And the rest is history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am

The fairy tale of how a tete-a-tete gave birth to a giant - Asia's biggest literary festival

In late 1999, as the world readied itself for celebrations of millennial proportions, two literary-minded Hongkongers, Sri Lanka-born journalist and author Nury Vittachi and Indonesian-Chinese novelist Xu Xi, made a 'horrible discovery'.

Vittachi had noted that in all the 'great books of the 20th century' lists being published on the cusp of the 21st century, there appeared virtually no references to Asia.

Mindful of a regional surge of interest in Asian literary voices, both writers saw the need to redress this cultural imbalance.

A determined Xu Xi moved to New York to network with Asian-American authors, and Vittachi went into extracurricular overdrive from his newsroom day job to conceive, produce, and launch Dimsum, a distinctly Asian-flavoured literary journal that later became The Asia Literary Review.

An early Dimsum issue contained a short story by Australian Jane Camens, who expressed the view that Hong Kong could have a festival along the lines of the great writers' celebrations that regularly took place in Melbourne and Sydney. Duly, Vittachi and Camens got around to talking about organising such an event here, but initially found themselves walking into a fog of scepticism.

Gradually, however, they found a few people willing to listen. They included Shirley Lim, a novelist teaching at the University of Hong Kong, and a pair of entrepreneurs who ran an online bookshop.'s Peter Gordon and Elaine Leung nurtured the embryonic idea with their business skills and the provision of a meeting room, and the festival started to take shape.

'You build a house one brick at a time,' Gordon said. 'That was our approach.'

The first festival, which started on May 11, 2001, was simply a weekend of talks and panel discussions, with Hong Kong-boy-made-good Timothy Mo as the principal draw. Ticket sales were good and the festival quickly took on a life of its own.

By the following year, the event had blossomed, with highlights such as 'an audience with Amitav Ghosh (the Indian novelist of global renown)', and appearances by, among others, award-winning cross-culturalist Alex Kuo and bad-boy Time magazine hack-turned-author Karl Taro Greenfeld.

The 2002 programme offered an attractive lineup of talks, workshops and activities. An unexpected highlight was the Vittachi-led 'Literary Expedition In Search of Suzie Wong', a boozy, memorable night in Wan Chai for a distinguished group of ink-stained wretches (including this writer). Topics of discussion included the finer points of Chinese poetic tradition, Kuo's Lipstick And Other Stories and whose-round-is-it?

The following year the festival went up on the world map with Time magazine's preview. Heading the bill in 2003 was Yann Martel, whose Booker Prize-wining Life of Pi was released that year. 'It's all getting up to an international standard,' Vittachi told Time.

The 2004 festival delivered another varied and engaging programme, and saw an increased focus on writing and publishing for children, an area to which co-founder Vittachi devotes a large amount of his time these days.

Two highlights at last year's festival were the presence of Alan Hollinghurst, winner of the 2004 Man Booker Prize for his gay-theme novel The Line Of Beauty, and Shirley Hazzard, author of The Great Fire, a novel set in Japan and Hong Kong that won the 2003 National Book Award For Fiction (United States).

Last year also saw even more development in educational reading and children's books.

Every year yields an increasingly impressive pantheon of talent, but 'much of the growth and success of the festival has also been brought about by good management tied, of course, to vision', Gordon said.

This years' event reflects the organisers' lofty standard with the inclusion of a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Irish poet Seamus Heaney.

But the festival's Asian roots are as strong as ever. Matt Dillon, Asia-Pacific Regional Manager of Man Investments, the festival's sponsor, remarked: 'I am just as excited by the continuing success that the festival has had in securing Asian talent; Chinese writers such as Su Tong and Mian Mian and Indian writers such as Tarun Tejpal.'

'These days, the authors and publishers contact us, instead of us calling them,' Vittachi said. 'When we started the festival, it was unthinkable that a pair of individuals talking about literature on a stage could be perceived as a show worth buying tickets for. '

Gordon sees it as another typical Hong Kong success story.

'When Hong Kong does things right, it does them better than anyone else,' he said. 'When you think about it ... back in the 1990s the festival was really a case of something waiting to happen.'