Joyeux anniversaire

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Elizabeth Choi finds ‘provincial modernity’ in Hong Kong’s only French bookshop

In a shop nestled on the second floor of Central’s Duke Wellington House, Francophones and Francophiles alike turn up in spirited droves to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Parenthèses, Hong Kong’s only French bookstore. The quaint setting of this shop serves as a stark contrast to the nearby LKF bars and the party-goers enjoying a lively night a few streets above.

Parenthèses is a significant bookshop in the city as evidenced by the photographs of visiting artists, authors and actors which are proudly displayed on a wall in the store. Founded in 1987 by Madeline Progin, who immigrated here in the 80s, the space is clearly a labour of love. In light of new e-book technology gnawing away at print sales, the fact that Hong Kong has a bookshop that has lasted this long – particularly focused on a language outside of English or Chinese – is a magnifique feat. “Not so many bookshops – even Chinese or English language bookshops – have survived,” says Progin. “We used to be surrounded by bookshops. So we feel proud of our achievement.”

The 25th anniversary celebration centres around intimate talks by visiting authors Guy Delisle and Jacques Baudouin – each who have works which connect them to Asia’s world city. Graphic novelist Delisle is originally from Quebec but has lived in Jerusalem, China and North Korea. His comics are the great equaliser for anyone who’s experienced the misadventures of being an outsider. “If it’s just everything that any tourist can see, I’m not interested in talking about that,” says the Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City author, who took home the top prize at this year’s Angoulême International Comics Festival, the equivalent of the Palme d’Or in the graphic novel world. “I was surprised to know that there are so many Francophones in Hong Kong. And Parenthèses has been here for 25 years so apparently there are enough people to make this a success.”

As an academic publisher, Boudouin agrees wholeheartedly with Delisle’s sentiments on Parenthèses’ locale. “Everything you want is here,” he says. “Every different field from cooking to politics to science.” As managing director of the National Centre for Scientific Research, the largest government research organisation in France, and author of 1999 Prix du Roman History winner with Le Mandarin Blanc, Baudouin is passionate about Sino-French research. He has been friends with Progin for many years and remembers first coming to the shop with a ‘very serious but a little boring’ academic journal. Progin, however, found it interesting and was willing to sell it in the shop. “It’s like a light, you know?” says Boudouin, about Parenthèses. “My dream when I was young was to live inside a library. It’s a dream. And Madeline is a wonderful bookseller.”

To celebrate, Progin and her staff asked people to submit a ‘souvenir’ of their visits to the bookshop. What she received was enough drawings, notes, graphic designs and letters to create a 206-page book. From actress Juliette Binoche to Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, Le Fauteuil: 25 ans de Parenthèses de A á Z spans the shop’s history through the voices of those who have sat in the ‘fauteuil’ (the shop’s iconic leather armchair) and taken in the relaxed, distinctly French atmosphere over the years.

“You never look back in Hong Kong,” says Progin. “You always think about what you’re doing tomorrow or next week. To decide to organise something as big as this book – because it’s big for us – makes us look back and realise we have achieved quite a lot.” The little French bookshop on Wellington certainly has done just that. Bonne chance for the next 25, we say!

Le Fauteuil: 25 ans de Parenthèses de A á Z is published by Parenthèses, price on request.

Parenthèses 2/F, Duke Wellington House, 14-24 Wellington St, Central, 2526 9215; parentheses-hk.com.

 

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