I’ve always been irked by the reputation libraries have been stamped with in England. Many of my friends view libraries as merely functional spaces, monopolised by grandmas, children, and those ‘stuck-in-the-past’ folk (a.k.a those who reject shelling out for books and postage on Amazon). They see their local library in the same way they see a toilet — just useful, and for one thing only (or two, if you’re being hilarious).
This viewpoint is alien in Hong Kong.
I should’ve known. After all, bookshops in Hong Kong are places of excitement, activity, even revelry, if you can believe it. All sorts of people pass through their doors, instead of the doors of the many other exciting venues Hong Kong has to offer. This cross-section of customers reflects Hong Kong’s diverse population; from young couples to middle-aged business men, local millennials to 30-something Westerners you’d normally find littering the streets, intoxicated, on Friday nights. This ragtag collective browse the spines at all and any times of the day, from screen-free lunch breaks to help them tune out of work, to post-dinner aisle-strolls, seeking some kind of intellectual dessert.
Central Public Library is the biggest and most revered library in Hong Kong. Even its architecture is special: the arch-shaped doorway on the front of the building represents the Gate to Knowledge. On a warm day last September, walking up the grand steps — inscribed with famous, inspirational quotes — and through the airy lobby, I began a relationship much deeper than one of mere book-borrowing.
While the ‘happening’ vibe of bookstores couldn’t be found there (even regular-decibel speech was reprimanded), the seemingly-endless resources, the ample — and therefore, rare— space, and, as a result, its popularity, was like nothing I had ever known, even in bookish London. People queued outside the front doors with itchy feet and frequent watch-checks, like bargain-hunters on Black Friday. When the doors opened, everyone migrated from their orderly queueing lines into singular molecules, darting into open spaces towards the right section, or sought-after reading spot.
After becoming acquainted with the general fiction and non-fiction floors, I discovered the language learning centre — a room enabling people to listen to audiobooks in a myriad of languages, like the Love Actually set-up I’d failed to find in London — then, the daily newspapers and periodicals from around the world, the magazines organised by genre, and the old documents, accessible through a clunky, grey, magnifying computer that looked to be straight out of the 1980s. Alongside the endless reading material, there were computers, desks and seats of various styles and squishiness.
My mania reached its peak when I ventured beyond the sixth floor. Up on Eighth lay the reference section. Things I’d never showed any interest in suddenly seemed imperative to my daily life, things I would, must, read.
‘What is it about libraries?’ A friend asked one day, after I’d disclosed my — by now, relatively predictable, and thus, to some, relatively strange — whereabouts.
The only answer I could offer was that being in that environment, surrounded by things to read, things I wanted to hold and collect and absorb, kindled all of my favourite (and interestingly, oxymoronic) feelings simultaneously: excited, calm, comfortable, inspired, at peace.
Schroeder believed that if a place evoked feelings or thoughts, then it was meaningful enough for ‘place attachment’ to occur. Within the first four weeks of my relationship with the library, I was definitely attached, if not wholly obsessed. It’s reassuring to know, though, that in Hong Kong, with its library lines and bookshop crowds, I’m not the only one.