Chinese history teacher Kenneth Cheng Tai-king used to huddle around piles of books at community centres in Hong Kong when he was a child, indulging in all the stories within. Books have also always been his bread and butter. Before embarking on his career in education, he had worked for a bookstore while on a gap year to retake an English examination needed for university entrance. He graduated from Chinese University in the 1980s, and following a teaching career that spanned more than two decades, the 56-year-old early retiree is taking on another mission – also centred on books. Cheng moved to Britain last year and is in the process of setting up a Chinese-language library there, aimed at the growing Hong Kong diaspora. His establishment will also contain titles that may be deemed too sensitive to be kept in the city under the Beijing-imposed national security law . But Cheng stressed it was “not about politics”. “This is about preservation of history and conservation of culture,” he said, during a virtual interview with the Post . Currently based in Crewe, a town in Cheshire, in northwest England, Cheng recently got hold of all shipments of books from his personal collection and donations, which cost him more than HK$40,000 (US$5,099) to deliver. Hong Kong libraries pull democracy activists’ books for national security review He plans to start hunting for an ideal location once he finishes drawing up a list for the more than 2,000 titles he holds, spanning a wide spectrum of disciplines. “A lot of the books I dealt with were about history, literature and culture,” he said, adding that he would also expand his children’s collection. Cheng is among the tens of thousands of Hongkongers estimated to have moved to the UK over the past two years, most having made use of the British National (Overseas) visa scheme, which provides a pathway to citizenship. About 88,900 Hongkongers have applied for the scheme as of earlier this year. An Australian citizen, Cheng could have started the project down under, but the retired teacher is gunning for a wider audience in the UK. Since the security law was enacted in Hong Kong two years ago, public libraries there have removed works by opposition figures or those critical of the central government. The expansive list included the writings of student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying , both currently detained under the wide-ranging legislation which bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. An independent English bookstore, Bleak House, in Hong Kong – which sold several titles on the 2019 anti-government protests among a wider collection of classics, fiction and philosophy – also folded abruptly last year, with the owner citing concerns over his family’s future, “given the state of politics in Hong Kong”. The latest episode involved Yeung Tsz-chun, a former teacher-turned outspoken publisher who was injured in the eye by a projectile fired by police during the 2019 social unrest. Yeung was charged last week for joining illegal assemblies that year. Cheng said titles he intended to display would include records of events during the 2019 protests. One of them could be The Disappeared Lennon Wall , a popular item among opposition supporters which documented the trend of colourful stickers plastered on facades throughout the city by protesters, containing words of encouragement for each other and political slogans. “People who have studied history will naturally ask: ‘Can I preserve it?’” Cheng noted. “How these events should be interpreted is left to the public. But for a historian, it would not be a complete collection if it only contained the official version.” Cheng said he expected that as Hongkongers settled down in Britain, they would begin to look for spiritual support. That is where his library comes into play. Librarian suspended after Jimmy Lai books put on recommended reading shelf For Doris Wong, who lives in Sunderland, the censored titles touted by Cheng would be the main attraction for readers. “You can get normal titles online. But books that recorded what happened in Hong Kong in the past years aren’t available everywhere,” said the mother, a British passport holder, who has moved to the port city in northern England where her daughter just graduated from a master’s course. Another Hong Kong migrant, a mother who moved to Liverpool last year, said she brought Chinese books with her to teach her daughter the language. “If there is a library for Hongkongers that can offer many interesting Chinese-language picture books, it will certainly provide a crucial channel for the second generation of Hongkongers to learn about their own culture,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Carly Wu, 26, a Hongkonger in the UK since 2019, said the Chinese books she could find in North London, where she is now based, were mostly in simplified Chinese. Rather than politically charged titles, she suggested, the library should focus on building a broad range of topics in traditional Chinese, the script still used in Hong Kong. She cast doubt on Cheng’s idea, questioning if demand would last once the novelty of the place faded: “I may want to pay one or two visits for the fact that it is new.” Wu suggested that for the library to take off, it would have to brand itself as trendy, such as Kubrick, a fashionable book cafe in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei. Both Wong and Wu pointed to the same set of challenges Cheng might face, that if readers could easily buy Chinese titles online, they would not need his library. Living Culture, a bookstore specialising in traditional Chinese publications, shut its Liverpool shop in August last year, marking a possible implication of this trend. Reading between the ‘red lines’: bookshops try to navigate security law For now, Cheng envisions a place where guests will be reading from a second- or third-floor cosy space amid soft music, boasting views of the streets below through floor-to-ceiling windows. He conceded, however, that he had not yet given much thought to financing apart from using his own savings. His current concern is the location of his brainchild to maximise its reach, given the size of the country. In the spirit of spreading knowledge as widely as possible, Cheng suggested that like-minded people should set up shop in their respective adopted cities. “I hope those who have the heart to open their own shop … for those with the will, open yours in Edinburgh, Bristol, Birmingham and Nottingham,” he said.