Room for Debate

Not just a bookstore, not quite a library, more than a restaurant or bar: what exactly is the Beijing Bookworm? Its motto, “Eat, Drink, Read,” offers a straightforward set of principles, but even a quick stop by this legendary institution makes clear that it’s more than just a place to — in either sense — get lit. The Bookworm buzzes with intellectual energy, attracting novelists, academics, foreign correspondents, and book lovers of all stripes who come by to meet friends or hear a talk by a scholar passing through. It’s the center, or one of the centers, of English-language cultural life in China’s capital, and throughout the year, its lectures, concerts, and children’s story hours draw expats and locals alike.

Without a doubt, the highlight of all this activity is the annual Bookworm Literary Festival, which this March wrapped up its twelfth year. Every spring, speakers come from around the world to talk about literature, politics, current affairs, technology, business, art, and anything else people write books about. Highlights from this edition included Kai-Fu Lee on AI, Leta Hong-Fincher on gender equality, and Helen Zia on Shanghai on the eve of the Communist revolution. Spittoon, a literary collective, organized a series of sessions on Chinese literature, featuring poets and fiction writers reading excerpts of their work while their translators discussed the challenges of bringing the texts into English.

The Bookworm first opened its doors in 2005, but its origins go back a few years further, to a sort of informal lending library that Alexandra Pearson, a British woman living in Beijing, slowly amassed as departing friends from abroad gave her the books they couldn’t ship home. Pearson also organized talks by experts on various topics at Le Petit Gourmand, the French restaurant she helped run in Sanlitun, Beijing’s embassy and nightlife district. But when her library outgrew her apartment, and the restaurant had to close to make way for the Taikoo Li mall, some of her friends suggested she give her titles a permanent home — a place for eating, drinking, reading, and above all for talking about anything and everything related to China.

That home, in a second-story space amid a clutch of international bars and restaurants in Sanlitun, consists of a café area with a full menu and eight beers on tap, an event space off to the side, and a small bookstore in the back, with a rooftop terrace up above overlooking the neighboring buildings. The walls are lined in books, but most of them aren’t for sale: the Bookworm still runs a library, with over 20,000 titles for a few hundred members. “A lot of storytellers, a lot of intellectuals, a lot of people who have a relationship to books, and to Beijing, come here looking for a place to call home,” says Karen Tong, who manages the Bookworm’s events. “It’s fun, it’s chill, and it’s a bit retro.” Pearson moved away several years ago, and now two of the other original investors, Peter Goff and David Cantalupo, run the space and the festival.

Karen Tong, David Cantalupo
Peter Goff

Since 2007, the Bookworm has put on a festival every year except one: in 2017 the sponsorship fell through, and the organizers decided to take a much-needed break. It fluctuates in size, and they chose to keep the 2019 edition manageable — and even so, it spanned two weeks. “The festival remains extremely influential and popular,” says Cantalupo. “We’ve never had a big corporate sponsor, so we’ve always run it on a shoestring.”

What’s surprising is how fearlessly the organizers take on sensitive topics, from state-sponsored sexism to telecom troubles to the trade war with the US. The speakers come from China and around the world, and they don’t pull any punches. All this makes the Bookworm and its festival something fragile and unique — a space for a vigorous exchange of ideas in a city (and a country) where open debate is regarded with suspicion.

At the kickoff party, beer and wine flow freely while speakers, organizers, and volunteers meet and mingle. Someone hammers out Beatles songs on an old piano in the corner. After a few plates of appetizers have made the rounds, Goff, the festival director, quiets the music to say a few words to the people gathered around. He thanks everyone for their work, and takes time to remember the two panelists from last year who are now in detention. It’s an unsettling reminder of the political atmosphere outside. Maybe it’s the two boozy beers on a mostly empty stomach, but I feel a flush of admiration welling up for the people that put this on, at no small risk to themselves.

Two days later, at the end of a session on Huawei, the audience files out of the event room, continuing the debate over drinks. Are criticisms of the company justifiable? Is its defense convincing? The Bookworm isn’t just a place to hear about current affairs, it’s a place to take part and weigh in. A half hour later the next panel begins, and once again it’s standing-room only. This time the topic is whether gender equality in China is deteriorating, and the speakers include some of the country’s most prominent feminist activists. Foreigners living in China quickly learn to avoid discussing anything controversial, and hearing people take on such sensitive topics before such a large audience comes as a shock.

How do they manage to tackle such ticklish subjects? Partly it’s because, after so many years, the festival has become a fixture on the city’s cultural landscape. “We’ve been an important part of the international cultural scene here, so that gives us a little protection,” says Cantalupo. Sponsorship from several embassies helps — Ireland, Australia, and France supported this year’s event (though financial backing came mainly from a handful of international schools). Another reason is the tenacity of the owners, Goff in particular, who, in the face of subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, has continued to invite speakers on even the most controversial subjects.

Most of all, though, the festival talks are held in English. That’s both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it insulates the event from censorship, since the authorities care more about what’s said in Chinese, yet on the other it insulates it from local interlocutors. In the audience and on the speaker’s dais, China watchers outnumber the Chinese. As a result, the festival’s reach is limited: foreigners and the Beijingers comfortable enough with English to listen to a debate. The price of open discussion is keeping it confined to a niche public.

In the decade and a half since the Bookworm opened its doors, the surrounding Sanlitun area has been torn down and rebuilt. Shops and apartment blocks have given way to sprawling retail complexes, and the whole area feels less like a neighborhood than a collection of international malls. Just a few yards away from the Bookworm, the Intercontinental Hotel towers above, a purple light show dancing across its honeycomb façade like a screensaver.

China has changed, too: as the economy has quintupled in size over the past 15 years, and along the way the country has become far more closely linked to the rest of the world, even as its political atmosphere has grown more tightly controlled — or more “harmonious,” to use a local euphemism. The Bookworm’s survival feels almost miraculous. How much longer can it continue to put on this festival? Cantalupo speculates that for now, at least, city officials see it in their interest to tolerate the event. “On the one hand, there’s some trepidation that some topics are sensitive. On the other, they want Beijing to be seen as an open and international destination.” As a space for discussion and exchange, the Bookworm occupies an ever more vital, but ever more precarious space. It’s one of the places where China meets the world — to eat, drink, read, and talk. That’s something to raise a glass to.

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Website: beijingbookworm.com

Contributor: Allen Young
Photographer: David Yen