Showcase for Asian writing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 February, 2004, 12:00am

Marketing strategists could waste weeks combining traits, tendencies and interests into a digital human who represents the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival. Or they could just invite Maxine Hong Kingston, a compact hard copy of everything the event has pushed in Asian writing for the past four years.

Kingston has sold more than a million books that take her Chinese heritage into the United States, her country of birth. It's easy to argue that ethnic Asian literature orbits around her first book, Woman Warrior. The energy and audacity of her writing certainly helped define the category. After being jailed last year for protesting outside the White House over the west's actions in Iraq, the 62-year-old released The Fifth Book of Peace, which spun off the ancient eastern legend of three texts outlining an end to war.

Kingston borrows ideas from across the world, particularly Asia, but avoids ironing out the creases when she sews them together. Her idea of peace and the co-existence of cultures is erratic and jarring. It yells: Why seek thrills in war or violent films when peace can be just as exciting?

Kingston's love of a noisy, mixed neighbourhood should make her comfortable in Hong Kong. She tried living here in the 1980s while running a writing workshop, but fled after failing to find an artistic community to sustain her. Let's hope her return means that side of Hong Kong has improved. She will find a city questioning its place as a financial powerhouse. Introspection can be bad for business, but it helps make art.

Perhaps a self-examining city can produce a great arts festival. Amid Sars and economic strife, last year's literary festival somehow held on to Yann Martel, shortly after he had won the Man Booker Prize for Life of Pi. Within months Man Investments, the Booker's chief sponsor, was offering its services to the festival. The firm asked organisers if the programme had room for John Carey, chairman of judges for last year's Booker and a critic for London's Sunday Times newspaper. Over the past 25 years he has become a British institution by mowing' down pompous writers.

David Mitchell, poised to become one of the best writers of his generation, has made the Booker shortlist. Pankaj Mishra continues the theme, having recommended the manuscript for Arundhati Roy's Booker winner, The God of Small Things before releasing his own outstanding novels. Best-selling children's author Gillian Cross has won the Whitbread. Ian Johnson has won the biggest prize on the other side of the pond, the Pulitzer.

But creating a world-class festival is tougher than bringing in big international names. The week will be judged on whether it finds a larger audience for Han Shaogong, Qiu Xiaolong, Michelle de Kretser or Kerry Sakamoto.

Its other test lies in reminding Hong Kongers that their city houses an oddly wide band of writers. You might catch Zheng Danyi, a poet with an international reputation, having a curry and a pint in Rat Alley. You may fail to realise that the flat-nosed gweilo playing with his kids in Pok Fu Lam while wearing a knee-length silk shirt from India is Shane Weaver, former Australian light-middleweight boxing champion, creative director of advertising giant Ogilvy and author of a frighteningly candid memoir, Blacktown. You can also expect to bump into Rosie Milne, Annabel Jackson, PK Leung, Michael Vatikiotis, or Karl Taro Greenfeld while they toil at their day jobs or raise children.

Maxine Hong Kingston alerted the world to Asia's literary potential, leaving the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival the job of showing that the region deserves the spotlight.

All we punters need to do is appreciate that literature in Hong Kong is strong enough for the festival to open with a night starring five of the city's moonlighting poets, all of whom have published collections since September.