HONG KONG– The annual Hong Kong Book Fair kicked off on Wednesday, with several publishers of political books barred from attending the fair and others saying they should be careful about what they exhibit.
The fair’s main organizer, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, said it had not reviewed the books on sale at the fair. But Hong Kong authorities tightened controls on free speech and arrested dozens of pro-democracy activists after a tough national security law came into force in 2020, and the council stressed that exhibitors had to obey the law.
Independent publisher Hillway Culture, which publishes books about Hong Kong and political events, was among those not allowed to participate. Another publisher, One of a Kind, which published several books about the 2019 protests in the city, was another.
Publishers are going through a difficult time given the impact of the pandemic on the city’s economy and concerns about censorship and the rejection of independent publishers, said Kaying Wong, guest curator at The House of Hong Kong Literature, the city’s largest literary organization.
“It’s surely not an easy task for us to set up a booth at the book fair and be selected (to exhibit),” Wong said.
The book fair is one of the largest in Asia. In recent years, it has been known to exhibit a variety of books, including politically sensitive books and those banned in the Communist-ruled Chinese mainland.
In 2020, the city postponed the fair several times due to the pandemic. The event finally took place in person last June after a year-long hiatus. This year’s book fair runs from Wednesday to Tuesday, July 26.
Novelist Gabriel Tsang, who works with publisher Spicy Fish Cultural Production Limited, said writers need to consider whether they can be published in the current environment.
“I guess a lot of writers have their own intentions…and they have to think a lot about whether they can get their work published. They can use allegory or use many rhetorical skills, rather than directly expressing what they originally wanted to express,” he said.
Last year, complaints were filed against Hillway Culture, one of the publishers dismissed this year, for exposing politically sensitive books that could be considered a violation of national security law.
“Last year, we had (exhibited) political books at the book fair and so was another publisher who was banned,” said Raymond Yeung, founder of Hillway Culture. He was one of the few publishers allowed to exhibit political books on Hong Kong at last year’s book fair.
Yeung attempted to set up a freelance book fair as an alternative to the main fair earlier this month, but had to cancel it after the venue’s owner accused Hillway of breaching his rental agreement by subletting his space to other publishers.
Authorities should be clearer and more transparent about what types of activities are allowed, said Hui Ching, research director of the Hong Kong policy think tank Zhi Ming Institute.
“If there is no transparency, it is reasonable for citizens to suspect that their rights are being deprived,” Hui said.
Visitors always enjoy the fair as an opportunity to browse and purchase a wide range of books.
“I usually read and today I came to pick up some Chinese novels and short stories that interest me,” said Grace Ng, a 22-year-old university student who visited the fair with her boyfriend.
Ng usually attends the annual fair and said this year’s seemed somewhat subdued. “There are not as many people now as before the pandemic,” she said.