Carolyn Lau curates a special issue on Science Fiction in Hong Kong penned by some of the territory’s most outstanding school-age literary talents.

“The Vellichor of Bleak House Books”

Kathleen Wong talks to Albert Wan, co-founder and owner of Bleak House Books, about his independent English bookstore in Hong Kong.

Bleak House Books draws you in with its vellichor. Its co-founder and owner, Albert Wan, gave a tour of his uniquely furnished bookstore in San Po Kong. 

Let’s start by exploring this welcoming bookstore adorned with an interesting blend of decorations that reflect the diversity of the books on the shelves, as well as its focus on the culture of Hong Kong.

WONG: Albert, can you tell us about Bleak House Books?

WAN: We are an English only, English-language bookshop. We focus a lot on literature, but we also have plenty of books that are not literature – such as philosophy and cookbooks. We try to have something from every genre.

WONG: When did it open?

WAN: We officially opened at the beginning of 2018, before then we were just selling books online and in street markets. Eventually, we rented space, keeping the books here and renovated the space into what it is now.

WONG: Bleak House Books sells an eclectic collection of books. Bestseller books we see often in commercial bookstores are not what we may find in here. This is the place where you can find hidden treasures, books that may be less well-known but no less intriguing and impactful. What is the curation process?

WAN: There are no specific criteria for the books we sell here, we do try to support independent publishers, local writers and local publishers. But aside from that, we just try to have books that are interesting and books that we think our readers would be interested in.

WONG: Now, onto the exciting part: science fiction! In Bleak House Books, not only is there a special shelf dedicated to science fiction, it is also filled with vintage classic science fiction books that we are all longing to read. How did you come across these vintage science fiction books?

WAN: When we started the bookshop, we had to stock it with books. We had in mind some categories, there are fiction, history, philosophy and others. Science fiction is an important category of books to have. I am not really a huge science fiction reader, so I can’t really talk in-depth about the work. But having read some science fiction and enjoyed reading it, it is important to have a shelf dedicated to science fiction.

WONG: What is so special about the collection you have here?

WAN: It is completely vintage. Some of those science fiction books were bought as a big collection. Some books I pick up here and there. I am not sure there is such a thing as bad science fiction. It is always refreshing to read science fiction, as it is a constant exploration of different fields and possibilities through literature.

WONG: And is there a science fiction book that you are a big fan of?

WAN: I had a phase where I was reading post-apocalyptic stuff, there’s a book called Alas, Babylon [ed. – written by Pat Frank, 1959], which is about the world after a nuclear war and people coming together trying to start over. That made an impression on me. I read a lot of Stephen King, including crossovers between horror and science fiction. The genre of science fiction itself is kind of loose.

Albert is also a big fan of George Orwell’s work. Arguably Orwell’s most famous book, Animal Farm, is proudly on display in the bookstore.

WONG: As a dedicated reader of George Orwell’s writings, how would you describe Orwell the author?

WAN: His writing style is very concise and compact and simple, you don’t really see big words. His goal has always been to get the point across as clearly and as persuasively as he could. That is the goal of every writer but he does it especially well.

WONG: Are there any specific books by Orwell that you really like?

WAN: I read a lot of his articles and essays because he was a journalist, I read a lot of that. Aside from Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, he does have other works that are worth reading. I think his best works are his short essays.

WONG: What is the importance and significance of Orwell’s work today?

WAN: To George Orwell, everything is politics. COVID is politics, Hong Kong is politics, picture books are politics. In that sense, everything is politics. That is one thing to take away from Orwell’s work. The truth is the essence of his work. He talks about what we see happening around the world politically, especially in his books like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Reading is a discipline. Reading a book makes you think about people and places in situations that are not within your reach. To be able to do that, to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, to feel their emotions and understand their experiences, even though you might not experience them, it’s an important life skill. The worst people that we know, are the people who don’t have that skill, people who can’t empathize and understand what is going on with another person’s life. If we can all not be like that, the world can be a better place. And that is one reason to start reading.

— Albert Wan

As the owner of an English-only bookstore in Hong Kong, Albert shares his thoughts on English books and bookstores in Hong Kong.

WAN: There are many chain bookstores in Hong Kong. But when it comes to independent bookstores that focus on English books, there aren’t many. My thoughts are just that there should be more. Chain bookstores have a tendency to sell other products (like key chains and notebooks) but I just think bookstores should have books that are well-curated because readers actually care about the content.

WONG: What do you think about the books people read nowadays? A lot of people, especially teenagers when they first start reading, start with the basics like Harry Potter. What do you think about that?

WAN: I think they should read. Read Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. The point is to get them to start reading, opening a book, not having the distraction of a screen and to read for 20-30 minutes a day. It doesn’t matter if it’s Harry Potter, Percy Jackson or The Diary of Anne Frank. They should just read. As you read more, you will be more discriminating and be more curious. You will try to explore different writers, genres and you will want to read about things that are going on around you. So if you take a look around my bookshop now, you will see a lot of books dealing with the history of politics, post-colonialism, and things that people care about now.

I don’t think there is a good book or bad book to read at the beginning. But if my kid was 20 years old and still reading Harry Potter books, I might pull him aside and have a little chat with him. I think reading a book is about the creativity and concentration involved in the process, the way it makes your brain think about other people and other situations. That is very fundamental to our existence as a human. Keep reading!

Kathleen Wong is a secondary school student from Hong Kong. She studies English Literature in school and is very passionate about books and writing. 

[ed. – Unfortunately, a few weeks after this interview, Albert Wan announced the closure of Bleak House Books. For an editorial on the decision see Grundy, “HK Independent Bookstore Bleak House Books to Close,” Hong Kong Free Press, 29 Aug., 2021.]

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