Heard at the book fair, the sound of free speech

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 July, 2012, 12:00am


Some say achieving the great reconciliation between Hong Kong and mainland politics is easier said than done. But, at the Hong Kong Book Fair, it has already happened.

The week-long event, which ended last week, has come a long way in its 23 years to become 'simply the world's largest Chinese book fair', as the organiser, Trade Development Council chairman Jack So Chak-kwong, puts it.

But to call it a book fair is an understatement. It is an expo of knowledge and ideas, where the Chinese-speaking world's leading authors and publishers can present, exchange and contest their ideas - regardless of political background or personal agenda. It is a platform for various Chinese communities and groups to showcase their literary 'soft power'. This peaceful co-existence and civility deserves serious attention.

The sessions with authors are one of the fair's most unique attractions. Sure, it attracts international big shots, like Stephen Fry and Frederick Forsyth. But household names from Greater China also come, allowing readers to put faces to their names. They include iconic mainland writers who are censored at home, but speak more freely with less fear of repercussion here.

Take Zhang Yihe, the author of numerous biographies and books on Chinese art. She is also the daughter of Zhang Bojun, a politician labelled China's 'No1 rightist' and purged by Mao Zedong in the 1950s. Zhang Yihe's appearance at the book fair in 2010 made her a sensation when she declared: 'China has not made any progress whatsoever. If there was any, it was only because it couldn't get any worse.'

This year, the 70-year old writer returned to speak about a revised edition of her banned memoir about the 1950s purges, The Past Is Not Like (Dissipating) Smoke. More compelling was her joint session with Kenneth Pai Hsien-yung, the renowned Taiwanese writer and son of a Kuomintang general. Both reflected on China's history and offered perspectives distinct from the official Communist and Nationalist versions.

The dialogue attracted a capacity crowd, leaving hundreds to watch a live video relay outside the hall. Yet the two-hour proceeding was smooth and civilised, displaying a high degree of composure from all participants. Last year, 130,000 attended the meet-the-author sessions, no small feat for the publishers.

The same orderliness applies to the booths of a record 530 exhibitors from 23 countries and regions. In Hall One, for example, local publishers were featured alongside their mainland and Taiwanese counterparts. There were no slogans or chants, just a quiet display of their work.

By paying a flat entrance fee of just HK$25 (HK$10 for children), visitors were free to spend the day visiting the publishers of their choice, whether or not they bought anything. Freedom of speech and thought flourished at this year's fair and close to one million visitors experienced it first-hand.

The number of non-local visitors to the fair rose to 15,600 last year from 5,000 in 2007, according to official figures that organisers admit likely failed to capture the true numbers of out-of-towners. The majority of them were from the mainland, with 200 one-day tours visiting the fair last year. Some arrive with suitcases to carry away books banned on the mainland and then meet in various corners, trying to figure out how to get them home - a spectacle certainly unique to a book fair in Hong Kong.

Such scenes have been common at the fair since 2003, when mainlanders were granted freer access to the city. The rising cross-border traffic of book lovers reflects a thirst for knowledge and information on the mainland undiminished by the authorities' decades-long efforts to censor and suppress creative writing.

Indeed, one could argue that the rising level of knowledge will only increase China's soft power and improve the quality of its people.

Genuine cultural and political diversity - as reflected also by the newest book releases, such as one extolling the virtues the new chief executive and one mocking him - epitomises the success of the book fair. Indeed, it epitomises the success of Hong Kong.

Oliver Chou is a senior writer at the Post and a speaker at this year's book fair