Minds matter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 June, 2010, 12:00am

Whenever I meet my friend Angelo Paratico, I suffer a slight tingle of intellectual envy. Most people in Hong Kong, including many expatriates, are in this town for the money. But Angelo lives a charmed life of the mind in the middle of a cultural desert, making the city almost glamorous and culturally exciting. Make no mistake: he does make money, pots of it, as a textile businessman specialising in high-end fabrics for jeans. He also writes columns for Italian newspapers with an anti-China slant. And he taught me how to swear in Latin, which I thought was charming. I was much amused when he told me he translated the Latin portions of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose for mainland publishers who pirated the novel many years ago.

Thinking about Angelo, I wonder if our city could become a more vibrant place if there were more people like him. In the end, it's the people who make a city, not some cultural white elephants drawn up by bureaucrats with taxpayers' money to waste.

What I am most in awe of is Angelo's mental discipline as a novelist working in this city and using it as material for his highly imaginative and convoluted sci-fi and historical novels. His last novel, Black Hole, was released just when the Large Hadron Collider went online. Written in Italian, the first edition quickly sold out. It tells the tale of an Italian professor of physics at the University of Hong Kong - a specialist in the mathematical theory of knots and extra-dimensions - who was drawn into international intrigue and murder as the Vatican and the US government summoned him for help. There were reports of demonic possessions from other dimensions near the collider site and a black hole was created inside it. The novel features a midnight call from former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen.

Angelo's latest novel, to be released next month in Italy, is called Ben and revolves around a conspiracy theory that Benito Mussolini and his mistress were murdered in a British-engineered plot on the order of Winston Churchill, rather than being shot by Italian communist partisans, as is commonly accepted.

Most Brits think the theory was claptrap but apparently a lot of Italians believe it, among them the late historian Renzo De Felice, a specialist in fascism and Mussolini. That's why Angelo's publisher, Mursia, one of the largest and most prestigious in Italy, thinks it has a potential best-seller on its hands. The novel also has a Portuguese Macau connection with a real-life Chinese gangster couple and a cameo featuring a young Stanley Ho Hung-sun taking his first steps as a budding entrepreneur. The book sounds like it has the making of Oliver Stone's JFK, which, though blasted by historians, made a generation of young Americans believe that his assassination was a vast government conspiracy.

I don't know how people like Angelo manage to write hundreds of thousands of words to produce a book. I get lost after the first 1,000 words for an article. But it's such people - intellectually versatile, mentally alive and agile - that make a world-class city.

Mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai have true decadence - centuries of history and bloodshed, monumentally corrupt officials and businessmen, angry punk musicians and poets, genuinely accomplished intellectuals and university professors, and authors and artists of distinction. Such cities are cauldrons of humanity at once ancient and postmodern; that's why they attract Western rock stars, missionaries, drunken foreign correspondents, executives and moneymen in impeccable pinstriped suits, conmen, students looking for adventures, NGO organisers and campaigners trying to save China from itself.

In Hong Kong, we have robotic bureaucrats, obscure scholars, self-styled democracy fighters, post-1980s crybabies posing as radicals, overpaid NGO workers and a town full of moneymen. If we are to prosper, we need not only foreigners who can devise dodgy derivatives, but also people of creativity like Angelo who find our city interesting and, in turn, make it interesting.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post