Don’t Ignore Hong Kong’s Quietly Growing Literary Scene

With art fairs, gallery openings, performing arts festivals and new cultural complexes, Hong Kong’s cultural calendar is certainly full. Compared to many of its cultural counterparts, however, the city’s literary scene has flown under the radar – until now.

The Hong Kong International Literary Festival is the largest event of its kind in the city. Over the course of ten days, it offers talks, workshops and live performances, centred around themes including feminism, LGBTQ+ issues and more. “Hong Kong is a cornucopia of cultures and it’s such an interesting thing to be a part of,” says Jacqueline Leung, the festival’s assistant manager. Born and educated in Hong Kong, Leung is a bilingual reader who is familiar with the city’s literary landscape from the inside out. She has experienced it both as a consumer and an advocate.

Now in its 18th year, the festival has found a new home in Tai Kwun, taking it from a series of venues spread across the city to a more concentrated setup – and one that is arguably more prominent. But while the Literary Festival may serve as the flagship event for the written word in Hong Kong, it certainly isn’t the only to exist. Smaller, grassroots organisations have permeated Hong Kong with diverse offerings and specialties.

“There has been significant expansion in the literary landscape,” says acclaimed local writer Dung Kai-cheung. Dung is the author of Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City — a kind of geographic reimagining of Hong Kong — and the recipient of awards from the Arts Development Council and Hong Kong Book Fair. His recently published Cantonese Love Stories explore the notion of meaning in a consistently evolving city.

Leung credits literary organisations such as the House of Hong Kong Literature, Fleurs des lettres (a literary magazine also known as Zihua), Women in Publishing, The Writer’s Circle, Poetry Ourt Loud, the Voice and Verse poetry magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal and PEN Hong Kong for pushing things forward by publishing new texts and fostering a community of writers.

Another sign of the literary scene’s health is this year’s inaugural Spoken Word Festival, a celebration of spoken word performance that took place in May. It’s this diversity of events and organisations that is helping the literary scene along, says Leung. “Different organisations have different strengths and connections. It’s always helpful to avoid getting stuck in your own narrative.”

Historically, Hong Kong’s English and Chinese literary scenes have been isolated from one another, but Leung has noticed more engagement and communication in recent years – though efforts to promote local talent “are still far from enough,” she says. “The first thing is to support literary talent locally and then provide channels for publication and publicity. The second thing is to bring local literature, both those written in Chinese and English, to international attention.”

With numerous players and an enviable roster of local talent in Hong Kong, it may come as a surprise to learn that the Literary Festival’s growth is a recent occurrence. It expects to reach 10,000 visitors this year – no small achievement, considering that in 2015 (the year it received charitable status from the government), the festival drew in 3,267 visitors. The festival’s 2016 iteration saw 4,868 visitors. In the last three years, it has doubled its programming and attendance.

The Literary Festival has tasked itself with the dual goal of promoting local authors and literary talent, as well as inviting some of the world’s most notable wordsmiths to share their insights with the city. With an international roster of authors including critically acclaimed crime author Ian Rankin and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, last year’s festival saw an equally strong local literary presence. The 20-year anniversary of the handover served as a central theme of discussion for the city’s poets, literary organisations Hong Kong Stories and PEN, as well as author Xu Xi, whose memoir Dear Hong Kong was released last year.

Among this year’s heavy-hitters are Wild author Cheryl Strayed and Irvine Welsh of Trainspotting fame. Welsh speaks to this year’s festival-goers on returning to the pinnacle characters in the Trainspotting sequel Dead Men’s Trousers. Welsh is no stranger to the festival circuit – he has spoken at countless festivals and fairs, including Britain’s Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, arguably the world’s largest celebration for literature lovers.

Beyond the festival, he is also scheduled to perform at Clockenflap, where he will deliver a DJ set. While Welsh says he is sceptical of “events culture,” he says “the level of engagement and social interaction it brings is generally superior to the passive consumption of disjointed drip-feed culture through screens.”

One reason for the understated growth of Hong Kong literature may be the misconceptions that shroud it. Leung is more familiar with these than most. “That people who attend literary events are bookish, or quiet,” she explains. “But literature now comes to you in so many different forms, apart from words on a page. It’s not just about sitting in the corner, reading a book.”

Hong Kong is often criticised for its poor reading habits; a study by Lingnan University found that 42 percent of people here do not read anything other than newspapers and magazines. “I don’t think people here are educated to pick up a book for pleasure from a young age,” says Leung. “That’s just our education system. We are taught to be prudent with studying, but not necessarily to learn for pleasure.”

In a city where “everything is done for purpose, as opposed to leisure,” says Leung, “there is so much competition. People end up casting aside things that they deem less necessary.” In a climate such as this, having a hobby can be perceived as a luxury – not just in terms of the investment of your finances, but also your time; a commodity most Hongkongers are frightfully short of.

Dung does not see this as a problem faced solely by Hong Kong, but rather, a broader dilemma in the promotion of the written word as an art form. “Unlike the performing arts or visual arts, which lend themselves to display and fanfares, literature seems quiet and invisible,” he says.

Be that as it may, this isn’t entirely problematic, as festivals and ensure staying power. “The Literary Festival can attract and focus people’s attention on literature as a distinctive art form and one that is closely related to our lives, both personally and collectively,” says Dung. Welsh echoes these sentiments. “In an era where traditional news media is dying and newspapers devote less space to arts and literature, the festival has become the main focus,” he says. “It gets people out the house and off a screen and very few things do.”

For Welsh, “story is universal, and a lot of festivals are trying to move beyond ‘the novel’ and integrate storytelling genres from music, and respect new novelistic TV like the long-form series drama.”

With recent Nobel laureates for literature including the likes of screenplay writer Harold Pinter and songwriter Bob Dylan, the very definition of literature seems to have shifted. Other mediums, including rap and slam poetry, are bringing the written word to a wider audience, albeit one who may not necessarily be aware that it is literature they are consuming. With a continually transforming definition, the field will inevitably draw in a more youthful audience and cater to the literary lovers of the future.

Leung sees a long road ahead. There’s room for development, but rather than an obstacle to overcome, she says this is a challenge to look forward to. “I think there’s a lot of space for improvement and also space to expand,” she says. “That’s what’s exciting. There is no fun with keeping up with the status quo.”

The Hong Kong International Literary Festival runs from November 2-11, 2018. Click here for more information.

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