Benjamin Ma is a lecturer, cultural critic, and shop owner for twenty-some years. For two decade he ran an independent upstairs bookstore in Wan Chai. The name of the bookstore – “Dawn” – was inspired by a magazine Benjamin helped found in his college years. Back in the days, organizing an English book fair was no easy task. Benjamin and his friends arduously wrote to each individual publisher. The book fair, featuring a handful of well-acclaimed works, was received favorably. This episode convinced Benjamin of the need for an English bookshop.
Dawn Bookstore was founded in 1984 in Nathan Road, and moved to Johnston Road Wan Chai two years later. Dawn became the neighbor to Youth Bookstore, its Chinese counterpart also founded in the 80s. With the agreement of the landlord, the two bookstores were linked together, attracting more customers with its synergy. Benjamin still remembers how one first-time customer described the bookstore as “a professor’s study”. Indeed, what independent bookstores lack in size, they make up with their iconic booklist and individual flair. Dawn Bookstore became the corridor of knowledge for a generation of scholars, students, and youth.
The industry published around 10,000 English academic books per year, Benjamin sourced around 1,000 books per year, i.e. 3 books per day. In the age before online purchase, Dawn Bookstore became the treasure trove for the city’s intellectuals. Customers frequented Dawn for the latest academic currents.
The 80s and 90s witnessed the spread of Western scholarship. Intellectuals of all shades and color in Hong Kong visited Dawn for the latest scholarly current. This was the decade where Baptist and Polytechnic were upgraded into Universities, and the University of Science and Technology was founded. The new institutions gave birth to a generation of English-reading lecturers and students. This became Dawn Bookstore’s golden era.
Dawn Bookstore saw its fair share of regular customers. Benjamin still remembers a friend who visited every day before his day’s work, as if the routine was an inseparable part of life. “Whenever I choose a book, I would think of a few regular customers who might be interested. My guess is usually quite accurate!” Sometimes, the customers would counter-propose a list of books to the shop owner. Thus owner and his customers shared a deep mutual understanding.
“Wan Chai is a unique place. Located between Central and Causeway Bay, it retains its local characteristics.” Rooted in Wan Chai for two decades, Benjamin recalls his everyday work through its streets and alleys. “I used to pass by Wan Chai Road to the post office in Wu Chung House to fetch the latest books. Before the redevelopment, the wet market stretched along Wan Chai Road. Next to the seafood stalls were a long line of chauffeurs, waiting to drive the night’s dinner back to the mansions in Kennedy Road.” Benjamin continued, “I liked passing by Cross Street on my way back. The dry food stalls would leave their oysters, mushrooms, and peel to dry. This was the pinnacle of folk wisdom! Yet, under the giant wheel of redevelopment, the sanitized city had no place for such local vernacular.”
Dawn Bookstore completed its mission and retired in 2006. The transition from old to new parallels today’s Wan Chai, where redevelopment, and revitalization are constant themes. Twenty years after the Handover, we are fortunate to still live in a community with open food stalls, tong lau and small shops. Yet, will Wan Chai still look the same in the coming decade?