RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And let's hear now about booksellers in Hong Kong selling something that's banned in mainland China. That would be books on Chinese politics. And stocking them appears to have led to the mysterious disappearance of five booksellers. NPR's Anthony Kuhn paid a visit to one of Hong Kong's booksellers who continued to supply customers on the mainland with the fruit of forbidden knowledge.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The sound of mellow jazz and the aroma of brewing coffee at the tiny People's Bookstore has the effect of chilling customers out. It's in Causeway Bay, a popular shopping district not far from another bookstore whose closure has had a different sort of chilling effect. It's been more than a month since Lee Bo, the last of the five booksellers from the Causeway Bay bookstore, disappeared from Hong Kong. Lee and a colleague have since showed up on the mainland in police custody. But authorities haven't explained how they got there, leading to fears that they were kidnapped. Despite all this, People's Bookstore owner Paul Tang appears unruffled.
PAUL TANG: It's really, really horrible for me to look at this. But I'm not really care about myself because I know that for a bookstore, we won't have a big influence to the big country. For government, we are too small.
KUHN: Until recently, mainland residents could only travel to Hong Kong in tour groups. When that restriction was lifted just over a decade ago, mainland tourists started to pour into the territory. And Paul Tang reinvented his store.
You've got the place painted red. You've got Cultural Revolution, Mao badges and little red books. I assume this was your thought to attract mainland customers. Is that right?
TANG: We have no choice because mainlanders is already in Causeway Bay. So we need to fulfill their needs. And if their needs are banned books, OK, we find banned books for them.
KUHN: And if they need milk powder because of a tainted milk scare on the mainland, he'll sell that, too. He's got big cans of it on the shelf. Tang's barista whips up a cappuccino, and we get up to check out some books.
OK, what would you like to show me?
TANG: This is talking about the 2017, the great depression inside China. Of course most people think that it may be [expletive].
KUHN: Tang explains that many of the books he sells are like this - pulp nonfiction based on speculation and rumor. But there are also serious titles, such as "Prisoner Of The State," an inside account of high-level politics during the 1980s and '90s by the late, deposed party boss Zhao Ziyang.
TANG: This is a classic one. It's not the gossipy, not the juicy stuff. This is highly recommend for all customers when they come from China.
KUHN: A mainland customer who only gives his family name, Zhang, is perusing a book on a topic completely absent from mainland bookstores, the independence movement in China's far western region of Xinjiang.
ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "In theory, the mainland enjoys freedom of the press," he says. "But in reality, we're not allowed to mention these forbidden topics. So many mainland readers come looking for these books out of curiosity. To put it simply, over here, you can read the truth." Helping mainland customers get the truth is important to proprietor Paul Tang. He believes in the free speech Hong Kong's laws guarantee him. And he notes that banned books are still widely available at everything from newspaper stands in 7-Elevens to the Hong Kong airport.
TANG: We won't, like, take the books down like the chain bookstore in Hong Kong. We keep our style because we don't find that using this kind of pressure to bookstore is effective.
KUHN: Still, Tang is at heart pragmatic. He admits that before he stumbled upon the field of banned books, he was exploring other areas.
TANG: I am not a real book guy. I'm studying food science before.
KUHN: He's still looking at the caviar business. So if the publishers of banned books are all shut down, fish eggs may provide a viable alternative. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hong Kong.
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