When 10 children’s books with LGBTQ+ themes were banned from the public shelves of Hong Kong libraries last year, creating a queer-centered library felt like a natural move for artist-curator Kaitlin Chan and independent publisher Beatrix Pang. As friends and queer-identifying people living in Hong Kong, they lamented what they saw as a loss of representation, and shared a lifelong fondness for libraries as accessible places of discovery.
In October 2018, they shared what would would become Queer Reads Library (QRL) at Plug Magazine’s CultureFest in October 2018: a traveling collection of independent queer publications and facsimiles of vintage zines, all pulled from Chan and Pang’s personal bookshelves. Today, QRL holds over 100 international titles accumulated by a sprawling network of queer readers and artists around the globe.
Beyond their physical collection, QRL fosters robust community programming in collaboration with fellow artists, activists, and archivists across generations, countries, and LGBTQ+ identities. Care and connection are at the heart of QRL, and the thoughtfulness with which Chan, Pang, and the most recent addition to the team, Rachel Lau, nurture its community is palpable, even virtually.
Many of the library’s acquisitions are suggested via Instagram DM or gifted by friends of QRL in the spirit of, “This made me think of the library. Here you go!” Hearing how people carry thoughts of the library with them as they navigate the world is what motivates the three curators to continue growing the project. “In my interactions with a lot of queer artists and writers, there’s this amazing spirit of generosity,” says Chan. “When messaging people [to distribute their work], every single one wrote back. I thought, this person doesn’t owe me anything.”
As marginalized independent artists and publishers themselves, the QRL team is mindful of the labor asked of artists supporting their own work. QRL was able to use a portion of seed funding they received for a later pop up at Eaton Workshop for their appearance at CultureFest. Eaton’s funds helped support mailing costs for zinemakers and presses, installation costs, and transportation. QRL doesn’t typically sell titles—the emphasis of their displays is on reading—but the small portion that they do sell helps financially support independent cultural workers, many of whom don’t have other distributors in Hong Kong.
When curating the first iteration of QRL, Chan and Pang avoided adhering to identity-based or geographical categories, which is perhaps why the collection has been so widely resonant. “We went for ‘cool queer stuff,’” says Chan, “which can encompass a lot of different things.” Titles range from Skim by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, to Radical Softness as a Boundless Form of Resistance from Brooklyn-based publishing initiative GenderFail, and CHOMP by Mitsu Sucks, hailed as “the first Japanese street culture zine from a queer perspective.”
They also included, alongside a traditional book-fair table, a shelf and chair set-up where people could peruse content more privately–something Chan herself has always craved in the frenzy of a crowded book fair. “We try to think about intimacy and the different spaces [we’re in]. Sometimes we’re outdoors, sometimes we’re indoors, sometimes we have 5 books, sometimes we have 50,” Chan explains. “We try to have a flexible framework to give people pockets of space to look at things outside of the surveillance of other people.”
Lau’s robust knowledge of Canadian and North American artists and bilingual language skills have helped make QRL’s social media presence more accessible through bilingual captions and alternative text. An avid supporter of QRL’s programming before joining the team, Lau was comforted by its content covering facets of queerness that they didn’t see talked about in other queer communities. “I was volunteering at an LGBTQ organization at the time, and noticed that there weren’t a lot of conversations about gender, necessarily, but primarily about cis-lesbian and gay or binary trans people,” they say. Chan further contextualized LGBTQ+ life in Hong Kong: “Despite the fact that there are tons of people in Hong Kong who, on a purely visual level, present queerly, there’s no representation of that at the mainstream media level. Queer people tend to seek each other out.”
Pang was able to connect QRL with Connie Chan, one of the founding activists of Hong Kong pride, who generously shared copies of queer publications from the late ’80s and ’90s. Among her contributions are back issues of Contacts Magazine and Hong Kong Ten Percent Journal, published predominantly in English and Cantonese Chinese, respectively, between 1993-1998. When the long-time community organizer recounted pre-internet means of creating queer networks—pen pals, ad services, and newsletters, as well as zines—it was a profound exchange for Lau and Chan.
“We were very taken with these magazine’s dedication to centering queer experiences and forging a sense of a community, even though many people who were mail ordering them were likely living with their parents and reading them in secret,” Chan shares. “Hearing her talk about the care, time, and effort that people put into genuinely trying to connect with and support each other was a pivotal moment for me. Personally, that’s what I try to put at the core of the library.”
Last month, QRL organized an English/Cantonese queer lexicon workshop that gathered a multi-generational crowd across the LGBTQ+ spectrum (as Lau emphasized, “actually LGBT–not just L and G, as we often see.”). Together, the group drew individual and collective mind-maps of Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan-specific queer terms that they know or apply to their experiences–not without disagreement, but with an honesty and openness that humbled the QRL team.
Reflecting on QRL’s astounding traction, Chan remarks, “I think people just don’t want to be talked down to. So much of art does that.” Lau, since joining the library, continues to be pleasantly surprised by how much people crave a space like QRL. “Hats off to Kaitlin and Beatrix for seeing that gap and filling it,” they say, nodding to their friends in true QRL fashion.