The Hong Kong International Literary Festival – How Did It All Begin?

Nury Vittachi dreamed of setting up a major literary event in Hong Kong. But the former South China Morning Post journalist had never imagined that it would start when his daily gossip columns, “Lai See” and “Spice Trader,” were cancelled in 1997. It was a difficult year for journalists as newspapers underwent a wave of political self-censorship when Hong Kong was handed back to China. For two weeks, Vittachi was sitting in his office doing nothing, but still earning a full-time salary. “So I just wrote my first novel The Feng Shui Detective and gave it to my editor,” he chuckles. “This was every writer’s dream.”

Not all aspiring writers are as lucky as Vittachi. Asia is home to more than 60 percent of the world’s population, but its share of the English-language literary world is tiny and dominated by translated works rather than those penned in English. That is, until recently. “There were writers, but there weren’t editors and literary prizes to encourage them, nor festivals to celebrate them,” says Vittachi. “There weren’t any publishers even, but textbook publishers only.” 

The first English literary festival dates back to 1949, when the Cheltenham Literary Festival was launched in the UK. Today, most of these festivals are still concentrated in the UK, Australia and Canada; they only became a phenomenon in the United States around the turn of the 21st century, with events such as Litquake—originally known as Litstock—which was first held in 1999. But Asia only had a few academic conferences, despite a growing English-language literary scene in places like Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.

After leaving the SCMP, Vittachi joined the Far Eastern Economic Review as a columnist, where he met Jane Camens, an award-winning Australian short story writer. In 1999, Camens was working on a thesis about literature and could find hardly any English books about Asia that were written by non-Westerners. One of the few that she found was an anthology of short stories by Hong Kong writers that had been assembled by local scholar Martha Cheung, who emphasised the need for local people to tell their own stories and identity. 

That has actually been going on for quite some time – just not in conventional book publishing. Vittachi points out that stories in Asia were consumed in various formats such as magazines and newspaper serials, as well as on websites and feature phones that were used long before smartphones and e-book readers became common around the world. Asians didn’t tend to read high literary works of the Western canon, he says, but “that’s partly because the infrastructure was missing to create that kind of work.”

And so, with the ambitious mission to “kickstart the literary culture here,” Camens and Vittachi began planning Asia’s first annual literary festival in 2001, featuring a literary magazine, Dimsum—now the Asia Literary Reviewalong with a festival and a prize. In a city still loaded with colonial baggage, the duo hoped to bring in authors who wrote in English from points of view that weren’t Western.

The first step was to approach authors. Apart from literary big stars from the West, the two hoped to mix in Asian authors, both writing in English or with works translated into English, to celebrate diversity in writing. For Camens, it’s crucial that the HKILF features writers from Asia whose works are informed in some way by the region. “I believe we can’t be what we can’t see, and it was time that writers from Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia had their stories heard in international venues,” she says.

But there were few obvious authors to invite. When Salman Rushdie won the Man Booker Prize in 1981 for Midnight’s Children, and Arundhati Roy won the prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things—which became the biggest-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author—critics hypothesised that the Asian writers would take over the whole literary scene. “But the Asian revolution never happened,” says Vittachi. “When asked to name an Asian author, people always struggle. They would finally suggest Salman Rushdie, but he’s from Hampstead in England, and he lives in New York! And then there’s Amy Tan [best known for The Joy Luck Club], who’s just as American as you can get.” 

That was only the start of a series of challenges. Stage two of setting up the festival involved booking venues and committing payments before tickets could be sold. As the HKILF was a non-profit organisation without government sponsorship, Vittachi and Camens looked for corporate support for their authors. “Jane and I were quite obnoxious,” he says. “We approached the British Council and told them that we had these British writers coming to our festivals and demanded that they sponsored us. Then we headed to the Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders [and others] and said, ‘The British are paying for their authors, what are you doing? Nothing!’ They felt really guilty and paid for their own authors [to visit].”

Camens and Vittachi were overjoyed when a Nobel Prize laureate and Booker Prize winner—whose name Vittachi says he “shouldn’t mention”—agreed to come to Hong Kong, under the condition that they arranged “business or first-class flights, and a suite to the Peninsula” for him. Noting that this was a rare opportunity, the team committed to it. But this was followed by another phone call from the writer’s agent informing them that the writer had decided to bring his wife. “So I called the sponsors and told them we needed another business-class ticket across the world,” Vittachi recalls. A week later, the agent himself called, “Your festival sounds really interesting. I think I’ll come too! I’ll need a ticket, and a separate suite at the Peninsula.” 

Then the famous author cancelled just a month before the festival was due to begin in November 2001. It was an unexpected boon: the author wouldn’t come, but the sponsorship that would have paid for his visit was still intact. “I was dancing in the office,” says Vittachi. “We were able to pay for everything else.”

By then, the team had managed to secure a line-up of overseas talents. That included British-Chinese novelist Timothy Mo, who won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1979. He agreed to be the first lead author for the HKILF because—as Vittachi says Mo confessed to him—he had strong feelings for Hong Kong after “losing his virginity in the garden shed in Mid-Levels.” 

The first HKILF also featured some of the most celebrated Asian authors writing at the time, including Amitav Ghosh, Hanif Kureishi, and Vikram Seth. “It turned out that people were interested in Asia,” says Vittachi. “I guess China was still quite mysterious 20 years ago.” Camens, for her part, suggests that in those early years there was curiosity about how Hong Kong was functioning under One Country, Two Systems and authors were eager to see the city’s free speech in action. Vittachi estimates that between 500 and 700 people participated in the first edition, and thousands more schoolchildren heard from authors as they went to local primary and secondary schools for talks. 

There have been ups and downs over the years. Vittachi says the festival fell into a funk for several years until Phillipa Milne took over as manager in 2015, and he thinks the current team led by Fiona Chung, who replaced Milne this year, “has been doing a brilliant job.” Hong Kong seems to be pushing against the limits of One Country, Two Systems as well. The festival is now hosted at Tai Kwun, but last year, the cultural venue unexpectedly banned a talk by dissident Chinese writer Ma Jian. The festival pressed on and eventually Tai Kwun’s management relented, allowing the talk to go ahead.

Today, the festival is one of several across Asia, and its founders are convinced they had a hand in bringing about that situation. “A lot of the HKILF attendees or speakers went on to initiate literary festivals in other Asian cities,” says Vittachi. William Dalrymple set up the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2006, which remains the biggest Asian festival in terms of audience numbers; Michelle Garnaut, Jenny Laing Peach and Tina Kanagaratnam founded the Shanghai International Literary Festival in 2003; Janet DeNeefe founded the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali the same year; and Libby Owens set up the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in 2005. Vittachi notes that, in the past, pop culture flowed from West to East, but the tide has shifted. “It was a one-way drive, but in the last two years, we’re starting to see a move in the other way, and that is also happening to literature.”

And the festival has had an undeniable impact on the local literary scene. As it strides into its 18th year this week, it now reaches more than 16,000 people, including attendees and students. Camens says the festival offers people in Hong Kong different ways of seeing the world at a pivotal, dangerous and political contentious time. Vittachi recalls that when Seamus Heaney visited in 2006, the Irish poet delivered a beautiful talk to students, who reflected on world issues through poetry. “They had the chance to interact with the writer they learnt about and they just loved it,” he says.


The Hong Kong International Literary Festival took place from 1 to 10 November 2019. Click here for more information.


Image courtesy HKILF and Nury Vittachi.


Editor’s note: Further to the original version of this article published in October 2019, we would like to add that there were several other people who were major contributors to the festival in the early days, including Peter Gordon and his wife Elaine Leung, well-known in Asian literary circles at that time as the people behind the Paddyfield online bookshop, plus Shirley Geok-lin Lim, a visiting professor at HKU in 2001, local poet David McKirdy, and Rosemary Sayer, a public relations executive.

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