Translator’s note: The story was inspired by an accident that took place on 4 February 2008, in which the owner, Law Chi-wah, of a famous independent bookshop in Hong Kong, Ching Man Bookshop, was buried alive by almost two dozen boxes of books when he was sorting the books in the bookshop’s warehouse. Law Chi-wah was a veteran Hong Kong culturati. He took over the running of Ching Man Bookshop in 1988. Ching Man Bookshop suspended its retail business in 2006 because of rental issues, and its book stock was moved to a warehouse while its publishing business continued. A new location for reopening the bookshop had already been arranged before the accident. Ching Man Bookshop was permanently closed upon the death of Law. The story also pays tributes to independent bookshops in Hong Kong, as running an independent bookshop is a very difficult task in the city with its high property rent. More independent bookshops have moved to higher floors in old buildings or even closed down due to financial stress.
Deng3. Cantonese for hit, throw, strike, smash or toss with force
At some point today, a pile of books fell on my head. According to the Society’s memorandum, if one of its members is hit on the head with books, that person is to report, record, and file his case immediately and go to the designated location for emergency treatment. The European grammar of the memorandum’s written Chinese phrases this in the passive voice as “being hit with books,” as if there is another subject, such as a person, who is doing the throwing. But this time, books simply fell on my head. The books themselves were the subject. Whether I was hit as defined is hard to say; I am not good at grammar. Maybe a certain unwitting action of mine triggered, or even my long-term habitual pretense eventually led to a chain reaction, the butterfly effect, quantitative and qualitative changes etc. that caused the books above my head inevitably to fall on me at a certain time. As such, I was the one who hit myself, I become the subject who threw the books. Although in this case, to say the books “hit” me is somewhat inappropriate; they “fell on” or, better, “smashed” me. But who cares about such a semantic trifle? The fact is, books have fallen on my head. My metamorphosis is about to take place.
I hesitate to disturb comrades of the Book Preservation Society. I don’t want to cause any trouble for them. They are accustomed to hiding in the city like phantoms. With only a few exceptions, most of them don’t enjoy interacting, let alone attracting attention. Only when they occasionally bump into each other do they greet themselves timidly, like hedgehogs in winter that can only touch each other hastily, who want to snuggle for warmth but are put off by a greater fear of being hurt by others’ spines. Sorry, passive voice again.
Since the trend of throwing books away for good occasioned by the Anti-spoon-feeding-education Movement in the city of H. turned into an anti-intellectual and offensive Hit-Your-Head Movement (“Don’t just read all the time, or I’ll throw a book at your goddamn head!”), the Book Preservation Society was formed. But because we are hedgehogs, our Society’s organization is very loose, and our actions are passive. Whenever a member’s head is hit with books, we record it and count the number of survivors. As for the legendary free emergency service, it does exist, but most people have forgotten the designated location. According to a survey, for comrades whose head got hit with books, one of the initial symptoms is forgetting the emergency location. Therefore, successful cases are very rare.
Everyone knows that people who have been hit with books on the head can live happily ever after without ever reading a book again. This lent the Hit-Your-Head Movement a kind of legitimacy. It was considered an effective shock therapy. Some people even believed that throwing books at people and helping them to quit books were the responsibilities of good citizens. The belief spread and became a trend. The reading population dropped sharply. As for stubborn book readers who resisted being reformed by society, they gave up appearing outdoors and concealed themselves in neglected old districts and shabby buildings. Hence, the marginal returns of hitting a book reader by throwing books at people’s heads in public places declined. Citizens were no longer passionate about it. The spirit of the Hit-Your-Head Movement cooled down. The population of book readers became stable then. But as survivors grew old, and people were sometimes hit by books accidentally like me, the population kept falling naturally.
When the population of book readers shrank to a critical point, all book readers in the town realized that they had acquired a sixth sense. They could recognize each other in the crowd, just like homosexuals before the 1970s who could find each other by just looking into their eyes without being noticed by heterosexuals. There were no visible traits common to book readers—okay, a reader might be poorly dressed and look a bit shabby, but this could be covered up with effort. The most puzzling thing was, all of a sudden, all book readers in the town could recognize other book readers. Although they did not know what others were reading or what sort of practice others were doing, they were certain that those people were reading books. And once they realized that they were not alone, their brains were mysteriously implanted with the complete and auto-updated memorandum of the Book Preservation Society. I have been in an excited state since I recognized my book-reading comrades and joined the Book Preservation Society.
More amazingly, as book readers became increasingly rare, surviving book readers developed a greater appetite for books. Every now and again, they would experience a physiological surge of increased energy for reading books. I realized that every time I sensed such a surge in energy, some other book reader whom I knew would have got hit on the head with books not long ago. Was it that his or her reading energy was absorbed by other book readers? Was there a certain medium that transmitted his or her energy to us? Was the energy shared equally among the survivors, or was the distribution uneven? I have not figured out the pattern yet. I tried consulting my peers, but some of them were looking for an answer like me, while some others refused to share their private thoughts. There were also people who were angry with me for being greedy, as if I wanted to profit from the dead. But no one denied that almost every book reader experienced occasional upgrades and very often, the upgrades were empowered by our predecessors.
As my appetite for books increased, I collected an increasing number of books. Everyone knows that land is a scarcity in the city of H. And for keeping ourselves in secret, we usually hide in windowless small rooms, reducing our footprints as much as possible. We have our meals with books and secretly practice our way and prepare to fight a long battle. Comrades of the Book Preservation Society of course know that we must protect our heads, as the first page of the memorandum reads: Always keep books away from your head. But space in my apartment was really limited and I had too many books. They must have been annoyed crowding together, began climbing to higher shelves without my noticing and fell on my head.
Now, I have to leave you all. The moment when my head got hit with books, my destiny was imminent. Everyone knows that I cannot be saved. Even if I report, record, and file my case and go to the designated location for emergency treatment, these are only formalities. The fact is I have to leave you all. It is also an unwritten rule that anyone whose head has been hit with books has to leave the Book Preservation Society. I will become a new person, like a patient of dementia, forgetting the books I read and travel on a different road. I am not going to bid you farewell, let me leave quietly. If my withdrawal can empower my comrades, I will abide with you forever.
(Written in March 2008, for the memorial of Law Chi-wah, Ching Man Bookshop and all independent bookshops closed down in Hong Kong).
Chan Koonchung is a Hong Kong writer and critic currently lives in Beijing. Previously, he was a journalist, scriptwriter, film producer, magazine editor and publisher. He is a co-founder of City Magazine and the Hong Kong environmental group, Green Power. He has also served as a board member of Greenpeace International. He is the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction on Hong Kong culture. His novels, The Fat Years and The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver, have been translated into English, while the former is also available in 14 languages worldwide.
Charlie Ng Chak-Kwan is Asymptote’s Hong Kong editor-at-large. She obtained her B.A. in English and M.Phil in English (Literary Studies) from the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2007 and 2009 respectively. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a PhD in English Literature. Her writings have appeared in Qiu Ying Poetry, Fleurs des Lettres, Sound and Rhyme Poetry Bimonthly and CU Writing in English. She is currently a full-time translator and part-time lecturer.
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