“I went into hiding in Hong Kong”

an interview with Lam Wing-kee

Finally! (Issue I/2020)


The bookseller Lam Wing-kee in Taipei. Photographer: Gundula Haage

Mr. Lam, in 1994 you founded the bookstore Causeway Bay Books in Hong Kong. What was special about this store?

I love books. It has always been my dream to own my own bookstore. And since 1989, when the student protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing were crushed, I have been looking for ways to express my political views. So I sold political books in my shop. Many of them are banned in China because they are critical of the political situation or because they focused on the private life of high ranking politicians.

Was it dangerous to sell such books in Hong Kong?

Not at first. Up und until 1997 Hong Kong was a British protectorate and there was real freedom of the press. But then Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China and the climate became more intimidating.

How did this threat manifest itself?

Criticism of China was no longer welcome. Things became really difficult from 2013 onwards, when the Head of State Xi Jinping defined seven issues that were not allowed to be discussed, including subjects like freedom of expression and historical errors made by the Communist Party. He made it very clear that he would stamp out the current freedoms in Hong Kong.

In the Autumn of 2015, you and four bookstore employees were kidnapped and locked up in China. How do you remember that time?

I wanted to die. That was the only thought that kept going through my mind. After eight months I was faced with the decision: Either I cooperate with the Chinese government or I remain in captivity. The latter would have meant killing myself.

What were the conditions for my release?

I had to read an admission of guilt that I had imported banned books into China. It was televised. Then I was to return to Hong Kong and hand over information from the bookstore, such as customer lists, to China. I didn't do that. I went into hiding in Hong Kong.

When you returned, you were the only one who spoke publicly about your abduction. Why?

I just had to tell the truth: That I was unlawfully kidnapped and forced to confess. My colleagues who were also kidnapped, all have family members in China. I didn't have to hold myself back to the same extent. At the time of my arrest I also had a partner and she was also held for three months. I haven't seen her since she was released. That's how it is.

How do you feel about the current trials in Hong Kong?

I support them very much. The protests were sparked by the proposed extradition laws. That law would have required Hong Kong to extradite people wanted by China. No one in Hong Kong would be safe if such a law existed. Everyone would have to live with the fear of being sent to China at any time. At the beginning of the protests I could not foresee what would happen, so I applied for asylum in Taiwan, where I now live.

Do you still work with books?

Yes. I set up a start-up in Taipei and within a few days I received five million Taiwan dollars, which is 150,000 euros. With this money, I would now like to open a new bookstore that pursues the same goals as my first store: to educate people with books about the relationship between China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In Taiwan this is not a problem. I can sell any book that I want to.

What happened to your former bookstore in Hong Kong?

It no longer exists. The Communist Party bought up the space and is leaving it empty. It's a sad sight.

The interview was conducted by Gundula Haage

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