Speaking volumes about us
A ticket to the Hong Kong Book Fair over the weekend was harder to get than one to a Robbie Williams concert. The six-day fair, which closed yesterday, drew about 680,000 bookworms this year.
Braving the summer heat over the weekend, long queues snaked their way from the Convention and Exhibition Centre, past the Renaissance Harbour View Hotel in Wan Chai, and down the pedestrian bridge to the giant fountain outside.
Traffic had to be rerouted; extra buses were put into service; police platoons were out in force to control the crowds of closet intellectuals.
When the annual fair began in 1990, attendance was around 200,000. Since 2000, it has grown by about 10 per cent a year.
Strangely, it seems to be an entirely Chinese and mainland affair: I was there for four hours on Sunday, and failed to spot a single expatriate customer. The few foreigners I saw were working at the international booths sponsored by various consulates.
In a small place like Hong Kong, the interiors of the giant exhibition halls seemed endless.
While many were there for the latest comics, their collectable toy accessories and pop stars' autographs, the vast majority were there because of the books.
And those volumes covered every conceivable subject in the Chinese- and English-language universe.
A young man picked up a Chinese translation of a book on Hegel's interpretation of western modernity. Close by, a lady took out a $500 bill to pay for a pile of cook books.
In another corner, a middle-aged man was examining a highly graphic medical book on prostate diseases.
Next to him, a boy was looking at an encyclopaedia of social history with pictures of Marilyn Monroe in the nude.
A large group of mainland visitors pulled along bulky luggage stuffed with books.
All the local university publishers were out in force, promoting many titles that ought to attract audiences larger than just academics.
They included Twenty-first Century Plague: The Story of Sars, by Thomas Abraham, a former South China Morning Post editor and currently a journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.
Also on display was Robert Williams' The Money Changers, on the world's US$2 trillion-a-day currency markets.
Perhaps the most disappointing booth was the one from Cambridge University Press, packed exclusively with how-to-pass-exam books for things called 'PET, IELTS, BEC, BULATS'. I think they have something to do with qualifications in the English language.
The fair should put an end to the myth that Hongkongers don't read.
In fact, our hunger for books must be even greater than normal because it has been systematically suppressed.
Our primary- and secondary-school education seems designed to create psychological associations between books, textbooks and extreme tedium.
Perhaps there is only one criticism that one can venture - and this comes in full awareness of the fair's phenomenal success. That is, that the Trade Development Council, which organises the event, should branch out from the selling and promotion of books to make it an event about publishing in the largest sense of the word.
As British novelist Martin Amis writes of the Frankfurt book fair, the world's greatest of its kind: '[it] is a clearing house for ideas, for creativity... The thinkers and seekers of the publishing world get together and thrash out such topics as the meaning of life and the destiny of the planet... and to make mega deals.' Dare we aim so high?
The Hong Kong Book Fair has become one of the city's defining annual events.
Perhaps it does not compare with truly great ones like Frankfurt's, but it is ours, and we should be proud of it.
Alex Lo is a columnist and senior reporter at the Post