By Poyi (Natalie) Leung
Libraries may be one of the easiest things to find in Macau, besides casinos and Portuguese egg tarts.
This small territory has at least 15 public libraries run by three different government departments – the Cultural Affairs Bureau (ICM), the Civic and Municipal Affairs Bureau (IACM) and the Education and Youth Affairs Bureau (DSEJ) – in the Macau Peninsula, Taipa and Coloane.
Yet, local people are still longing for another one, a bigger one that can represent Macau. Sadly, the project of the new Central Library seems to remain so far away, despite it was first announced in November 2007.
The Macau Library and Information Management Association (MLIMA) has recently launched a book entitled “Study of the Library Law in Greater China”, and its director Dr. Raymond Wong Kwok Keung is one of the authors.
In the chapter “Concepts for the Design Proposal of the Construction of the New Central Library”, Dr. Wong and his colleagues Leong Tak Hoi and Lou Sio Fa studied over 100 libraries including from Singapore, Hong Kong, Britain, the US, China, Japan and Taiwan, as well as made use of their knowledge in the profession and understanding about the needs of Macau people to make a list of suggestions to the SAR government.
Dr. Wong, who is also the head of the Publications Centre of the University of Macau (UM) and assistant librarian of the UM Library, spoke to the Macau Daily Times about why it is important to have a Library Law, locals’ reading habits at present and in the future and also his expectations of what the new Central Library shall be like.
Reporter: Your association has been hoping the Cultural Affairs Bureau’s (ICM) libraries to open earlier in the morning. Why is this so important?
Dr. Raymond Wong Kwok Keung: In the late 19th century since Portuguese people usually had to work in the morning, housewives only had time to go to read something in the libraries in the afternoon. So it was decided that the libraries would only open in the afternoon. After Macau returned to Chinese sovereignty, the government wanted to change the opening hours but it was delayed for a long time as it needed to amend the legislation and be promulgated on the Official Gazette.
DSEJ and IACM libraries all open at 8am, so why the Central Library and other ICM libraries only open at 1pm or 2pm? People must question why Macau has so many libraries and why some of them open in the morning and some don’t? [ICM’s main libraries now open at 10am].
Libraries in Macau, unlike those in foreign countries, aren’t places for learning but are for leisure.
The Library Law [which is absent in Macau] needs to talk about the opening hours and cooperation between ICM, IACM and DSEJ’s libraries. Legislation is needed to protect residents’ rights and interests or otherwise ICM could just close its libraries when it says it doesn’t have enough staff.
The functions of public and university libraries also need to be made clear in the law. University libraries apparently are to provide materials for research or academic database. Yet, it’s already enough for public libraries to provide basic knowledge. Public libraries and university libraries can indeed share their resources.
A formal ratio of the library collection to population is also needed. The existing concept of ‘one resident to one book’ is very vague because we don’t know if e-books also count. The libraries can just buy 200,000 copies of the same book and residents can’t benefit from the limited selections of books.
R: Is reading popular among people in Macau?
Dr. Wong: According to the 2007 official statistics, local libraries that were open to the public altogether received 3.5 million people, up by some 378,000 over 2006.
However, why we always think local people don’t read much? First, the proportion of working people in Macau is relatively high and many of them are grassroot workers so they don’t think they need to read. Second, many students stay at school libraries to read.
Reading habit needs to be cultivated since childhood. I foresee that after 15 years of time, reading will become even more popular in Macau.
But there are fewer people buying books nowadays because they can read them in the libraries. It’s actually a good thing because from the bookstores’ perspective, it’s more profitable and stable to sell books to school and public libraries. After the gaming industry started to boom, the number of bookstores jumped from 20 to 30. People are optimistic about the local reading market.
Yet, Macau people like to buy books in Zhuhai or Taiwan because in Macau they’re more expensive and there aren’t many choices. It’s a vicious cycle because when no people buy books at bookstores, they won’t order new books and then locals will think the book stores have very few selections and eventually go outside of Macau to buy what they want.
R: If there is such a demand in Macau, why no international bookstore chains come to set foot in here?
Dr. Wong: It’s very expensive to rent a shop in Macau. If a large-scale bookstore wants to develop its business here, it may need to invest nearly MOP10 million in rent and renovation. Unless the company can make itself like the Eslite Bookstore in Taiwan that tourists won’t think they have been to Taiwan until they visit the bookstore.
For Macau people, it’s of course good to have a bookstore like this where they can find the latest books in the market. The reading atmosphere can also be fostered when parents can bring their children there to read and couples can spend some time there when going out on a date. But I think no company is willing to do this investment, especially Macau’s population is only 550,000.
R: What kinds of people are the frequent visitors to the libraries?
Dr. Wong: Generally in the morning, they are retired people, housewives or people who start work late in the morning who go to read newspapers and magazines. Then in the afternoon or after school hours, libraries will be packed with children who use the computers there to play games, or students who need a place to do homework. This makes a lot of other people who really want to go there to read complain that the library doesn’t have enough seats and are forced to leave.
In 2007, the public libraries provided 3,273 seats but the problem is many of them were occupied by students to do homework.
R: So what do you think about the location of the new Central Library and is it big enough to meet the demand?
Dr. Wong: For a short-term plan the government can go ahead with it. But of course the location is not very good. Macau people like to drive but there aren’t parking spaces around. Traffic is always busy in San Ma Lou so people living in the northern district may never go to this new Central Library. So the library will be only for people living around it and tourists.
Also, the light rail transit will be built opposite to the site and that will make a lot of noise to readers.
The government plans to join the old court and the Judiciary Police (PJ) building at the back together after completing the first phase of construction and the police force moves out from the building. The PJ building can’t be demolished yet and thus the construction has to be done in two phases. The problem is when the building is being knocked down, it will be extremely noisy for the readers in the library.
R: What will you suggest to make the new round of the Central Library design contest gain higher recognition from society?
Dr. Wong: Transparency is very important. The judging panel has to consist at least two to three people from Macau. Outside people won’t understand much the local libraries and may never have inspected the old court. They are also not familiar with Macau’s habits and customs.
In addition, last time in the contest the government said the final design could be a combination of the outstanding parts of more than one entry, but this large extent of flexibility could affect the progress of the project. So I think the best is the government can apply the whole design of the winning entry on the construction.
R: In the chapter regarding the design concepts for the new Central Library in your association’s latest publication, what has been proposed to the government?
Dr. Wong: It’s technically difficult to join the Judiciary Police building and the old court perfectly together so we suggest building a pedestrian overpass to connect them instead. Tourists may expect to see ‘antique books’ while local people want to find the latest novels and the largest collections there. Thus the library has to offer special collections of books.
We also proposed a ‘toy library’ section where educational cloth dolls and puzzle games are available, and a fairy-tale themed literature museum to stimulate children’s interest in reading.
We want the government to retain part of the internal design of the old court to collect law books.
The library can’t turn into another study room for students and children. Other libraries can help by making more space for this group of people to study after class. If it’s really necessary, I would suggest setting up a 100 or 200-seat special area for them. A 24-hour reading zone is also proposed for people who work night shifts.
On the other hand, nowadays English and Portuguese books are not widely available in the public libraries. Unpopular books are being kept in the central warehouse in Areia Preta and will only get out of there when a reader asks for it, which takes about one day to arrive in the library. So the new library should keep a certain proportion of foreign language books in the shelves even though not many people may borrow them.
Before the 1999 handover the Tap Seac Central Library were full of Portuguese books and Chinese books were mostly found in other community libraries. One time I heard a Portuguese guy saying the idea of ‘Macau remains unchanged for 50 years’ wasn’t true, because all the books in the libraries now are in Chinese and he couldn’t find anything that he could read. It sounds funny but is actually quite true.