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Meet Ares Wong, an entrepreneur, a librarian and a reading advocate

If it’s not the first question Ares Wong gets when he tells people he opened the Reading Habit International Library in Thao Dien (27 Nguyen Ba Huan, D2), it’s not far in to the conversation. “It’s not about is the service good or [is] the product good,” the 24-year-old Singaporean librarian said. They don’t ask what kind of books are in his collection of 1,500 or what kinds of drinks are served in the café on the second floor. “I hear… how can you earn a profit, how to survive,” Wong said.

“Even you, you just asked now,” he adds after having been presented the question in the course the interview for this story. It was maybe a more fair question when the library opened and Wong was lending books for free like a real public library. He charges a membership fee now, but it’s the core business—sharing books for the reading public—that isn’t a blockbuster industry, shall we say. Books aren’t a typical pick for those doing something entrepreneurial.

Similarly, Wong himself is a selfdescribed outlier. “I’m a college dropout,” he said. “The only thing I like is reading.” In Ho Chi Minh City, the only places dedicated to reading are the General Science Library of Ho Chi Minh City in District 1—”which you have to pay a fee for,” Wong pointed out—and book retailer Fahasa. He remembers going there one day and seeing children reading on the floor. The reader in Wong appreciated seeing young bibliophiles reading for pleasure, but the businessman in him was sensitive to the fact that customers were often reshelving books that have been damaged or were otherwise no longer new.

“That’s the only way to freely access books,” he reasoned. “That’s when I’m thinking why aren’t there libraries in Vietnam.” The sensitivities Wong has for readers and his own passion for books are features he sees as exceptional in his culture. “I need to say that Asians… they fail in reading,” he said. Wong doesn’t mean that the reading comprehension is poor. He means that the passion for reading and interest in literature as leisure isn’t as common in his culture than for the Westerners he knows.

In his analysis, the difference starts from how books are introduced to early readers. Asians “treat reading as a skill. Read 5 to 10 pages a day,” he said. “Once you treat it as compulsory…  as a job, (children) feel it’s a job.” Children who read to complete their homework and don’t see their parents reading will never be curious about it themselves, Wong argued.

“Reading and academics are two different things,” he asserted. But Wong understands that schools and educators play an important role in shaping young readers. During the weekday, the Reading Habit International Library hosts school tours, group visits from Thao Dien’s schools. The other piece of that is actual reading. On weekend mornings, the library hosts reading sessions where patrons and can read to their children. An extensive collection of children’s books sits on the first floor from which to choose. On the second floor, the teen and adult book collections are housed next to a small coffee shop that serves the coffees and juices to keep readers hydrated, focused in midst of a good, deep read.

Wong’s District 2 library is what he hopes to be the first installment in a larger community center literally built up from the ground. The library is inside a five storey building. In the future, he hopes to use the upper levels to deliver workshops, yoga classes and a coworking space.

 

A Singapore native, Wong moved to Vietnam two years ago with his wife. He describes himself as entrepreneurial but didn’t feel like he had the business opportunity that fit his interests in his home country. “I like to read and I like to work,” he said. “I’m not a person who likes to idle.”

Wong intends to expand the library’s collection through a fundraiser with European International School HCMC. A funding targeting of VND150 million ought to be enough to double the library’s book collection.

Images by Vy Lam

 

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