For years, Jason Wong put aside a day for himself at a library every weekend, when he would browse through his favourite fantasy novels, and take home one or two that he could not put down.
The 32-year-old clerk says reading in libraries has been a great form of escapism, but the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted his routine by forcing their closure.
Being unable to read in an open, calm environment has been a struggle, says Wong, who has frequented libraries since his secondary schooldays and is a fan of books like JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
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At first, he had difficulty coming up with other things to do while confined at home in North Point, where he lives with his parents and a younger brother. He also put off visits to bookstores with friends to avoid gathering.
“Books provide me an emotional and creative outlet,” he says. “But the pandemic and its disruptions have forced me to bottle up many of my thoughts and emotions.”
Like Wong, many readers in Hong Kong have been disheartened by the closure of public libraries and suspension of book events and reading activities.
All public libraries were closed on July 15 with the arrival of the third wave of coronavirus infections. With the situation gradually stabilising, the central library, six major libraries and 31 district libraries were partially reopened in mid-September, while the remaining 32 small libraries and all mobile libraries resumed service this week.
The libraries have strengthened cleaning and disinfection, and reduced the number of seats. Readers must have their temperatures checked before entry, and wear masks inside.
Many book lovers say they have been reading more during lockdown.
In a survey of about 400 people by the Hong Kong Publishing Professionals Society in June, more than 40 per cent said they read more during the pandemic – an average of 7.4 physical books over the past year.
Those who read said their main reasons included gaining knowledge and entertainment, whereas most who had not read any book over the past year said they did not have the habit, or had no time.
Most Hongkongers read literature and fiction, followed by self-help books, while books about finance and management were the least popular, the survey showed.
‘Pandemic a setback to reading’
Regular library-goer Tsui, 70, was undeterred by the heavy rain on Tuesday morning. He made his way to the Hong Kong Central Library in Causeway Bay, a 15-minute walk from his home in Tin Hau.
The retiree from the catering sector, who only gave his surname, used to go to the library almost every morning, mainly to read the local Chinese newspapers and keep up with the city’s current affairs.
He says he stayed home most of the time when the pandemic was most severe in July, but recently returned to the library.
There are fewer people and fewer seats, but Tsui says he enjoys the quieter reading environment, and the protective measures make him feel safe.
“It is better than being confined at home with nothing to do. The reading environment makes me feel relaxed,” he says.
Mary Wang, mother of a four-year-old boy, went to the library on Tuesday morning to borrow children’s books and educational material.
The housewife says she used to visit the library regularly to borrow books for her son, as well as parenting books for herself.
During the pandemic, she resorted to reading electronic books on her digital tablet. But since she limits her son’s screen time to two hours a day, he has been reading less.
“I want to cultivate in my son a passion for reading, so I read a lot to him and encourage him to read,” she says. “But the pandemic has been a setback to that effort.”
Book clubs, reading activities disrupted
The pandemic has disrupted various reading activities and events.
The Books & Beyond Reading Club, a charitable group dedicated to encouraging underprivileged children to read in English, used to hold regular English-language storytelling sessions for about 500 pupils in more than 20 primary schools, but had to suspend all activities when schools closed in January.
The club has organised more than 300 online storytelling classes since March, and in each hour-long session, two volunteers tell a story to four children and interact with them.
Club founder Barbara Kwok Pui-yin says she has seen a decline in reading ability among pupils, and parents are worried.
“Some students do not respond, can hardly read or speak, or have become less confident,” she says. “Reading should be a continuous and lifelong process.”
Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation formed in 2006, has set up about 450 libraries in schools and community centres across Hong Kong, where children from low-income families can borrow books. Since January, most of the libraries have been closed, according to Pia Wong, executive director of the organisation.
To help children keep up with their reading, the organisation has distributed 320 book packs, each with five books, to members.
It started a weekly online storytelling series in February, featuring school principals and celebrities, including retired Chinese world diving champion Guo Jingjing and Hong Kong actress Angela Tong.
Wong says that during the pandemic, most children and their parents have preferred lighthearted books, including You Are Not Small, Should I Share My Ice Cream?, and Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes.
“Being able to read calming and fun books together has provided a huge respite for so many families, and helped to reduce anxiety and forge closer bonds, particularly during times of increased stress and uncertainty,” she says.
Readers turn online
With people having to stay home, online book sales have also risen.
During the pandemic, online bookshop Elephants.com.hk has seen its sales more than double compared to the same period last year, according to Andrew Kwan, its business development officer.
He says children’s books and exam preparation books have been the most popular, as well as story books that tell children about health and hygiene.
The demand for electronic textbooks has also surged, as students attended online learning at home when schools closed, he says.
The annual Hong Kong Book Fair, which was moved from July to December, introduced an enhanced online platform for people to buy books during the pandemic.
A new Book Fair Online section on its website and mobile application has more than 210 exhibitors’ online retail platforms with over 110,000 books on sale, according to the organiser, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
Book lover Wong, meanwhile, has started revisiting some of his favourite books at home, and turned to electronic books as well.
He is currently reading the 2006 zombie apocalyptic horror novel World War Z, which reminds him of the pandemic.
“Comparing real world events with fictional ones is a great way for me to kill time,” he says.
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