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Lenders check out living books at the Human Library

Reporter: Viola Yeh

In January this year, more than a hundred people gathered at West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade to meet people they had never met before and listen to first-hand stories they could never have imagined. And, while they were listening, sitting or recliningon colourful mats, they also gazed out to sea and breathed in the scent of fresh grass.

Those doing the listening were “readers” and those telling the stories were human “books” at the fourth Human Library event to be held in Hong Kong.

The Human Library is a platform for communication rather than a physical collection housed in a particular space.

The concept originated in Denmark in 2000. Its purpose was to raise awareness of minorities and to mobilize people against violence. Slogans like “Don’t judge a book by its cover” were used to encourage readers to get away from stereotypes and look into people’s stories.

After the first Human Library in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, the concept spread around the world, including to the United States, Japan, and China.

The first Human Library in Hong Kong was held in August last year. It was co-organised by youth magazine Breakazine! and A Generation, a Christian organisation involved in youth and theatre work. The event was held at a youth camp near Sha Tin. Since then there have been other venues and other organisers.

The Human Library aims to break stereotypes by offering a platform for people to communicate directly with one another. Readers are free to ask questions in order to enhance their understanding of the books. Mutual respect is the key to creating in-depth dialogues.

The collection in Hong Kong now consists of 50 human books, but they can only be read when there is a library event. These living books come from all walks of life.
There are people from minority groups, people outside of the mainstream, including sex workers, transsexuals and former convicts. Many have been marginalized due to their occupation, race or beliefs.

Anyone over 15 can apply to borrow a book. To do so, you browse the catalogue of books on the official Human Library website, choose the ones you are interested in and register them. You will then be able to read them on the day of the event. Each reader gets 45-minutes at most to communicate with each living book.

Reader Phoebe Ng Yuk-ying, a 19-year-old university student, says she often used to question the way certain groups were portrayed on television programmes but had never looked into the issues seriously.

The first living book she read was a sex worker. Before chatting with her “book”, Ng had thought that sex workers were forced to take up their jobs. She was surprised to learn the living book was happy with her job and was willing to share her interesting work experiences.

“We usually judge others subjectively and imagine they view things in a certain a way, but in fact they may not,” says Ng. She thinks the Human Library has offered a channel for people to meet others they would not otherwise come into contact with.

Another reader, Sharon Suen Sau-man, also 19, believes that each book has its own unique character. “I think no matter which book I read, I will have new insights,” says Suen.

Although some books may feel tired after going through a few reading sessions, readers are still hungry for more and long for extra opportunities to read living books.

Suen thinks the 45-minute time slot is too short for readers to have in-depth conversations with the books.

“If it were a [conventional] book, I would have plenty of time to read and finish it, but witha person, I am not able to digest and understand all his stories,” says Suen. She hopes that any future Human Libraries could provide more time for readers to read more books.

Choi Chi-hau, 28, the founder and co-ordinator of Lawnmap, a project encouraging people to map and share data about grassy areas in Hong Kong, is one of the volumes in the Human Library.

Choi finds he is physically exhausted after the two-hour intensive sharing. However, he also feels spiritual contentment as the event gives him a chance to systematically tell others what he is working on.

“I think everyone has life experiences that others do not have or are unaware of,” he says. Compared with the books of minorities, Choi may not be the most striking or sensational book, but he promises to serve as a living book so he can share his values and his stories of organizing “green revolutions”.

Leung Pak-kin, 40, chief editor of Breakazine!, and one of the organizers, found that living books get tired after sharing their stories three times in a row, while readers cannot concentrate and listen seriously for more than three hours at a time. To savethe living books from exhaustion, they are only allowed to share their stories three times in three hours.

Leung says that every time readers dig into the lives of the living books, the living books will look into their own lives when telling their stories, giving them a chance to reflect.

Although he was one of the first organisers of the event, Leung hopes others will step up and hold more events. “We hope it will be like a movement, with more people organizing Human Library in their own network,” says Leung.
Hopefully, the more people and organisations are involved, the more diverse the participants will be because, as Leung points out, different social groups have their own set of prejudices.

“I think the concept of Human Library can be very diverse,” says Benson Tsang Chi-ho, a 40-year-old interior designer who integrates the concept of the Human Library into his social campaigns. He organises participants in his activities into groups to talk directly with vagrants in order to know more about their lives.

Tsang notes that many people now communicate with each other using electronic devices, even if they are sitting or standing next to each other. He is pleased to see the Human Library bringing people back to basics when it comes to communication.

Tsang has been both a reader and a living book and finds his experience of being a living book more fascinating.

“It is interesting to tell your story again and again, and actually whenever you say it, it strengthens your own belief,” says Tsang. “By answering readers’ questions, you are like doing a review on yourself. It actually helps you.” Tsang explains being a book gives him an opportunity to evaluate himself, to see if he can improve.

Reds Cheung King-wai, 24, an independent visual artist, was responsible for the design and selection of living books for the Human Library held at West Kowloon Water Promenade. He thinks the concept of the Human Library is simple, direct and easy to understand.

He hopes a permanent venue can be found so the Human Library can be held regularly. “Hong Kong always needs a channel for people to communicate, but there has not been any good solution,” says Cheung.

If not the solution, the Human Library offers a way for people to understand each other in the most direct way – by simply talking and listening.