from the gaze of the passing pedestrian — the all-important marker of retail success, or failure.

We realised very early on then that there was no getting around social media as a platform to promote the bookshop and our books. Call it bookselling in the age of screens and high rents, but it’s become a core part of who we are and what we do. We have become social media junkies.

If you’ve seen our Facebook or Instagram posts, however, you know that we don’t take the “kitchen sink” approach to social media.

Rather, when we come across a book we want to feature on social media either because it has interesting content or nice cover art, or, ideally, both, we work hard to create an eye-catching and well-written post that we hope will evoke in our followers the same warm and fuzzy feeling we had when we first came across the book at issue.

To us it is about featuring the book in its entirety, rather than just, say, its cover, which can be a very easy thing to do in today’s age of high definition cameras and Instagram filters. It’s no surprise then that the copy in our posts has become lengthier and more detailed as we’ve tried to strike the right balance between aesthetics and content. A caption we wrote for a recent post featuring the English translation of Hsu Hsia-k’o’s(徐霞客)— China’s Thoreau — travel diaries came in at 127 words!

Another lesson we’ve learned is the importance of “showing up”. Sometimes we go days on end and don’t see another soul walk, or even waft, into the bookshop. Even so we continue to show up, plough through our backlog of unpriced books, and wait for the next customer to appear. The tide always changes so that we will start receiving visitors at a steady clip. Getting to that point, however, can sometimes be a challenge, physically and mentally.

It helps, of course, to have supportive customers. Once we had a customer visit the bookshop on what was a particularly quiet day. He browsed for a while, picked out a $40 paperback, and paid for it. As he got ready to leave, he said to me “you will sometimes have days like this, but when you do, just know that there are people out there who know what you’re doing for the community.” Even though he ended up buying a book, I secretly think he came to the bookshop just to send us that message. It was like manna from heaven, and I’ll never forget it.

Starting Bleak House Books is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Yes, we’ve had our share of challenges, and I have definitely become more grey and more grizzled. It is hard to imagine life without the bookshop though. To me it represents the perfect combination of labour and literature. Only with the former can one have the latter.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Our ‘Coming Up for Air’ Column for Ming Pao: ‘Striking the Right Balance’

Starting last month Ye Olde Bookseller began writing a monthly column for Ming Pao’s English language section called ‘Coming Up For Air’. For this month’s column — October 2018 — I talk about the challenges of running a community-oriented indie bookshop in an age of increasing political polarization. It is called ‘Striking the Right Balance’, and is reprinted here in its entirety with permission of the folks at Ming Pao.

Coming Up For Air: Striking the Right Balance

by Albert Wan
October 19, 2018

【明報專訊】The word on the street is that independent bookstores are experiencing a renaissance moment of sorts. Perhaps this is the result of screen fatigue. Too much time in front of screens has turned folks into shells of their former selves. The smell and feel of books and the shelves on which they are stored can rejuvenate the senses and restore the balance lost through excessive screen time. Perhaps the renewed interest in indie bookshops stems from the desire to support local businesses instead of large corporate chains or big box stores.

Personally, I think we are seeing more neighbourhood bookshops because there is a public need for them. We live in a time of government-imposed austerity and ever-widening gaps between the rich and the poor. Local governments invest far less than they once did in community projects whose main purpose is to enhance the well-being of the community, and whose success is not tied to the amount of private wealth and profit they create for a select few.

More libraries are reducing their hours or closing altogether. Fewer community spaces — ones where you or I can visit and hang out in without being compelled to buy anything — are being maintained, expanded and built. This is not just happening in Hong Kong. It is a worldwide trend. Independent bookshops can step in to fill at least part of that void.

But what does it mean to be a bookshop that serves the needs of the community? I’ve spoken previously about hosting public events and fostering a welcoming environment where folks from all walks of life can feel comfortable and relaxed hanging out in a space filled with good books and good company. Those are obvious contributions we should make as an indie bookshop as far as we’re concerned, at least in the sense of having to do them. So we try to do them well.

Being an independent bookshop also means having an identity, however. The difficulty lies in forging that identity but also serving the largest cross section of the community that we possibly can. The two can and sometimes do clash.

For example, once we shared an interview of Xiaolu Guo, a Chinese writer. Guo spoke about her dislike of Dickens and his novels and argued that many Anglophone writers were over-rated, but she also praised works by writers such as Germaine Greer, Marguerite Duras, and Roland Barthes.

The interview was conducted by The Guardian, not us, and Guo happened to be a Chinese dissident living in London. Despite all this our post immediately drew the ire of some folks, and we were accused, among other things, of having a “far-left, anti-white, feminist agenda.”

The message implied of course that we were taking sides or trying to advance a political agenda simply because we posted an article written by one of the world’s most respected news organisations. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with being on the left or advancing the cause of women’s rights.

But we see our job as booksellers to go beyond just taking sides in political debates. Of course, we will occasionally enter the fray when we see fit (more on that below). More often than not, however, we think we best serve the needs of the community by being the platform where others can tell their stories, voice their opinions, and find the information they need to wage their own battles.

There are, however, some core values and beliefs that we hold dear as owner-operators of an independent bookshop. We believe in the freedom of speech and the freedom of thought. We believe in human rights. We believe in the dignity of the individual. And we believe, as Orwell famously put it, that “our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have”. Call it the Bleak House Books Bill of Rights if you will.

This is the starting point for every decision we make at Bleak House Books. Every event we host or book we stock needs to support these core principles. In most cases it’s an easy hurdle to clear. But there will be times when we come across something that fails our test, and we will say so. And if that means our bookshop is taking sides in a political debate then we plead guilty.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Our Inaugural ‘Coming Up For Air’ Column for Ming Pao: ‘Will You Be Our Neighbour?’

Starting this month Ye Olde Bookseller will be writing a monthly column for Ming Pao’s English language section. The column will be called Coming Up For Air which comes from George Orwell’s novel of the same name.

I am grateful to Ming Pao for giving me wide latitude in topics I will be able to cover in the column. Obviously the bookshop and its inner workings will see some coverage. But for me that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I hope to use the column to express myself in ways I cannot do at the bookshop (hence the title) — mostly because of time constrains but also because the bookshop is not always the appropriate forum for the personal viewpoints of its owner unless it relates to books and their worth!

Below is our first ‘Coming Up For Air’ column which was published in Ming Pao on September 21, 2018. It is entitled “Will You Be Our Neighbour?”

— Ye Olde Bookseller a.k.a. Albert Wan [Sept. 27, 2018]

Coming Up For Air: Will You Be Our Neighbour?

This is my first column for Ming Pao. I’m a lawyer turned bookseller. Last year my wife and I opened an English language bookshop in Hong Kong called Bleak House Books or 清明堂 in Chinese.

At first we ran the business out of our home which doubled as an office and storage space for our books and comics. We rented stalls at pop up markets, hired an awesome graphic artist to help us design a website for online sales, and wondered how we’d ever be able to afford a storefront in Hong Kong.

Sales were slow at first but business gradually picked up, and we were delighted to discover enthusiasm among Hong Kongers for indie bookshops. In the fall of 2017 we started hunting for a dedicated space for our bookshop.

Enter San Po Kong, a quiet, industrial district in the heart of Kowloon, where we found an amazing space on the 27th floor of an office building. It took us a few months to get wooden shelves installed and to improve the lighting, but finally we had the kind of bookshop we wanted. In January 2018 we officially opened for business and the rest is history.

Since we’ve started Bleak House Books many concerned individuals have wondered how we can possibly compete with Amazon and Book Depository. Obviously we can’t — we try to keep our book prices in the same range as these enormous operations but offering free shipping worldwide and hundreds of thousands of titles aren’t smart business choices for us.

Instead we focus on what we can do: understanding and responding to the needs of our community. Selling books is great, but supporting people who love to read and create literature is by far the most interesting and rewarding part of this gig.

Here are two examples of community activities we have been proud to support. First up, Cha, a literary journal based in Hong Kong and run by the talented and indefatigable Tammy Ho Lai-ming. Cha has hosted several after-hours poetry readings at our shop. The readings are always well-attended and include a diverse mix of serious, academic types and poetry-lovers.

We’ve also just started to host book club meetings. A few weeks ago an awesome book club, Run of Page, took over the shop for a few hours. Run of Page is a running club and book club in one; its members go on a brisk jog before settling down to discuss books. The heat was intense on the late July day Run of Page held its meeting at our bookshop but everyone was still very enthusiastic about the jog which included a jaunt to an old village called Nga Tsin Wai(衙前圍村). The discussion that ensued back at the bookshop was spirited and lively, even after the tough jog.

Local writers are a big part of the community we serve and we do what we can to give them a space and a voice at the bookshop. When a local writer asks us to sell his or her book (that is if we don’t ask them first) we usually say yes. At last count we had around fifteen or so local writers and illustrators whose books we sell at Bleak House Books.

In a nutshell, this is the kind of bookshop we are: welcoming to visit, community-oriented and fiercely independent (more on that in a future column).

A lot has happened since we started Bleak House Books. Of course we’ve bought and sold our fair share of books. But we’ve also gotten to know and become friends with many interesting folks from all different walks of life.

It’s a positive sign. One that tells us indie bookshops can play an important role in building a stronger and more vibrant community. For those who are not so sure or want to test our hypothesis, we invite you to visit an indie bookshop near you. Stay awhile. Talk to those around you. Then report back and tell us if we are really off our rockers.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Bleak House Books: A Refuge from the Hustle and Bustle of Hong Kong

Since opening in January we have received our fair share of visitors from outside Hong Kong. For these folks a stop at a used bookshop is just what the doctor ordered when traveling abroad, and they usually make it a point to hit one or two used bookshops along with the more traditional travel destinations and sights. This means we have met folks from Germany, Canada, Philippines, Australia, Britain, the U.S., and other far flung places (at least in relation to Hong Kong’s geographic location), and some have even become good friends of the book shop and its staff.

Apparently our friends from abroad are not the only ones who think it is cool to visit used bookshops on holiday! Flight Network, one of the largest global travel agencies, thinks so too, and they made Bleak House Books an obligatory stop for folks visiting Hong Kong, in a recent online feature of theirs, entitled ‘72 Hours in the Exciting City of Hong Kong‘! They even featured a photo of our part-time shop dog, Ella, who, as you can probably tell, was having one of her typical ‘long’ days at the shop.

We are grateful for having been selected by Flight Network as a destination for folks visiting Hong Kong who want to take a load off and get lost in our wonderful collection of new and vintage books and comics! Who knows you might get lucky and end up sharing a bean bag chair with Ella while reading your favorite Dickens’ novel. Bleak House, perhaps?

A Tribute to Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

It is probably cliche by now — just a day after his tragic suicide death — to say that Anthony Bourdain was more than just a T.V. personality, and somewhat presumptious to even make that observation for folks who never knew Tony beyond the cool, witty, no bullshit persona he exuded on the screen.

But judging by the shock factor elicited by Tony’s suicide, especially among his closet friends and family members, one might venture to say that no really knew Tony. What we have to go by it seems are the bits and pieces Tony left behind during a career that saw him go from lowly line cook to budding food writer to superstar media personality.

What follows is a tribute of sorts to Tony. It is a piece, which we transcribe here in its entirety, that Tony wrote for the now defunct food journal Lucky Peach. In it Tony tackles two of his favorite subjects in life: food and film. The piece is eerily titled Dead Heads, and if you read it even a bit closely you will see that it exudes the kind of despair and morbidity that perhaps ultimately led to Tony’s demise.

If you’ve read Tony’s stuff before or even listened to him speak you will recognize instantly that the piece that follows is classic Bourdain. Astute, funny, deep, even poetic at times. To borrow from Woody Allen’s classic film Manhattan — “pithy yet degenerate”, but in a good way.

If you’ve never come across any of Tony’s stuff, well, you’re in for a treat.

RIP Tony. You will be missed but not forgotten.

(The photos that accompany this blog post are taken from footage of Tony that was shot in Hong Kong which so happens is where he filmed his last full episode of Parts Unknown.)

Dead Heads
by Anthony Bourdain
(Lucky Peach, Issue 5: Chinatown, Fall 2012)

At a kopi tiam in Geylang one night, while happily tearing the flesh, fat, and cartilage out of a shark head, a Singaporean friend told me a story. He felt his were the Chosen People, the Enlightened Ones, and that this story was particularly illustrative of exactly why. It was probably apocryphal, maybe not true at all, possibly utter bullshit. I don’t care. It’s a story I want to be true. It’s a story that SHOULD be true. As my friend told it:

Back in the day, when wealthy merchants used to travel across China in caravans, they were, from time to time, set upon by organized gangs of bandits and highwaymen. These enterprising free-market enthusiasts would ambush columns suddenly and without mercy, quickly slaughtering guards and escorts, then stripping the members of the party of any valuables before killing them. The head man, however, they always saved for last. Dragged kicking and screaming and begging for his life from his litter, forced to kneel on ground still soaked with the blood of his bearers and entourage, he would find himself at the feet of the chief bandit. The chief bandit, inevitably a fearsome-looking fellow, would offer the trembling merchant a whole cooked fish. Steamed, grilled — it didn’t matter. But it was always whole.

“Eat!” The chief bandit would command, pushing the fish in the direction of his prisoner. There would be a hush as the other bandits took a break from looting, disembowling, post-mortem violation, or any totemic preservation of remains they might be engaged in to move close to the action for what was clearly a Very Important Moment.

If the terrified merchant’s fingers or chopsticks moved straight to the fish’s head, tunneling into the cheek, perhaps, or tearing off a piece of jowl, there would be much appreciative murmuring among the Chief Bandit and his colleagues.

By choosing the multitextured, endlessly interesting mosaic of flesh buried in the fish’s head, their captive proved himself a man of wealth and taste. Clearly a man such as this possessed more wealth than what he and his caravan were currently carrying. This man would no doubt be missed by his family and his many wealthy friends, at least some of whom would likely pay a hefty ransom. The bandits would spare his life in the reasonable expectation of future gain.

If, however, the merchant chose instead to peel off a meaty hunk of boneless fillet, the bandits would jerk a cutlass across his neck immediately. This nouveau riche yuppie scum would be worth only as much as he carried in his pockets. Not worth keeping alive – much less feeding. Nobody would miss this asshole. The minute he chose fillet over head he proved himself worthless.

* * *

The tale is a fairly lurid example of a widely held principle throughout Asia and Europe — the older, smarter food world — that the head is the best part. Put a pile of shrimp or crayfish in front of a Spaniard, a Chinese, or any self-respecting Cajun for that matter, and they sure as shit will know what to do with it: suck the brains and juice and all that good stuff right outta those heads!

Chefs know, too. They know that no matter how hard they try, no matter what they do, they will NEVER create a sauce better than the hot goo that comes squirting out of a prawn’s head after a short time on a griddle. In Japan, whole restaurants are dedicated to the enjoyment of carefully grilled fish heads and collars. Fish-head curry is enjoyed and cherished by millions of Indians both within India and without. In many Portuguese restaurants, the limited number of merluzza heads are reserved in advance for VIP customers. The rest must suffer with steaks and fillets.

So what’s our problem with heads? Sure, cheeks are well-known to most urban American diners these days. Tongue has been enjoying something of a comeback. But for as long as I can remember, the appearance of a whole animal head on plate or in film has rarely been a welcome sight.

* * *

Upon our first encounter with John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown, we identify him as a bad guy teeming with incestuous, pederastic, murderous, evil. How do we know this? Two reasons. He keeps mispronouncing Jack’s name — referring to him not as “Mr. Gittes” but as “Mr. Gitz” — and worse, FAR worse, he’s devouring a whole, sinister-looking fish.

“I hope you don’t mind. I believe they should be served with the head,” Cross says.

“Fine,” says Jake (played by Jack Nicholson), “as long as you don’t serve chicken that way.”

The thing is just lying there the whole scene, dead eyes looking up at us. The underlying message is simple: only a monster would eat a fish with the head still on — and only an entity of previously unimagined cruelty would insist that his guest do so as well.

“You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” warns Cross, “but believe me, you don’t.” He’s talking about a massive conspiracy involving political corruption, theft of natural resources, real-estate fraud, and murder, but he could just as well be talking about that fish head. It’s scary. It’s big. It’s “ugly.” It’s the unknown.

“It’s what the DA used to tell me about Chinatown,” replies Jake, our hero and, as it turns out, the only guy in the film who doesn’t know what’s going on.

* * *

Captain Willard sits at a lavishly appointed dining table in an air-conditioned trailer somewhere in South Vietnam. He is about to receive his orders from what appears to be a superior in military intelligence and two officers of the CIA. A uniformed waiter serves lunch, and the camera lingers over a platter of head-on shrimp.

“I don’t know how you feel about this shrimp,” says the commanding officer in this early scene from Apocalypse Now, “but if you’ll eat it, you never have to prove your courage in any other way.” We know now that these men Willard is sitting with are some bad bastards, untrustworthy without a doubt, and whatever they’re asking him to do will be fundamentally dishonest and awful.

But the shrimp heads, like Chinatown‘s whole fish, also imply something more. Their black, beady, unseeing eyes, sitting at this incongruously luxurious table, are full of warning. They hint at the Great Unknown, warning that no matter what Captain Willard might have seen in the past, whatever he thinks he might know, he in fact knows nothing about what awaits him upriver, beyond the Do Lung Bridge.

* * *

Of course the portentousness of sea beasts is not limited to American films. Think of the end of La Dolce Vita. Our hero, Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni), has just emerged from an almost-orgy that turned into a bitter, drunken humiliation of a woman. He and his fellow partygoers stumble onto the beach in the early morning, where they happen upon a giant sea creature, dragged up by fishermen’s nets. Marcello notes the staring eyes. Moments later, a young waitress who earlier in the film served as a possible muse/angel figure calls out to him from across a narrow channel of water. Marcello can’t hear her. They attempt to communicate for a few seconds, but their words are lost in the noise of the wind and the surf. He gives up, shrugs, and returns to his shallow, pleasure-seeking entourage, none of whom really care about him. Here, the fish head is not a signifier of evil at all, but a cruel reminder of everything Marcello has turned his back on: love, self-knowledge, any kind of spiritual life.

(During the initial release of the movie, the fish was widely interpreted as a classic symbol of Christian [and pre-Christian] belief. It’s appearance, dead — along with many other “anti-religious” images in the film — was seen by some as the director’s way of suggesting that God was dead, too.)

Certainly the mysterious fish and its wide-open, lifeless eyes are a reminder and a rebuke, once again, of the Great Unknown. But in this case, they remind Marcello not only of what he doesn’t know but of what he has chosen not to know.

* * *

Perhaps the vilest calumny against head eating appeared in the wildly popular 1979 short film Fish Heads, directed by actor Bill Paxton. Debuting as a comedy interstitial featuring Barnes and Barnes on Saturday Night Live, it quickly became a stand-alone sensation, and its message of hate and barely concealed racism only reinforced then-prevalent attitudes of cultural imperialism and craniophobia.

Under an Alvin and the Chipmunks-inspired vocal track of “Fish heads, fish heads/Roly-poly fish heads/Fish heads, fish heads/Eat them up, yum,” the action exploits homeless and Asian stereotypes, finding much to laugh at in poverty and the indigenous foodways of ethnic minorities. Soon after the video hit heavy rotation on MTV, the streets were filled with would-be skinheads chanting its infectious chorus. Worse, the song was eventually covered by Duran Duran. Perhaps no single representation in the twentieth century did so much to set gastronomy back.

* * *

By the time a horse’s head famously appeared in the bed of film director Jack Woltz in The Godfather, horse meat had long since been rejected by mainstream diners in America. Granted, during the time period in which the action takes place, horse taretare was still quite popular in Europe, but it is unlikely that Don Corleone’s emissaries delivered the head as a gift for the kitchen, so much as a straightforward and gruesome warning.

In fact, in the annals of animal heads on film, I can find only one happy appearance of this most delicious and delightful body part. Only one time when the head of a creature — in this case a duck — brings enlightenment, laughter, pleasure, or joy, as it should:

In a Christmas Story, Bob Clark’s classic film of the short stories of Jean Shepherd, our adorable child protagonist Ralphie and his family have had their Christmas turkey destroyed by a pack of feral dogs owned by their unseen neighbor and archenemy Krampus. (Is it a coincidence that the name echoes the evil Santa doppelganger of Eastern European legend?)

Their original meal cruelly demolished, the family resorts to visiting an empty Chinese restaurant where they order Peking duck as a surrogate turkey. The waiter delivers the bird whole, then brings his cleaver down, loudly separating head from body. Ralphie and family shriek with delight. It is the happiest moment in the story. The family is at its most joyful, together and functional, inspired by the severed head of a humble waterfowl — a duck epiphany, if you will. An all-too-rare example.

What is it about the topmost part of what is presumably food that elicits in us such a fear, loathing and derision? Is it the eyes that we abhor? Is it the unknown we see reflected in those unmoving, unseeing lenses — symbols of all we don’t know, or can’t know?

Or is the blank stare of the fish or game bird to be avoided lest we be reminded of our complicity in the death of another living thing? Perhaps it is death itself that we seek to avoid. The eyes of our victims beckon us, mock us, suggest that we will be joining them soon.

* * * * *