Living in a city of more than 7 million people can be oddly isolating at times. As diverse as Hong Kong is, it’s easy to get stuck in a bubble, only socialising with people with similar experiences to our own. Social media can distort our perception of reality even further.
That’s why in 2011, Pong Yat-ming decided to establish the Hong Kong “Human Library”, a movement which invites the public to interact with people they wouldn’t normally meet, in the hope of breaking down biases and stereotypes.
“In Hong Kong, people tend to talk a lot about themselves, but when it comes to listening to others, they’re not very good at that,” explains Pong. “The Human Library allows people to listen to the stories of others.”
The movement first began in Denmark in 2000 and has now spread throughout the world. It gets its name from the idea that people can be “open books” with stories to tell, for others to “borrow”.
“Our goal is to give people the chance to learn from other people’s experiences, so they can directly express their questions and opinions,” says Pong.
The human “books” are volunteers, each with a personal experience to share. Finding suitable volunteers can be tricky, so the Human Library keeps a two-way channel of communication open. They often reach out to people they think would be a good fit, but local NGOs and other societies who want their members to become human books can also contact the Human Library. So can individuals with a story to tell.
The Human Library helps to prep all volunteers before they become human books. Pong explains that he and other members of the Human Library are like editors, helping volunteers tell their story. “We make sure the story is interesting to people who want to listen. We may suggest that they say more about one topic and less about another. Making the stories easy to understand helps to get the message across ... [the goal is to] eliminate discrimination and prejudice.”
Since 2011, Pong and his colleagues have gathered at least 200 local stories, covering a wide variety of topics, from politics to gender and sexuality. These stories don’t go online, as the point of the movement is not reading from a screen, but face-to-face interaction.
Instead, once human books are ready for “publication”, the Human Library holds events where they can speak. These events often come with a twist, surprising visitors who may not otherwise have come to hear the stories of those speaking.
“Once, we had a table tennis competition, and we asked people if they wanted to play against a champion. Of course, everyone was interested. So we brought out our champion– he had played in the Paralympics before in his wheelchair. We had a mini tournament, and afterwards, we had him tell the people his story,” Pong says, then adding with a laugh: “He beat everyone who came.”
Most recently, the Human Library Hong Kong hosted a photography workshop, where visually impaired photographers taught others how to take photos. Attendees had to put on “blind sight” goggles which mimic the visibility of those with impairments and try to take photos.
“It was a new experience for them,” says Pong, “they learned that blind photography isn’t that different from normal photography – it just requires a verbal description of the scene.”
Pong wants those who attend Human Library events to be curious and ask questions, but be respectful of volunteers and their experiences. “We should be open minded and unafraid to ask questions, as well as be willing to accept that we may have opinions affected by stereotypes.”
Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the Human Library in Denmark; to celebrate, its global branches will be holding large-scale events. “We hope to be able to bring in more human books to allow people to learn more about others from different backgrounds,” says Pong.