Lam Wing-kee knew he was in trouble. In his two decades as owner and manager of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Books, Lam had honed a carefully nonchalant routine when caught smuggling books into mainland China: apologize, claim ignorance, offer a cigarette to the officers, crack a joke. For most of his career, the routine was foolproof.
Thin and wiry, with an unruly pouf of side-swept gray hair and a wisp of mustache, Lam was carrying a wide mix of books that day: breathless political thrillers, bodice-rippers and a handful of dry historical tomes. The works had only two things in common: Readers hungered for them, and each had been designated contraband by the Communist Party’s Central Leading Group for Propaganda and Ideology. For decades, Lam’s bookstore had thrived despite the ban — or maybe because of it. Operating just 20 miles from the mainland city of Shenzhen, in a tiny storefront sandwiched between a pharmacy and an upscale lingerie store, Causeway was a destination for Chinese tourists, seasoned local politicians and even, surreptitiously, Communist Party members themselves, anyone hoping for a peek inside the purges, intraparty feuding and silent coups that are scrubbed from official histories. Lam was an expert on what separated the good banned books from the bad, the merely scandalous from the outright sensational. He found books that toed the line between rumor and reality.
Other retailers avoided the mainland market, but through years of trial and error, Lam had perfected a series of tricks to help his books avoid detection. He shipped only to busy ports, where packages were less likely to be checked. He slipped on false dust covers. Lam was stopped only once, in 2012. By the end of that six-hour interrogation, he was chatting with the officers like old friends and sent home with a warning.