A South China Morning Post article last week reported Hong Kong people are falling out of love with city libraries. The rampant usage of smartphones was cited for the decline in book rentals. Library officials lamented the decreasing figures and commentators criticised the cities reading culture, which has been ‘in decline for years’. On the other hand, domestic workers have been busy setting up unofficial mobile libraries across the city because the Hong Kong libraries don’t cater for their needs.
Since 2009, the department has expanded its library collection from 12.5 million books and multimedia materials to 13.1 million. Yet, the number of books rented fell 6.2 million over the past five years, from 61.7 million in 2009 to 55.5 million last year. A spokesperson for the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which manages the public libraries told the SCMP that “professional judgement was exercised in the acquisition of books to meet the different needs of various groups, including ethnic minorities”, and the collections remained “highly popular among readers”.
While officials lament a decline in Hong Konger’s reading habits and claim to provide a service to ethnic minorities, the city’s domestic workers have been busy setting up mobile libraries to cater for increasing demand from the city’s domestic workers. No official numbers exist but on a given Sunday you are likely to find approximately 10 mobile libraries doing a bustling trade in the proximity of Victoria Park in Causeway Bay.
Lulu set up ‘Bai Perpustakaan’ a mobile library in 2012 to provide books for those looking to read in Bahasa Indonesian because the Hong Kong library doesn’t cater for their needs.
Every Sunday Lulu sits under the flyover just across the road from Hong Kong’s largest library, Central Library. Under the overbearing shadow she opens her suitcase full of books, prepares her log book and sitting on a plastic sheet, warmly greets a steady flow of engaged readers.
In Lulu’s library, books can be rented for free and people are allowed to keep their books for up to two weeks. Donations are accepted and funds received are used to purchase new books. The most popular genres in Lulu’s library are self-motivation, fiction and religion.
She told Stories Beyond Borders: “I set this up last year as many helpers weren’t able to get a library card and the library doesn’t have many books in Bahasa. My employer doesn’t live in Hong Kong so I wasn’t able to get (my employer) to sign permission for me to attain a library card.”
This story isn’t uncommon. Many domestic workers have been unable to get library cards because some employers have refused to allow them use their apartment as a proof of address, or employers are not available to sign the application form. The rules are different for other foreign workers (commonly referred to as ‘expats’) in Hong Kong, who don’t need their employers to sign library application forms.
The enormous Hong Kong library houses millions of books, but few are accessible to domestic workers in Hong Kong. The Central library has over 2.3 million titles, 750,000 of these are in English with the rest primarily in Chinese. The library doesn’t provide books in other languages, other than language learning material.
According to a library representative: “We only serve Hong Kong’s two official languages: English and Chinese. We have language learning materials for international languages such as Spanish and French, but we wouldn’t have Spanish fiction, for example. We do have a few  books on reserve in Bahasa Indonesian, these can be requested but cannot be removed from the library.”
For Spanish and French speakers there are thousands of options available, but for Bahasa Indonesian and Tagalog (Filipino) there are 53 and 7 titles respectively. Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers make up 98% of the city’s migrant domestic workforce of over 320,000. However, there are just over 10,000 French migrant workers in Hong Kong, the numbers of Spanish migrant workers are even less than this. On top of the low number of Bahasa and Tagalog books, not one of them can be taken out of the library.
Our thirst for knowledge is not quenched by the stamp on our passport. While officials lament decreasing library usage, why don’t they provide books for domestic workers to read? The Hong Kong Public Library is “committed to promoting reading and encouraging the public to develop an interest in reading”. Are domestic workers not members of the public? This discrimination based on language is a shining example of how the Hong Kong government firmly keeps the domestic worker community as third class citizens. One reason why so many people in financial poverty tolerate mistreatment, abuse and neglect is the hope for a better future. Education is an equalizer like no other. Deny workers that, and the status quo remains.
An investigation & guest post by reader William Fitzgerald.