Do your shelf a favour

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2008, 12:00am

Just a few decades ago Hong Kong was known for its popular Chinese literature. Among the most celebrated writers were a trio dubbed the 'Three Miracles': Louis Cha Leung-yung for his tales of kung fu chivalry, Ni Kuang for his sci-fi and adventure stories, and his sister Ni Yishu, for her romantic fiction. Their works continue to be top-sellers in Taiwan, on the mainland and in Chinese communities worldwide, and are often among the 20 most frequently-borrowed books at local libraries.

But literary circles are fretting that Hong Kong has failed to produce a Chinese-language novelist of similar calibre in recent years, with local publishers and readers turning increasingly to celebrity musings.

'There are young people who are very passionate about writing novels,' says Ngan Shun-kau, chief editor at publishers Cosmos Books. 'We constantly receive manuscripts from fledgling writers, but not many have potential. It isn't easy to find good novelists who can write compelling stories these days.'

He says young writers in Hong Kong often lack insight into the human condition and the mastery of language their predecessors developed, attributing this in part to their hectic lifestyle and not reading broadly enough.

'People don't slow down to observe life. A good novel is more than a matter of story-telling; it reflects the writer's vision.'

The chairman of the Hong Kong Book and Magazine Association, Tsang Hip-tai, also blames the sluggish literary scene on an unadventurous reading public. 'Most readers don't want to take a risk; they're unwilling to spend time exploring new writers,' he says. 'Established authors are always the safe bet.'

Even so, some younger writers are exploring different channels to attract new readers. Erica Li Man, a screenwriter and novelist, has helped cultivate a crop of young fans through the Mystery Valley fantasy series - billed as Hong Kong's answer to the Harry Potter books. Co-written with Eric Lee Shu-sing and Helen Wong Hoi-yin, the tales of wizardry were launched in 2006 and each instalment has sold more than 10,000 copies.

'Chinese-language children's literature is still in its infancy, but I want to be part of it,' says Li, a mother of two.

Traditionally, Chinese children were treated to folk tales and ancient fables, and children's literature was largely ignored in the past century as China underwent social and political turmoil. Some children's stories such as Winter of Three Hairs appeared in the 1940s but tended to be very heavy, Li says. 'Children's literature in the west is more diverse and imaginative. Why don't Chinese parents also give their children something joyful to read?' she said.

But piquing young readers' interest presents a challenge. 'Children don't have much spare time nowadays,' Li says. 'They're occupied with school work and extra-curricular activities. Even when they have time, they prefer playing computer games.'

The community's obsession with English-language skills is another hurdle, she says. 'Parents would rather have their children read English novels. Some even tell people their kids don't read Chinese-language books, just to show they're superior.'

Li hopes the Mystery Valley series will help reverse this trend. Worrying that good writing and gripping plots aren't enough, she has invited popular Taiwanese girl group S.H.E to record the audio books.

'Novelists need to keep abreast of the times,' she says. 'You have to show children that books are tailored for them. Just like when a mother wants her child to eat more vegetables, she'll arrange the lunchbox attractively enough to make him actually want to eat it.'

Writer and TV presenter Ong Yi-hing hopes to introduce Chinese literature to people who may not consider themselves readers by embracing a multimedia approach. Packaging and marketing are important, says Ong, who received the Hong Kong Biennial Award for Chinese Literature in 2002, the youngest winner at the age of 23.

That's why his new novel, As the Wind Blows, will feature an accompanying music video when it is released at the next Hong Kong Book Fair. 'Literature shouldn't be confined to print,' he says. 'I hope my works can bridge the gap between pop culture and literature.'

Ong faults local publishing houses for lacking marketing sense. 'When I proposed having posters or launches to promote my books, many declined because they don't think that's necessary. They think good books will do well anyway, but these days good writing isn't enough to ensure sales,' he says.

'We have to draw people's attention; right now, literature seems cut off from people's daily lives. The saddest thing is many good books by contemporary writers go unnoticed.'

'There are many creative ways to introduce writers and literature to the public,' he says, citing a Japanese TV show built around a literary contest. Writers submit short stories, which get adapted into plays. Winners are selected after several rounds, each of which showcases a particular genre.

Hong Kong Baptist University has also been working to revive a passion for Chinese-language writing through a series of workshops hosted by acclaimed writers. Launched in 2004, the scheme brought in Han Shaogong, the author of A Dictionary of Maqiao, who spent three months coaching students.

Despite the preoccupation with entertainment and the bottom line, writer Dung Kai-cheung proves there's a place for serious literature.

'Hong Kong has a stable literary readership and writers who produce serious works,' says the 41-year-old. 'It's just that the influx of books written by celebrities and radio DJs have drawn people's attention away from more serious fare.'

Dung, who won Taiwan's Unitas Award for New Fiction Writers in 1994, is regarded as one of the most promising local writers in recent years. Described as a novelist with international vision, he is the only Hongkonger in the running for the prestigious HK$300,000 Dream of the Red Chamber Award this year.

The literary prize awarded by Baptist University recognises outstanding Chinese-language novelists from around the world. Dung will be vying with six notable writers, including Mo Yan and Wang Anyi from the mainland and Zhu Tian-wen from Taiwan, for the award, which will be announced on July 24.

Many readers came to know Dung through local newspapers, which regularly published his works in mid-1990s. 'Back then newspapers played an important role in promoting literature. It was a platform for novelists to publish their works on a daily basis and garner readers,' Dung says. Now most of his novels are published by Taiwan companies, although they are also available in local stores.

Baptist University dean of arts Chung Ling says cases like Dung's are not uncommon. 'Taiwan's publishing houses have greater interest in serious literary works. It's not easy to get such works published in Hong Kong unless the writers are funded by the Arts Development Council,' she says.

Dung, who recently completed the last instalment of his trilogy involving parallel plots set in an imaginary Hong Kong, tries not to make distinctions between popular and high-brow literature. 'Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther is a serious literary work but remains popular because it touches the heart of young people,' he says. 'Time is the test.'