Wednesday, April 24, 2024
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Brunei Town

Final chapter

HONG KONG (AFP) – In a quiet Hong Kong cul-de-sac, hundreds gathered over the weekend to say goodbye to an independent bookstore after weekly inspections by the authorities spurred by anonymous complaints forced it to put up the shutters.

Mount Zero closed down at the end of March after constant complaints to authorities, which had accused it of illegally occupying government land by tiling a pavement in front of the store, with the threat of fines and jail time.

Since Hong Kong imposed a national security law in 2020 the city’s cultural sector has been hit by censorship fears, and the handful of bookstores that remain say they are operating in an environment of increasing pressure. “Authorities often say Hong Kong will go back to normal but these things will haunt our lives,” said political scientist Ivan Choy, who attended the gathering.

Hong Kong recently enacted a second national security law, which critics fear will further drive pro-democracy sentiments underground and chill cultural and artistic freedoms.

The city’s government has rejected allegations the laws curtail freedom of expression but Mount Zero has lived through dramatic political change since its founding six years ago and book lovers mourned that the liberal-minded bookstore had seemingly become a victim of that shift.

A 20-year-old student Leo, who declined to give his last name, said he worried “the categories of books allowed for sale would be restricted”, hurting other independent bookstores.

ABOVE & BELOW: A group of people browse books on its last day of business; and a mosaic sign reading ‘Ideas are bulletproof’ is seen above the entrance of independent bookstore ‘Mount Zero’ in Hong Kong. PHOTO: AFP
A visitor writes a goodbye note to the independent bookstore on its last day of business. PHOTO: AFP
A group of people browsing books. PHOTO: AFP
ABOVE & BELOW: People take a selfie in front of the independent bookstore; and visitors paying tribute to the store before it closes down. PHOTO: AFP

“These bookstores are spots for book lovers to get together, so it’s a pity to lose it,” he said.

Mount Zero often hosted cultural events such as book talks in its outdoor area and gained a devoted following.

A barrister and former pro-democracy politician Margaret Ng, said the two-storey bookstore had offered like-minded readers a vital place to gather.

“You can see in Mount Zero the aspirations of the young people to express themselves in literature and to form their own community,” she said.

But several independent bookstores in December reported spikes in inspections, some prompted by anonymous complaints including fire safety and labour regulations.

Announcing its closure last year, Mount Zero said it hoped “the mysterious complainant can take a break” after it received weekly visits from different government departments.

“The time saved can be used to sit down and read a book properly,” it said.

AFP could not independently verify the nature of the complaints.

Some Mount Zero supporters said the authorities should not quash spaces for bookworms.

“If the government wants more people to stay in Hong Kong, they must think about whether there are still places in this city where we can stay,” said Choy.

Below a mosaic sign that read “Ideas are bulletproof”, sweet green pea soup and barbecue meat were passed around in the bookshop’s final hours. As night fell, the store’s lights dimmed and readers lamenting its loss said the impact on the local community would not be forgotten.

“What really counts in the case of Mount Zero is not a particular bookshop,” said Ng.

“It’s the spirit, and that spirit is unvanquished.”