In any given city, I am in search of two things: good food and good bookstores. Independent institutions of books and food indicate to me that someone has cared enough about their community to invest in it and contribute to the culture of a place — to surround others in the things that comfort themselves.
One bookstore I visited recently was in Santorini, Greece. At Atlantis Bookstore, there are sloping, painted ceilings, teetering shelves nailed onto whitewashed Cycladic walls and a cobalt bay creating a backdrop so attractive to tourists the business had placed a pail on the corner of the staircase asking for money from those who decide to take photos.
Another, Flow Bookstore in Hong Kong, carries only used English books. Books are organized by five-foot piles rising from the floor. “You don’t have to look at the titles or pictures,” the owner, Surdham Lam, said to me one afternoon. “Just feel out which books draw you in.”
I was visiting Macau’s Júbilo 31 bookstore when I met Yolanda Kog, a local artist and writer, who was sitting on the wooden floor with the owner, Lin Da Xiang. Kog and Lin had met at a cat shelter, bonding as volunteers.
Kog was celebrating her newly published work, a watercolor picture book titled Home that was hardcover with neat, singular lines of prose in traditional Chinese on each page. She decided to leave a few copies with Lin because Lin’s store was not only independent, it was known for its socially aware children’s books, with messages about environmental sustainability or gender fluidity. Stocked full with creative storybooks, picture books and zines, Júbilo 31 welcomed parents for long discussions with Lin and parent-child reading groups. A recent one focused on using books to educate the next generation about poverty and development under globalization.
I lived in Macau for a time, before realizing my Cantonese wasn’t good enough to support a livelihood there. The SAR (special administrative region) is a former Portuguese colony, and was handed off to the People’s Republic of China only 19 years ago. Consisting of an island and a peninsula tethered onto mainland China, Macau has Portuguese speakers, Cantonese speakers and Mandarin speakers. Its small size and incredibly dense population — one of the densest in the world — make for a somewhat transient population, meaning those who come to find jobs at Macau’s casinos can cross the border to reside in the cheaper Chinese housing. It also means that many young people tend to travel, seeking new experiences and studies, and bring back different ways of living.
What brought Kog from inner China to Macau was not job opportunities; her husband’s business was there. She followed not entirely by will, but rather by obvious acceptance — a force of shui fu, a phrase meaning that no matter if he were a dog or chicken, she would follow. She couldn’t speak Cantonese either, and found it hard to settle in.
Kog’s book was about a wispy-haired woman departing from her home, uncomfortable in a foreign land, forgetting the memories she once had, feeling like time was stripping her like skin from a snake. She then finds herself adapting and being born anew. “It’s like you, leaving home,” Kog said to me.
Lin, Kog and I sat on the floor together, looking through this book with our shoes off, because in Júbilo 31, everyone is meant to read and play barefoot. As Lin’s 3-year-old son stumbled by us, she grabbed him and threw him into the air, making him squeal. His turquoise overalls matched her blue denim ones. “Oh my, mama mia!” she says to him.
Kog and Lin are both part of a local artist collective called the Ox Warehouse, which ran publishing workshops, detailing how to edit, print, design and distribute. Kog had struggled with the lack of an editor and taught herself much of the publishing industry. The necessary element to her achievement, she mentioned, had to do with a little logo in the shape of a house on the back cover. Home was funded by the Macau Cultural Affairs Bureau, a governmental agency which offered grants up to $10,000 U.S. to local writers and authors for them to publish books, hoping to act as an incubator for Macau-based literary projects.
As a result, authors like Kog have published many of their works, selling them in small bookstores around the region and abroad in Shanghai and Taiwan. Kog never figured out how to pay the distribution fees that would’ve gotten her book to big box stores or chain bookstores, and she decided to ignore them. Instead, she walked around from venue to venue, asking owners she knew if she could leave copies of her book to sell. Many of them, either friends or acquaintances of acquaintances, offered their blessing, having seen much of her work around town already.
One of her drop-off points was Pin-to Livros, a bookstore just a few blocks away. Much like Júbilo 31, the books here are serious: translations of Sarte, Camus, Anna Tsing and Hugh Raffles. The case by the front door holds a number of small books published by local grant recipients.
“People don’t need to make money [off the books],” store owner Anson Ng said, pushing up his thick glasses. “They can use them as gifts, or things to pass out at dinner parties like name cards.”
On my next visit to Júbilo 31, Lin and the other employees recognized me right away. “Shirley,” they cooed.
I arrived with an offering of flan from the Portuguese shop owner next door. We sat on the children’s stools, slicing off pieces of flan with tin forks. In between serving herself and her son bites, Lin wiped globs of flan that dripped down her son’s chin. Later, I realized that I should’ve offered them the whole slice instead of splitting it with me — better manners. They know I’m not from there, though.
As I visited other bookstores around Macau, I ran into Kog’s book again and again. The woman in the pictures is lost in the trees. Over time, she finds her way through. She realizes that knowing how to love herself and others was one of things that allowed her to live anywhere.
Shirley Wang is a freelance audio journalist and writer currently based in the Midwest and Hong Kong. Previously, she was an intern at Iowa Public Radio and at WGBH in Boston. She grew up in Iowa City and moved to Macau in September after graduating from Tufts University. In Hong Kong, she freelanced, ate a lot of Cantonese congee, joined a book club and fell in love. You can follow her on Twitter at shirleyshirlw. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 256.