LGBT children’s book row, and other controversies, the only time Hong Kong pays attention to libraries (or reading)

Alice Wu says the government is only inviting more complaints by caving in to an anti-gay-rights group, at a time when young people are reading less and library visits are falling

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 12:34pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2018, 4:35pm

It’s not the first time Hong Kong’s public libraries have come under fire. Before the latest row over the government decision to shelve LGBT-themed children’s books, localists took issue with the libraries carrying books written in simplified Chinese.

It’s also not the first time people have raised the issue of our libraries stocking books like Daddy, Papa and Me, and Mommy, Mama and Me. In 2014, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) was slammed for the Hong Kong Public Libraries’ decision not to remove them from circulation. What is curious here is the reversing of its original decision, made only four years ago, and the LCSD’s inability to provide a singular convincing reason for it.

In support of keeping such books in circulation four years ago, the LCSD said: “The Collection Development Board of the Hong Kong Public Libraries has reviewed the case and considered it not deviating from the libraries’ collection development policy. It was considered that the book [sic] does not encourage or promote any particular family relationship, or carry obscene or contents of a violent nature, and the book should remain in circulation in the libraries.”

Then, the department defended making the books available by citing its adherence to the Unesco Public Library Manifesto in support of balanced and diverse collections of books, and its commitment to the principle of freedom of expression.

Putting LGBT-themed books behind closed doors is censorship that denies children supportive resources

How can the department now claim it is adhering to the Unesco manifesto or, worst of all, that it cares about freedom of expression? This time, it actually said – in an effort to shoot itself in the foot – that the panel made the decision to move the books to the closed stacks even though it felt seven of the titles were “neutral without promoting homosexual or single-sex marriage”.

Its spineless caving in to the pressure of the Family School Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group is on clear display. And, the group was quick to celebrate its victory all over social media. In this case, the LCSD has shown itself to be very politically naive; in fact, this has to be one of the dumbest moves ever. If it thought it was ridding itself of a political pest by caving in - wrong. Now, every pressure group in town knows that relentlessly pestering the LCSD yields results.

On gay marriage in Hong Kong, equal rights should get priority over social prejudice

What policymakers, librarians and community groups should be concerned with is the lack of a reading culture in Hong Kong. A 2017 survey by the Hong Kong Publishing Professional Society showed that 60 per cent of those under 18 admitted they had not read any printed books other than school textbooks and comic books in a year. The reading culture is so non-existent that Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had to throw HK$48 million at resuscitating reading habits among the young.

Self-service library stations to provide books on demand for Hong Kong readers

But the saddest fact is that without these “controversies”, our public libraries risk being forgotten altogether. A Legislative Council secretariat research brief released in early 2016 showed that visits to the city’s district libraries have kept declining. The “lacklustre library usage” can be attributed to the disgraceful figure of only 1.9 items per capita, one-third less than average for developed cities. So maybe our libraries are just desperate, craving any type of attention these days?

And for those who fear Hong Kong is becoming more like Singapore, don’t worry. Our bureaucrats simply don’t have enough political brains, guts or will to act like the National Library Board in Singapore. It issued a statement that it wouldn’t only remove books featuring plots with gay or unconventional families from its selves, it would also destroy them. And that was in 2014.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA