27 Oct 2017
Writing Hong Kong
While this year’s 17th Hong Kong International Literary Festival (HKILF) features a strong line up of international authors, including the likes of Chinese-American author Amy Tan and Scottish crime-writer Ian Rankin, there is also a focus on Hong Kong’s literary talent. These local authors write across a wide range of genres; from poetry and short stories, to non-fiction, children’s books and detective novels. It’s a small but thriving community.
Poet Tammy Ho co-founded Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2007. The Hong Kong native said that the English-language writing scene in Hong Kong is “robust,” citing several supporting organisations, such as the Hong Kong Writers Circle, Poetry Out Loud, Peel Street Poetry and the Hong Kong Women in Publishing Society, as well as the annual HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair.
“In Hong Kong, one just has to go out, be receptive, join a group, and meet and mingle with other like-minded people,” said Ms Ho, who writes in English. “This community, however, is quite modest in size and in some cases ephemeral, as members come and go.”
Ms Ho, who is an Assistant Professor in the English department at the Hong Kong Baptist University, is a recipient of the 2015 Hong Kong Arts Development Council Young Artist Award in Literary Arts and is a Vice-President of PEN Hong Kong. At this year’s HKILF, Ms Ho will join a panel discussing 20 years of Hong Kong poetry, and will launch Twin Cities, a new book featuring poets from Hong Kong and Singapore. She is also an organiser of the Cha Reading Series.
“It takes the online journal out into the physical world,” Ms Ho said of the series. “Readings will take place in impromptu locations across the city, in public and private rooms, lecture halls, on park benches, in front of billboards, next to a window scratched by tree branches. [We] discuss issues, argue, debate and exchange. We also hope to form dialogue and explore specific topics pertinent [to] the contemporary world.”
From Hong Kong to the World
Discussion, exchange and critiques are part of Hong Kong writer Xu Xi’s latest venture called Authors at Large (ALA). Ms Xu, who has published 12 books and established Asia’s first Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the City University of Hong Kong, set-up ALA in 2015 to provide intensive writing retreats and workshops around the world. Next month, it will launch its first “urban retreat” in Hong Kong.
“ALA is heading into its third year and we’re very happy with what we’ve been doing so far,” Ms Xu said. “We’ve held writing retreats and workshops in Thailand, Iceland and Indonesia, and our network of authors is growing; we’re also working individually on book manuscripts with an international range of writers in fiction and nonfiction. The business is small but growing.”
She recently published Dear Hong Kong, part of Penguin’s special Hong Kong Series. Being a working writer in Hong Kong – or anywhere – involves balancing several projects at a given time. “A writer in Hong Kong is for me pretty much like being a writer in New York, my other home. My regular schedule comprises time spent on my own writing, general administrative and development work for Authors at Large, editorial work as fiction editor for Tupelo Press, as well as for other editorial projects I have in the pipeline [and] catching up on all the reading piled around me. Basically, it’s just life while trying to get enough writing done.”
Having lived and worked in Hong Kong for many years, Ms Xu said that there was rising interest in Asian writing, which she partially attributes to the rise in the number of students from the region working on creative writing degrees, as well as a growth in literary translations, particularly of Chinese and Korean works. “I recently became fiction editor at a literary press in the US and part of the reason the publisher approached me was to broaden their list, given my international background. And I’m not alone in this regard as I’m aware of other literary presses and MFA programmes in the US that are casting their gaze towards not just Asia but also internationally.”
One local writer who is making waves is Chan Ho-kei, who has published three mystery novels. Mr Chan, who will speak at the HKIL on a panel about cities and crime writing with Scottish author Ian Rankin and Japanese best-selling author Hideo Yokoyama, has sold the rights to his 2014 novel, The Borrowed, in more than 10 countries, as well as the book’s film rights to celebrated Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai.
Mr Chan, who writes in Chinese, said that while the group of full-time writers in Hong Kong is small, it’s a tight-knit community. “There are not many full-time writers in Hong Kong, let alone mystery writers. However, I am really glad to have these fellow writers as friends,” Mr Chan said. “I seldom share my work with them before publishing, but we always meet and chat about the work we are currently doing, or [what] we are planning to do in the future. In the past couple of years, there have been quite a few new independent publishers, where the editors are also writers. These publishers don't have a lot of money or manpower, but they are doing a good job.”
Mr Chan said that in order for the creative writing and literary arts community to grow and develop in Hong Kong, a greater emphasis on reading is key.
“I think we need to create an atmosphere where reading is cool,” Mr Chan said. “We have many entertainment choices nowadays and if kids stay focused only on these things and feel uncomfortable about reading, the reading population will further decrease. Let children feel that reading is fun then we can have more readers in the future, and we won't have to do anything to encourage creative writing. There would be good writers then.”
Other writers agreed that more could be done to nurture Hong Kong’s literary scene, including promoting poetry and local literature.
“It is also important to teach Hong Kong poetry to students, as it can provide a literary identity for them,” Ms Ho said. “I have been helping with PEN Hong Kong’s PEN Voices project [headed by Nicholas Wong], which showcases Chinese-language and English-language creative works by local university students, and a lot of these writings give me the impression that young writers today do reflect a certain Hongkong-ness in their work, taking inspiration from what’s happening in the city.”