After leaving his bookstore, James never left reading aside. He organized running book clubs in which members would run together, and then read.
James: After the bookstore closed, I started working in other commercial organizations, but eventually I went to Oxfam Hong Kong NGO. The experience at the NGO was also very important to me. Because I have studied art management, when I went to Oxfam to work, I used my knowledge on arts management in Oxfam. In Oxfam, I wasn’t working directly working on policy related issues; at Oxfam, I was working with public education. I was basically using the knowledge on arts management for the work on public education.
After I worked at Oxfam for a couple of years, I would look back into my own experience. I was thinking what I could do with my knowledge on books, because even though I didn’t open a bookstore, there were many interesting stories in between. For example, when I had time, I did something called a Running Book Club. It’s a combination of reading and running. That was just something I did on the side; it wasn’t a business. I organized around 50 times of this running book club: I would provide a theme and people would choose a book, and in some district, we would run, and we would have a reading club.
Yes, it is a very strange thing. For instance, our running path would start from Yau Ma Tei Theatre and we run to Xiqu Center. Yau Ma Tei Theatre hosts Cantonese opera and Xiqu [traditional Chinese theatre] Center was built by West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. Then, we would run back to Yau Ma Tei Theatre. In this process, we are able to know the things about the Yau Ma Tei district, and we are able to see that at Yau Ma Tei Theatre they do Cantonese shows and that Xiqu Center is a new point of Xiqu. After we ran, we will go back to Yau Ma Tei Theatre to do our book club. During book club we will each share a book about Xiqu or about the Yau Ma Tei district We did this many times. When I finished this, I asked myself why was I able to do this? Because I opened a bookstore before and I knew a lot of people in the cultural industry and writers, and therefore I was able to successfully do things that are about books, and hence, the success at the running book club. That time I thought, was it still possible for me to use my knowledge on books to contribute and do some more things? But I was very sure I was not able to open another bookstore. If I open a bookstore again, it probably will close down again. So, I will not open a bookstore. I didn’t figure out the answers then, just yet.
I was always participating in social innovation incubator programs and in Hong Kong there are many of these programs. They mainly want to find university students to participate. They allow the students to participate and go through social innovation and design thinking—an incubator program, and they support you to start a business. There are some only for university students, but some are open for all without age limitations. I thought this would be good for me, and when I finished taking the course of an incubator program, I had to pitch an idea. I wanted to do something that had to do with promoting reading, and because of the time I had spent in Oxfam working with poverty alleviation, I was thinking if there were ways I could combine books and poverty alleviation together. This incubation program was under a funding called SIE fund, a funding from Hong Kong, and it was also involved with poverty alleviation. It was only a project that I had to do for the end of this course. There came the idea of Rolling Books, meaning we use a car to go to different places and I pitched that idea and that idea was accepted, so they gave me the funds. I started thinking if I wanted to do this full-time. I could choose not to do it. I could choose to stay in Oxfam. But I thought maybe it was time that I could try to work on this project as an entrepreneur and continue. This is how I put books and social enterprise together.