The peak tram was vertiginous fun. The temples beloved of police and Triads, full of huge hanging spirals of incense and piles of offerings, were atmospheric as Cantonese gangster movies. Riding the rolling Star ferries over the harbour put historic grubby glamour into a trip across town. But what I liked best about Hong Kong was the central library.
Nine wonderful modern floors of space and hush and books books books. Escalators gliding silently up and down; glass lifts. A great coffee shop. Lots and lots of people, from teenagers in old-fashioned school uniform doing their homework to pensioners reading newspapers to toddlers leafing through picture books with their nannies, from Filipino maids writing e-mails home to hopeful foreigners printing out their CVs to literature-starved travellers devouring novels as if there was no tomorrow…
Of course I’ve been starved of English books after eight months travelling. And then there’s the fact that on the shelves I found not one but two copies of a really quite obscure book I’ve been wanting to read for ages as research for the novel I’m working on. But it was clearly not just me who found it a comfortable, useful, inspiring, peaceful, educational haven from the madness of Hong Kong. I wanted to curl up under a less-visited shelf and sleep there.
It’s a legacy of the British in Hong Kong that I found so many English books alongside the shelves and shelves of Chinese ones. Meanwhile, back at home, the British are busy closing down half their libraries.
When I was living in Brent, London, I was lucky enough to have two libraries to choose from. One was small and cosy and friendly, full of mums and toddlers of numberless nationalities, and old people reading crime novels in big print. The other was big and I have to admit, I didn’t like as much; the staff didn’t seem to know much or really care about the books; and then they introduced an electronic loans system which didn’t work properly and which made it far too easy to just lose your loans and never return them. But that library was incredibly busy. EFL classes, workshops on CV-writing and job applications, extra coaching for school kids, launches for this that and the other. Always full of children of all ages who didn’t want to or couldn’t go home – and at least some of them reading books. Always a babble of a hundred different languages and accents (this library was never silent). From the point of view of pure, quiet, old-fashioned respect for books, I didn’t like it all that much, but I went there pretty much every week because as a microcosm of living and working and playing (and sometimes reading) Brent society, it was fantastic.
I’m a long way from Brent now but I am depressed and very angry at the decision of Brent council to close six of its libraries, with apparently only the most spurious logic to back up that decision and an arrogant disregard for what local people want.
What will happen to the spaces that were donated to the people of Brent to use as a community for free? What will happen to all the books? Maybe they’ll be shipped out to China, where both councils and people still seem to appreciate them (and the power they have…)
Just over the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen is a vast new library, even bigger and busier than the Hong Kong one. Shenzhen has one of the youngest, most varied, and most upwardly-mobile populations of all Chinese cities. People come here from all over the country to get rich – and to get self-educated.
In the English language section of Shenzhen library I found worthy Communist Chinese literature translated into fairly unreadable English, whole sets of Classics, and a selection of very intriguing titles such as The Transvestite Achilles, The Empire of Stereotype, Dracula and the Eastern Question, Beyond Arthurian Romance…