Similar sentiments motivated the owners of 1908 to open the bookshop in March this year. One of the co-owners, Xiao Tian says he hopes the shop can somehow contribute to the development of the Mainland in a positive way. “1908 is the year when the first Chinese constitution was published; it is Qinding Xianfa Dagang (also known as the Royal Constitutional Outlines),” says he. “China has had a constitution for all these years, but it does not have a constitutional government yet. So I hope we can work on that together,” he says.
Originally from the Mainland, Tian came to Hong Kong to study finance at the Hong Kong Baptist University seven years ago and has stayed since his graduation. He is used to smuggling banned books across the border for his friends and has been caught by customs officials several times. “They didn’t do anything to me, they just confiscated the banned books, and then give me a receipt,” he says.
He usually advises his customers to buy fewer books, so as to reduce the risk of confiscation if and when they are checked.
Having grown up under a system of censorship, Tian knows the importance of the free flow of information. “I want the bookstore to convey the truth, and bring good ideas to the Mainland,” he says.
Tian and his partner, his best friend Li, who is based in Beijing, are certainly full of ideals. But ideals are not enough to support a bookstore. The shop has been running at a loss since its opening. In the early months, the monthly revenue was not enough to cover the rent.
On top of the financial pressure, there is also pressure from the mainland. The bookstore used to offer a postal service for mainland customers but Tian was told by contacts in the mainland that they should stop sending banned books to the Mainland, particularly in the sensitive time leading up to the 18th Party Congress. The shop has since stopped its postal service.
Although sales are picking up, Tian is still uncertain about the bookstore’s future. His business partner invested HK$500,000 to set up the store and despite the losses, he still sponsors the operation every month.
They hope to eventually run the bookstore as a social enterprise. If the bookshop starts making profits in the future, revenue will be spent on both local and mainland charities.
Not all shops selling banned books are based on such lofty ideals. Paul Tang Tsz-keung, director of The People’s Bookstore, runs his bookstore purely as a business.