Hong Kong's Human Library shares stories from the city's fringes

Hong Kong’s Human Library shares stories from the city’s fringes

In 2019, Summer Kwong saw an email recruiting volunteers to help transgender people tell their stories. Intrigued, she immediately applied.

“Some of my friends or family members will casually call them ‘ladyboys’, which I find extremely offensive,” the 21-year-old City University student said.

“I want to change that and be an ally.”

Kwong’s role as an interpreter of life stories is a central part of Hong Kong’s Human Library, introduced by Pong Yat-ming in 2011. The project provides a platform for people from stigmatized groups to share their life stories, challenge stereotypes and promote diversity.

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In the human library, people are “open books” with stories to tell; listeners can answer and ask questions.

“I wanted to learn more about Hong Kong because I felt like a ‘Hong Kong pig’ before I entered college,” Kwong said, referring to a term for those who care more about material things. only social problems.

Pong’s Human Library is the only registered group in town under the Human Library Organization. The movement, which started in Denmark in 2000, has now spread to more than 85 countries.

New Perspectives of Human Books

Another CityU life story interpreter, 23-year-old Yani Chan Ying-wai, said her duties include helping human books put their thoughts into words.

“We remind them if necessary to make sure they’re on the right track with the story,” the senior said.

Kwong’s first human book event – ​​a double major in linguistics as well as media and communication – featured a transgender woman discussing her struggle to live according to her gender identity. When she saw her family, she had to dress as a man because they did not accept her identity.

Explanation: What does it mean to be transgender and how can you support your trans friends?

“In Hong Kong, the first thing that comes to people’s minds about the transgender community is usually the specifics of the [gender-affirming] operation. But we rarely ask about their lives after that…their identity shouldn’t be limited to their sexual organs,” said Kwong, who has helped “interpret” six human books over the past three years with the Human Library.

“Empathy is what the human library imparts…it’s not something we can easily teach young people through textbooks,” she stressed.

Space open to dialogue

Pong, 48, created the Human Library after noticing the importance of one-way communication in the city.

Since 2011, he has hosted approximately 300 Human Library sessions, covering a range of topics from sexuality to mental health.

Today, he accompanies the young people of Hong Kong in the establishment of the human library in schools and NGOs.

Pong Yat-ming (right) says that the spirit of the human library allows strangers to open up in a short time. Picture: handout

One of the founder’s most memorable “human books” features a patient with dissociative identity disorder, who shared about living with multiple identities.

“Everyone learned that the disorder wasn’t as horrible as portrayed in the shows and movies,” Pong said, adding that the speaker even brought her partner to the event.

“It … created the impact we want to have: you make a friend here, and the next time you see someone with this disorder, you won’t think they’re scary.”

De-stigmatize mental health

Ally Cheung, 27, a patient with social anxiety who spoke at Kwong’s Human Library session in October, agreed that the project allowed the public to gain a full and in-depth understanding of those with the condition. of mental health disorders.

“When you can meet a mental health patient in person, especially those with serious illnesses, you can get a totally different perspective about them,” she said.

In high school, Cheung was diagnosed with social anxiety and dropped out of school twice due to his catastrophizing, hyperventilating, and panic attacks.

“I was afraid to talk with people or just walk in my bedroom door,” Cheung said. In 2015, she started an Instagram page called Fairies Heart, where she shares content to destigmatize mental health disorders.

During his Human Library session, Cheung recalled how readers wanted to discuss the challenges that underage teenagers face in accessing mental health treatment.

“Some parents think their children are possessed by evil and ask them to drink the paper-charming water instead of going to see psychologists,” she said.

Kwong believes that the library meets the needs of society and she is confident in its transformative power.

“It serves as a little seed to make people realize that there are others in similar situations, and [shows] how we as an audience can help them and walk with them.

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