Reading goes out of fashion in Hong Kong in the internet age, or has it?
A forlorn feeling hangs in the air even though there are long queues of customers eager to grab a bargain inside a shabby warehouse at an obscure Kwai Chung industrial building stocked with books and merchandise from the recently closed bookstore chain Page One.
The room is filled with thousands of books, some piled ceiling-high and others stacked up like architectural columns, while many are placed haphazardly along the walls.
The bookstore’s closing-down sale started at the warehouse on December 12 with at least 40 per cent discounts offered across the board.
All items had to go after the Singapore bookstore chain shut its last two outlets in the city on November 17, signifying the demise of a 22-year run in Hong Kong. .
The chain is known for selling high-end art and architecture books and magazines.
While delighted customers have been eagerly snapping up bargains, it is in no way a true reflection of the city’s actual reading culture. In reality, a rapid deterioration in the book-reading habits of Hongkongers is posing a serious threat to other brick-and-mortar bookshops, whose owners have long been struggling with high rents and fighting for survival as online book sales boom.
Many operators have been forced to seek a new lifeline by filling bookshelves with items such as toys, party supplies or even fashion jewellery. But cultural critics warn that the city’s literary diversity could gradually diminish due to fewer reading options.
“If a city cannot afford to offer a diverse range of bookshops, it will inevitably have a negative impact on the intellectual and ideological development of its people,” said Chow Po-chung, associate professor in the Chinese University’s department of government and public administration.
Chow has been a keen promoter of reading on campus. He has organised several book festivals and reading groups of classic books over the past few years.
The professor highlighted the significance of having many different types of books in a city and how it affects the spiritual culture of a place.
“It’s not about having big bookstore chains offering popular choices, but supporting the existence of many different kinds of bookshops each providing particular types of books,” he said.
However, Chow said the book offerings in the city had become more and more homogenised in recent years.
“If you look at the books that are available at Joint Publishing, Chung Hwa Book, the Commercial Press, the options are very similar,” Chow said.
The three mainstream Chinese-language chains collectively hold a majority market share in Hong Kong and rely heavily on the sale of textbooks and examination aids.
At the other end of the market, Chow said an increasing number of independent bookshops in Hong Kong had been squeezed out of business – especially smaller ones in Mong Kok – resulting in substantially reduced choices for local readers.
“Books are not ordinary commodities,” Chow said, adding that the authorities should provide some form of subsidy for bookshops.
Ngan Shun-kwan, adviser and former chief editor at Chinese-language Cosmos Books, worried that social polarisation would be widened with fewer people reading, thereby hindering the development of society.
He warned that the overall critical thinking capacity of people in Hong Kong as well as in many other modern cities was deteriorating due to the fragmented information people received from the internet, such as from forum posts and comments.
“People nowadays don’t even read e-books” he said, adding that those who keep reading tend to be more creative and as a result only a small number of elites can lead society. The rest, he added, would behave more and more like “robots”, a phenomenon he considered “dangerous” because there would be a lack of creativity and critical thinking.
There have been more closures in the past month. Specialist bookshop Basheer Design Books shut its only outlet in Causeway Bay on December 16 after 14 years as “consumer reading and book-buying habits have changed significantly”, it said on its official Facebook page.
Over the past decade, Hongkongers have been spending less and less time reading amid the rise of digital platforms, which supposedly offer easier access to information, on top of a proliferation of other types of leisure activities.
According to the NOP World Culture Score Index for 2005 – the last year the survey of the time consumers spent on different media was conducted – the average time a Hongkonger spent reading was 6.7 hours per week.
But it dropped to only three hours per week this year, according to similar research conducted by the Hong Kong Publishing Professional Society.
Although they are two different surveys, the trend is clear that the reading habits of Hong Kong people have deteriorated to a significant extent.
“The prestige of opening stores in Hong Kong comes with the caveat that retailers are expected to pay significantly for the location they sell from,” Jon Copestake, chief retail and consumer goods analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said.
“For high-end fashion houses this is a cost worth bearing but for a bookstore chain it’s a very difficult cost to bear or justify,” he added.
For Caroline Chan, keeping her small basement bookshop business afloat is definitely not easy, especially as she is uncompromising and refuses to sell non-book items.
Chan, owner of 30-year-old Sam Kee Book Company in North Point, which is also known for being a sanctuary for dozens of alley cats, said it was a bookstore’s responsibility to sell classics that inspired critical thinking instead of best-sellers that satisfy popular demand.
As an avid book lover, Chan said reading a print book could help enhance memory far more than using an electronic device. She explained that the simple action of flipping a page could help people to digest the content because for a split second they are allowed to pause and store the data.
To me, 2.30pm is a time that terrifies me the most every day
Bookstore owner Caroline Chan
But Chan’s persistence comes at a high cost. She had to secure bank loans to maintain the small shop’s operations and pay publishers. The rent has also doubled in the past few years.
“To me, 2.30pm is a time that terrifies me the most every day,” she said, as it is the time that banks transfer money from her accounts to creditors. She sometimes fears she might not have enough money.
“I don’t think too much about business strategies. I have books, cats and music. I am satisfied,”
But she admitted she might have to bow to reality and consider selling some non-book items in the near future.
“Historically the bookstore business does not yield very attractive returns,” Jack Chuang, partner of Greater China at OC and C Strategy Consultants said.
“Many prefer to use e-tailers such as Amazon because of their much broader range and lower prices,” he said.
Chuang said the high rents in Hong Kong had partly contributed to the price gap between books sold in stores and those sold online and prevented retailers from giving big discounts.
A report by the Hong Kong Publishing Professional Society based on a survey of 1,765 local respondents this year shows that 31.2 per cent have not read any print book in the past year, and 23 per cent have not even bought a book.
For those who have bought books in the past year, the majority spent less than HK$300.
Despite a decline in reading, some bookshops had managed to thrive by shifting focus and building a lifestyle brand, Chuang said.
“Eslite’s profits became much more attractive after its shift to lifestyle,” he said.
The Taiwanese chain created a fanfare in Hong Kong when it arrived in 2012. It redefined the concept of a bookshop by offering arts and crafts, jewellery and other products besides books.
It opened a second store in Star House in Tsim Sha Tsui last year and added a third in Taikoo Shing earlier this year.
Japanese bookstore chain Tsutaya also successfully transformed itself from a traditional book and record seller to a trendy place for youngsters to hang out, he said.
The innovative bookstore has collaborated with Starbucks at some locations in Japan. It found a way to retain customers by introducing a popular loyalty-point card system, which tied in with other services, such as buying tickets for cultural events and concerts, Chuang added.
While many of the city’s bookstores are struggling, general-purpose bookstore Bookazine has seen a steady growth in its business, mostly helped by strong sales of party supplies and its children’s book section.
Chain owner and director Shonee Mirchandani has never blamed expensive rents as reasons for the industry to struggle to make ends meet.
“I think rent is just a question of supply and demand. I get quite annoyed when people complain about high rents. If people are willing to pay those rents, there must be a reason for it,” she said.
Instead, Mirchandani said places like IFC Mall, Pacific Place, Exchange Square, and Prince’s Building – where her shops are located – are probably the ideal locations to run bookstores due to the steady flow of customers.
But she admitted her chain also had to fight for survival due to the city’s worsening reading culture and the rise of alternative distractions like the mobile phone game Pokemon Go.
To diversity the traditional business, the 31-year-old chain has discovered a new growth engine – party supplies.
“Growth has been so strong that we have created a separate brand,” Mirchandani said.
“We do everything from start to finish … Ordering cakes, getting entertainers, creating tailored invitations and party wear,” she said.
“We find landlords are more interested in our Party-Time brand, than pure bookstores.”
Even in its traditional bookshops, almost half of its shop space is dedicated to non-book items, such as gifts and food.
While some booksellers may have found a way out by tapping into the non-book business, the task of promoting reading among the city’s youngsters seems to be getting nowhere.
One of the explanations is that schoolchildren have been too busy with homework and exams.
Lawmaker Lau Kwok-fan said many youngsters never had the chance to develop a healthy reading habit during their school years, simply because they didn’t have time.
“What Hong Kong students need the most to develop a reading habit is spare time,” Lau said. “Even when they do have time, they spend it on reading books related to their school subjects.”
Despite the substantial time spent on studying, Lau said Hong Kong students nowadays seemed to have poorer common sense compared with those a decade ago, as some essential knowledge was not supposed to be acquired from textbooks.
The situation may be worsening as the government stopped offering reading scheme grants ranging from HK$8,000 to HK$34,000 for primary and secondary schools from the current school year.
The government said the decision was made to “move with the times” as well as “to accommodate the change in students’ reading pattern” – which is closely linked with internet use.
Instead, the government has installed Wi-fi facilities in 800 public schools in the past year, to enable students to search and read multimedia learning resources on electronic platforms.