Closing the book on a community institution

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:07pm


There is only one store doing business on this street in Kwun Tong; the others are locked up - bought out for redevelopment by the government.

The last shop standing is the Ling Kee Bookstore. It has rented out books from this location - a side street off Yue Man Square, in Kwun Tong - for almost 50 years. Owner Chan Lap-man, who took over the shop from his father, has worked the business into the fabric of the long-established neighbourhood.

'The future will bring more residential and commercial buildings,' he said. 'And the new stores on street level - they won't be for us [the old neighbourhood businesses]. Only chain-stores like Mannings will be able to afford the prices.'

Ling Kee Bookstore served as a community library, renting out favourite reads to locals and factory workers for low fees. However, government redevelopment will force it to relocate, and the compensation will not be enough for the family to reopen in the district.

'I just want to reopen our store in this neighbourhood. I want to do this more than I want money,' said Chan. To him and his father, Chan Hi-lung, who founded the business, it was their neighbours and the sense of community that made the business worth doing.

Ling Kee will receive HK$300,000 in compensation. That sum is based on the bookstore's monthly rent - which in Ling Kee's case is only HK$8,500 - multiplied by 36 months.

The sad irony is that the shop's rent has been kept low because of its long-standing history in the community. But now that benevolence has a sting in its tail - higher rent would have meant more compensation.

The sum is far from enough to allow the Chans to reopen the store in the neighbourhood.

'It will cost at least HK$70,000 a month to rent a store here [after redevelopment],' said Chan Lap-man. 'Our good relationship with our owners and neighbours actually became a disadvantage to us.'

The elder Chan, 84, remembers Kwun Tong when it was a hub for factories in the 1950s and 60s, and the bookstore's block was filled with canteens and hawker snacks.

He recalls when his alley was lined with fresh noodle stalls, shops selling tofu and Chinese bakeries. Now most the stores have moved away, and their places will be taken by generic malls and residential blocks.

'Nowadays, the local folks tell me that they don't have much choice apart from Cafe de Coral or Pizza Hut,' said the younger Chan. 'The government doesn't seem to understand what community means. It's the day-to-day living and interacting in a neighbourhood that we really care about.

'Soon, all the different districts will be exactly the same - malls, chain stores and high-rise, high-priced buildings. All the special features unique to an area will be gone because we'll have destroyed our local communities.'

The government should offer more than a one-off financial settlement for all tenants, Chan said. Instead of just taking cash, many tenants want to work out a way to remain in the area - but the government has put no such option on the table.

The elder Chan started renting the little store in 1966, for HK$250 a month. At first he rented out comics, then switched to serialised novels.

Now the bookstore has new installments of novels coming in daily, and Chan said he spends HK$1,000 on them every day. The store still earns HK$3,000 to HK$4,000 a day renting out books for HK$8 each. The younger Chan said he often gives discounts to people he knows are unemployed or who have retired - charging just HK$5.

'This is what I call home. We all help each other out,' said the elder Chan. Every morning the store opens as early as 5am - so those going to work or to school can grab a fresh read on the way - and closes at 6pm or 7pm.

'We cater to everyone. Even the working class and so-called poor should have the opportunity to read,' said the younger Chan. Their shop carries books not found in libraries - usually Taiwanese or Hong Kong martial arts and hero-centred adventure novels, a favourite genre among the locals.

The deadline has passed for the Chans to accept the government's offer, and now the family is looking for a lawyer to try to protect their rights. Loyal customers are petitioning the government to rethink the matter. The younger Chan said: 'It seems like they [the government] are treating us like beggars - giving us a few dollars to make us disappear.'