Monday, 3 October 2011

I found something

Something I like about Hong Kong. The public libraries.

I don't know if the list of books banned on the China mainland applies in full for Hong Kong. (If it does, I'm a smuggler. Guilty. I have my own copy of Wild Swans.)

I bet they do restrict anti-social material, seditious tracts, and see-the-pages-bleed provocative literature. They probably don't stock all the books we'd want, to know our reading was round.

I hear, to view the pornography, you have to make an appointment. I'm tempted to do that, if only to read what confessions they want me to make on the application form.

But despite the limits to our bookish freedoms, I still have to say, the Hong Kong public libraries? They're not too bad.

That's sort of sad to think, really, because I suppose I'm comparing them to the libraries in England.

Here in Hong Kong, unlike at home, these massive public blocks are open every day, seven days a week, many into the evenings until 9pm. And - unlike the impression some prestigious libraries in England put on me when I walk inside - here, in these buildings, there are books.

City Hall is my favourite. They pack too many shelves into that space; they knit them all together, lay them in lines deep into corners, and stack books rising to heights above my head. I must squeeze between the bodies of my fellow bookers to worm my way to History, and that's a treat alone for a middle-aged woman of my circumstance.

Even our miniature local library - the one on the island with all the charm of a concrete-built electric substation - offers, on the inside, bookish people with bookish ways. I like how the librarian - slightly built, flat-chested, with wire-rimmed glasses perched on her nose! - stands behind a large desk made tiny with a frame of piled papers, stacked books, and crates with books inside, balanced one against another. On our side of her wooden shelf, if you can see it, there's a slot over a sliding wooden drawer acting as a fine box. You drop the money in; with barely a glance she might nod to register the fact.

In the grand Central Library, the one with the wide upward sweep of steps, spinning globe, and stone inscriptions, there are ten floors of books, magazines, newspapers, audio, visual, computers, headphones, study desks, communal spaces, comfy reading seats, seats all round.

Best of all, people use this space. Not with sshhhh-reverence, and not with noisy partying either - the only choice of behaviours you'd think exists in England, given our penchant for taking sides, picking fights, and telling everyone else how not to use our public services.

Here, people just use these public book spaces, normally. Without big argument or fuss. They come in pairs and families, student groups and study meets. Libraries are a resource, a place respected as one where of course you go, because doesn't every civilized person need to access books? For meeting, reading quietly, reading to others, private study, homework, discussion, sharing thoughts, or maybe leaning alongside for a gentle and companionable bit of nodding off.

So yes, the public libraries in Hong Kong get something very space-people-social right.

(But if I make it to the pornography section, you can be sure I'll keep that quiet, and all to myself.)


Nora said...

I'm so glad that you found something to love about Hong Kong. Maybe if you look hard enough there will be more. I hope so for you. There must be more ways in which the place can redeem itself. Did you try making a list of all of its positive aspects?

Grit said...

ice cream, nora. it has excellent ice cream. um. the bus journey up the peak. i like that very much. and the ferries from hk island. and the countryside; the hikes are good, but i prefer a companion, which restricts me. so i can't hike as much as i'd like. truly, i have a terrible sense of direction, and someone has to bring me home.

Nora said...

So what you really miss is a comrade in arms, isn't it?