Warning label on 'Fifty Shades', but obscenity checks on English books lax

Erotic novels slapped with warning label at city's newest bookstore as obscenity watchdog's expert says the explicit content is 'indecent'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 August, 2012, 4:59am

The city's newest bookstore has slapped a warning label on a popular erotic trilogy.

The Eslite bookstore in Causeway Bay last week added a "restricted content" tag - in Chinese - on copies of the English-language novel Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, which follow a couple's sadomasochistic relationship. The store had previously displayed the novels without any warning.

A spokesman for Eslite said the decision was made "after consultation with their lawyers", but said he could not elaborate.

In nearby bookstores such as Commercial Press, however, the novels remained on sale without a warning label as of last night.

A veteran obscenity adjudicator said controls on English-language publications were lax.

English author E. L. James' erotic trilogy - the other books are called Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed - had sold more than 19 million copies in the US alone by July. They have surpassed sales of the seven Harry Potter books at Amazon UK.

The novels depict explicit sex scenes between college student Anastasia Steele and tycoon Christian Grey, mixed with romantic ideals, earning it the nickname "mommy porn".

A veteran adjudicator for the Obscene Articles Tribunal, Yip Hing-kwok, said the books should have been classified as indecent as they "talk about intercourse between the two [lead characters] and even describe oral sex".

In Hong Kong, all materials classified as indecent should be wrapped in plastic with a label that restricts sales to those over the age of 18. Publishers may voluntarily submit books to the tribunal for classification.

Yip admitted that the novels were allowed to be sold freely due to relatively lax policing of English-language materials.

"Government agents regularly check Chinese magazines. However, I was rarely sent any English materials, even Playboy, for classification," said Yip, who has served on the tribunal for more than a decade. He said that because of limited manpower, officials tended to focus on Chinese-language publications, which have a broader reach.

The obscenity watchdog's spokeswoman says no one has complained about Fifty Shades of Grey to the Communications Authority, which submits materials to the tribunal for classification.

James, the author, intended the Fifty Shades series as a "fan fiction" tribute to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, but ended up writing adult content that bore little resemblance to the popular vampire books.

All three erotic novels made it to Dymocks' top-10 list of books for adults. Teenagers were seen buying them at the Hong Kong Book Fair, which supposedly bans indecent content.

Those caught publishing indecent material face a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a HK$400,000 fine on first conviction, and an HK$800,000 fine and a one-year jail term for subsequent offences.

Based on Yip's experience, any material that involves intercourse would be classified as indecent or obscene. Photo or video sex scenes obscured by pixels, for example, are deemed indecent, and those that are not pixellated are classified as obscene.

Another adjudicator, lawmaker Peter Cheung Kwok-che, said he dealt with illustrated publications and was never asked to classify a work of fiction, either in Chinese or English.

Jimmy Pang Chi-ming, of the Sub-Culture publishing house, said adjudicators lacked cultural training to differentiate art from obscenity. "It would be a joke if they are asked to judge if Madame Bovary was obscene," he said, referring to Gustave Flaubert's 1856 novel about the adulterous trysts of a doctor's wife.

In 1994, the obscenity tribunal ruled that a picture of Michelangelo's nude sculpture David was unsuitable for children.