25 Aug 2017
Crime, Travel and Children's Literature Prove HK Book Fair Highlights
- Photo: Fully booked: More than a million people attended this year’s HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair.
- Photo: Page boys and girls: Enthusiastic junior readers.
- Photo: Agatha’s ambassador: Crime writer Sophie Hannah.
- Photo: Read all about it: Some 670 exhibitors from 37 territories signed up for the 2017 event.
Long one of the highlights of the literary scene, this year's HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair proved there's life in the printed word, with more than one million keen attendees queuing to buy book bargains and meet globally acclaimed authors.
Even a typhoon couldn't keep readers away this year. Despite a tropical cyclone causing a slight delay to the opening of the show on 23 July, more than a million visitors attended the 28th Hong Kong Book Fair. Maintaining the recent trend for increasing the number of cultural happenings taking place during the course of the fair, this year's edition featured 290 on-site events, including seminars, book launches and cultural performances, with local and international authors providing the star turns.
While this largely retail-focused fair (the average per-capita spending this year was HK$812, down from $902 in 2016) was full of eager visitors, all keen on scooping up new books and educational materials, the cultural and international elements of the fair remained very much to the fore. For the fourth consecutive year, for instance, the Consulate Generals of Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Peru co-operated on hosting a dedicated Latin American Pavilion, aimed not only at promoting the literary output of the four countries, but also at highlighting the broader appeal of the Spanish language.
Outlining the joint and separate agendas of the four nations, Beatriz Nava, Mexico's Consul of Economic and Cultural Promotion for Hong Kong, said: "While we have the common goal of promoting the learning of Spanish in Hong Kong, each country also has its own emphasis.
"For our part, this year Mexico is celebrating the centenary of the birth of Juan Rulfo [the celebrated author of El Llano en llamas and Pedro Páramo]. In the case of Colombia, it is marking the 50th anniversary of the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the groundbreaking work of Gabriel García Marquez, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. By contrast, Argentina is focusing on children's literature rather than the work of any one author."
It might well have been a good call on the part of Argentina as children's books always go down well at the fair. Indeed, it is far from unusual to see families trundling suitcases around the showground, all inevitably full of children's and young adult books, as well as educational material. This edition of the fair was no different, with many of the more literary books pushed to the sidelines, a tendency that, inevitably, didn't impress some of the writers in attendance.
One author who sees this as part of a wider problem is Xu Xi, a long-term Hong Kong resident and the former Writer-in-Residence at the City University of Hong Kong. Her memoir, Dear Hong Kong: An Elegy For a City, was published by Penguin this year as part of its Hong Kong Series.
Maintaining that Hong Kong, in general, has something of a philistine tendency, she said: "The problem here is that the local culture is so dauntingly commercial. Everything has to do with money and commerce – far too much so – while reading literature has been sidelined as a wholly unnecessary thing.
"Typically, most Hong Kong people not only don't read their local literature, they are not even aware of it. While there's some interest in the more commercial fiction genres – romance, sci-fi, and martial-arts novels all do okay – more literary works tend to be ignored."
The Hong Kong Series – part of the Penguin Specials programme – is a range of relatively short books covering a variety of different topics, including art, local protest movements and English-language editions of books by Hong Kong writers, most notably Dung Kai-cheung, the local novelist who, famously, translates all of his own works.
Assessing the success of its Hong Kong range, Xu said: "Penguin tells me the series is outselling its other country-themed books. That shows me there's a genuine concern with what's happening in Hong Kong these days.
"Overall, though, there appears to be a growing interest in Asian literature. In part, at least, this has been sparked by the greater numbers of Asian students doing creative-writing degrees in the US and the UK, as well as the wider availability of translated works.
"Many US publishers are also now casting their gaze more internationally. This represents something of a reaction to the huge commoditisation of the publishing business, which has become all about creating celebrity marketing products rather than real books."
One attendee who was clearly only too aware of the various trends currently preoccupying publishers in Hong Kong, Asia and the West was Kelly Falconer, Founder of the Asia Literary Agency. Summing up her role, she said: "It's my job to convince editors in the UK, US and far beyond to turn their eyes to Asia."
Speaking from her experience of representing writers from across Asia, including Han Yujoo, the South Korean author of The Impossible Fairy Tale, Falconer said: "It is still a challenge to get British and American editors to set aside home-grown talent in favour of foreigners, especially as they are often wholly unfamiliar with their points of view and experiences."
In terms of English translations, she says this, understandably, continues to be led by the titles that have proved to be best-sellers in Asia, as well as those by the more well-known and established authors. In terms of non-fiction, books focusing on a particular region continue to be popular both in English and in translation. Falconer does, however, find that with some countries, notably China, publishers are starting to feel that all the best stories have already been told, a development that is requiring her to present such stories from a very different point of view.
Expanding on her approach, she said: "We have tried to buck that particular trend by presenting editors with new authors, whose authenticity of experience – growing up and living in China, of being Chinese and being able to tell their own story, for example – and authenticity of voice adds new and unique insights into this rapidly changing country."
Officially, for 2017, travel was the theme of the Book Fair, a focus that saw number of international authors invited to discuss travel writing. This saw them sharing their experiences of covering everything from Macao to the 16th-19th century trade routes between Spanish-America and China.
One of the big names headlining this year's event was Sophie Hannah, the best-selling crime novelist whose works are available in 32 languages in 51 territories. Most famously, after being approached by the late writer's estate, she was asked to write a new adventure for Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective created by Agatha Christie, the doyenne of crime fiction.
Making her first visit to Hong Kong, Hannah shared her experience of revisiting such a beloved character in both her 2014 book The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket, her 2016 follow-up. Despite finding herself some 9,000km away from the late writer's Devon home, Hannah said meeting so many Agatha Christie fans in Hong Kong was hardly a surprise.
She said: "Christie is the best crime writer there's ever been. If anyone should be popular all around the world, it should definitely be her. Since I published the two Poirot novels, I've been doing a lot of travelling and I've become a sort of Agatha Christie missionary. I basically travel from country to country telling people how wonderful Agatha Christie is. Wherever I go, I know I will always meet hordes of enthusiastic fans."
Turning her attention to the more contemporary trends in crime fiction, she said: "The genre is currently in a very healthy state. I can't help but notice that there are always really good new crime novels to read. In fact, so much brilliant stuff is being written that I can never read as much of it as I really want to."
The HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair 2017 took place from 19-25 July at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. This year, 670 exhibitors from 37 countries and regions took part in the event.
Melanie Hoare, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong