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.

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: 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.

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.

* * * * *

San Po Kong: A Photo Essay

Because Ye Olde Bookseller has shop duty for this weekend’s San Po Kong Arts Fair/Walking Tour — Bleak House Books is a scheduled stop during Saturday’s events — he decided to go on his own walking tour through San Po Kong today. This photo essay is the result of that tour.

The Squeeze

George Orwell once described the independent bookstore business as “a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.” [If you read the rest of what he wrote about working in a bookshop (Bookshop Memories 1936) you’ll find that that was about anything good he had to say about the experience; in fact his disliked the work so much that he said it caused him to “los[e] [his] love of books”.]

He was right in part. If by vulgarized he meant commercialized then yes there is a limit to how much an independent bookstore can be beholden to the corporate behemoths that have come to dominate much of the publishing and book retail industries. Indie bookstores are best when they strike off on their own path and become a part of the community in which they operate rather than becoming another faceless chain retail entity. But as we all know too well indie bookshops have fallen victim to “the squeeze” in other ways; by simply dying off and never coming back. Hong Kong is no exception.

Our hope here at Bleak House Books is to buck that trend and to show folks that an indie bookstore can eke out an existence even as “the squeeze” is still with us; indeed, infinitely more so than that which existed in Orwell’s time.

So here’s to used books, new friends and humble beginnings!

— Albert Wan