In Hong Kong's densely packed Causeway Bay district, a red sign with a portrait of Chairman Mao looms over the bustling storefronts and shoppers. The sign indicates that there is coffee, books and Internet on offer inside.
Customers go past a window where travelers can exchange foreign currencies, up a narrow staircase and into a room stacked high with books. The walls are painted red and decked out with 1960s Cultural Revolution propaganda posters and other Mao-era memorabilia. The aroma of coffee and the sound of jazz waft over the book-browsing customers.
This is the People's Bookstore (in Chinese, "People's Commune"), run by Hong Kong entrepreneur Paul Tang. Tang got his start selling Chinese-language books from the mainland in 2002. A year later, China's government began allowing individual mainland travelers to visit Hong Kong. Previously, they were only allowed to go in tour groups.
Tang changed his product line to accommodate the influx of mainland customers. He began specializing in books about China — mostly about high-level political intrigue, sex scandals and the like — published legally in Hong Kong, but banned on the mainland.
Tang's bookstore has been receiving quite a bit of attention since the disappearance of five booksellers at the nearby Causeway Bay Bookstore and its affiliated publishing house, Mighty Current, both of which specialize in books forbidden on the mainland.
The last of the five, bookseller Lee Bo, disappeared more than a month ago. He and a colleague resurfaced in police custody on the mainland. Authorities offered no explanation for how they got there, leading to fears that the men were kidnapped.
"It's really, really horrible for me to look at," Tang says, sitting in his bookstore. At the same time, he adds, he's not worried too much about his own safety or his business. That's because the nascent crackdown appears geared more toward the publisher and the closely linked bookstore.
"For the government, we're too small" to bother with, Tang says. He notes that the books in question remain widely available in Hong Kong, from curbside newspaper stands to convenience stores to the Hong Kong airport.
Tang shows me a few examples of hot-selling titles in his store.
Struggle for Control of the 19th Communist Party Congress Standing Committee is about a meeting of China's ruling party that's still more than a year off.
Tang explains that this title sells well because mainland businessmen and officials want to know about leadership reshuffles that could affect their careers — something they're unlikely to glean from mainland media.
Next, he points to a book predicting that China will be hit by a great economic depression in 2017. He notes that this title has come out several years in a row, and the authors' failed predictions have apparently not hurt sales much for the latest installment.
Finally, Tang picks up another book to make the point that not everything he sells is pulp nonfiction, based on rumor and speculation. Prisoner of the State is an inside account of high-level politics during the 1980s and 1990s, by the late, deposed party boss Zhao Ziyang.
Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, Zhao was put under house arrest, where he divulged details in a series of conversations. The audiotapes of these talks were then smuggled out to Hong Kong to be published.
In the store, I meet a frequent visitor from the mainland, who only gives his surname, Zhang. He's browsing a book on a topic completely absent from mainland bookstores: the independence movement in China's far west region of Xinjiang.
"In theory, the mainland enjoys freedom of the press," he tells me in a hushed voice. "But in reality, we're not allowed to mention these forbidden topics. So many mainland readers come looking for these books out of curiosity. To put it simply, over here, you can read the truth."
Paul Tang cares about helping his mainland customers. He believes in the freedom of speech and the press guaranteed under Hong Kong's laws.
While some mainland-owned booksellers have taken banned books off their shelves, Tang says, "We will keep our style."
However, he predicts that if the current crackdown takes out too many publishers, "we may need to migrate to other topics, in case we don't have enough products for customers."
Tang confides that he really stumbled upon the banned book business while studying food science. He admits that at the time, he was "not a real book guy."
His foremost aim has always been to meet the needs of his customers. Besides banned books, he found that his customers also bought large amounts of milk powder in Hong Kong. This stemmed from a 2008 scandal in which mainland milk and milk powder were found to be tainted with the industrial chemical melamine. A section in Tang's bookstore is stocked with large cans of imported milk powder.
At the moment, Tang is also looking into the caviar business. So if all else fails, at least he can fall back on selling fish eggs.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And let's hear now about booksellers in Hong Kong selling something that's banned in mainland China. That would be books on Chinese politics. And stocking them appears to have led to the mysterious disappearance of five booksellers. NPR's Anthony Kuhn paid a visit to one of Hong Kong's booksellers who continued to supply customers on the mainland with the fruit of forbidden knowledge.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The sound of mellow jazz and the aroma of brewing coffee at the tiny People's Bookstore has the effect of chilling customers out. It's in Causeway Bay, a popular shopping district not far from another bookstore whose closure has had a different sort of chilling effect. It's been more than a month since Lee Bo, the last of the five booksellers from the Causeway Bay bookstore, disappeared from Hong Kong. Lee and a colleague have since showed up on the mainland in police custody. But authorities haven't explained how they got there, leading to fears that they were kidnapped. Despite all this, People's Bookstore owner Paul Tang appears unruffled.
PAUL TANG: It's really, really horrible for me to look at this. But I'm not really care about myself because I know that for a bookstore, we won't have a big influence to the big country. For government, we are too small.
KUHN: Until recently, mainland residents could only travel to Hong Kong in tour groups. When that restriction was lifted just over a decade ago, mainland tourists started to pour into the territory. And Paul Tang reinvented his store.
You've got the place painted red. You've got Cultural Revolution, Mao badges and little red books. I assume this was your thought to attract mainland customers. Is that right?
TANG: We have no choice because mainlanders is already in Causeway Bay. So we need to fulfill their needs. And if their needs are banned books, OK, we find banned books for them.
KUHN: And if they need milk powder because of a tainted milk scare on the mainland, he'll sell that, too. He's got big cans of it on the shelf. Tang's barista whips up a cappuccino, and we get up to check out some books.
OK, what would you like to show me?
TANG: This is talking about the 2017, the great depression inside China. Of course most people think that it may be [expletive].
KUHN: Tang explains that many of the books he sells are like this - pulp nonfiction based on speculation and rumor. But there are also serious titles, such as "Prisoner Of The State," an inside account of high-level politics during the 1980s and '90s by the late, deposed party boss Zhao Ziyang.
TANG: This is a classic one. It's not the gossipy, not the juicy stuff. This is highly recommend for all customers when they come from China.
KUHN: A mainland customer who only gives his family name, Zhang, is perusing a book on a topic completely absent from mainland bookstores, the independence movement in China's far western region of Xinjiang.
ZHANG: (Speaking Chinese).
KUHN: "In theory, the mainland enjoys freedom of the press," he says. "But in reality, we're not allowed to mention these forbidden topics. So many mainland readers come looking for these books out of curiosity. To put it simply, over here, you can read the truth." Helping mainland customers get the truth is important to proprietor Paul Tang. He believes in the free speech Hong Kong's laws guarantee him. And he notes that banned books are still widely available at everything from newspaper stands in 7-Elevens to the Hong Kong airport.
TANG: We won't, like, take the books down like the chain bookstore in Hong Kong. We keep our style because we don't find that using this kind of pressure to bookstore is effective.
KUHN: Still, Tang is at heart pragmatic. He admits that before he stumbled upon the field of banned books, he was exploring other areas.
TANG: I am not a real book guy. I'm studying food science before.
KUHN: He's still looking at the caviar business. So if the publishers of banned books are all shut down, fish eggs may provide a viable alternative. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.