WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Vivian Ni, Guanghwa Bookshop manager
KC Tang's bookshop opened a window into the East
14 July, 2017 — By Alina Polianskaya
Inside a little store in the heart of Shaftesbury Avenue is a bookshop with a huge wealth of Chinese literature.
“We have a long history in Chinatown,” said manager of Guanghwa Bookshop, Vivian Ni. “It was started in the 1971 by a man called KC Tang. He was from Hong Kong and lived in the UK. In the 1970s China was undergoing its Cultural Revolution. The door was shut to the West, the West knew little about China.
“So he started to sell Mao’s Little Red Book in Hyde Park. He sold out of stock very quickly, so he decided he wanted to start a bookshop to promote Chinese culture even further,” says Vivian.
And so the shop was born. At the time, she says, it was one of the main stores to provide an insight into China. “It was pretty much the only window to show China to British sinologists – people who specialise in studying China – as well as libraries and museums.
“At that time the British Library, all their collections of British journals were from this shop. For a couple of decades we acted as a window to the UK public and experts to showcase China, as there were no other avenues for that.”
In 2007 Mr Tang retired and sold the shop on to a Chinese company. Now, Vivian says, as well as a shop they are hoping to turn the store into a cultural centre.
She says: “We don’t just sell books and Chinese art supplies, we also do panel discussions, book talks… We invite sinologists and people who have special stories from China to come and talk. We have Chinese calligraphy and Chinese art painting courses.” Vivian, is originally from Xhoushan, an archipelago near Shanghai.
She used to work as a financial journalist in Shanghai before moving to England in 2012 when she got married. Before joining the bookstore, she undertook a number of projects promoting Chinese- English understanding.
Comparing life in China and in London, she says: “At first I didn’t get British humour, that took me a long time. Also, here, if something goes wrong, British people still carry on, but in China, people are more likely to start shouting.
“Personally I have learnt to be a more mature and a calm person in the UK, which after a few years I found was a really good characteristic that I obtained from the British.”
She adds: “The collective culture is definitely more important and more obvious in China than in the UK.
“I think in China people tend to follow the crowd a bit more. If someone buys something, other people are likely to want to buy the same thing. But here people are more individual.”
During her day-to-day life at the store, she loves meeting all those who come in to explore the shop.
“We have a lot of loyal customers, the local Chinese community are very important to us. Also we have a lot of British locals who love the Chinese culture and language. Some of them are better than me at understanding China.
“They are our regulars. But, of course, we are in Chinatown so we get a lot of tourists and passers- by.”
As for the future, she says: “We want to do more work to interact with the general public of the UK.
“We want British people to understand China more, Chinese culture, Chinese books… One of the main products we have is Chinese language books. What we are working on is a very niche market, but we are trying to make that niche market more popular among the general public.”