Hong Kong Book Fair offers a needed reminder of this city's political and cultural openness

Oliver Chou says the many frank and civil exchanges at the city's first post-Occupy Central book fair speak volumes about our values

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 12:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 July, 2015, 12:41pm

Hong Kong's largest annual book event offered a rather surreal experience for a week when the city came together to embrace different views in and off print. This year's Hong Kong Book Fair, which ended on Tuesday, was the first since the Occupy Central protests last autumn. The subsequent rift in society and tension between locals and mainlanders had caused grave concerns for the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, the organiser.

Despite the worry, however, the book fair registered impressive attendance. And there was no sign of compromise in the line-up of authors and themes featured. From outspoken critics Chip Tsao and Lee Yee to pro-establishment lawmakers Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and Tommy Cheung Yu-yan, the sessions proceeded in good order and with respect. Precautionary measures, such as iron fences at a forum featuring eight speakers critical of the Umbrella Movement, proved unnecessary.

There was expression of different views in the question-and-answer session among the full-house audience, and the atmosphere grew tense when voices were raised in some questions. But the dialogue was civilised throughout, and books were signed at the end.

The atmosphere grew tense when voices were raised in some questions, but the dialogue was civilised throughout

Local celebrities aside, the book fair also brought in a league of international authors. For the first time, two ex-ministers were featured as speakers - Dr George Yeo, former foreign minister of Singapore, and Dr Lung Ying-tai, former cultural minister of Taiwan - who touched on subjects of a magnitude that went beyond Hong Kong. There was also a capacity crowd at the star-studded Open Forum hosted by Sir David Tang, who flew in top writers Alain de Botton and Simon Sebag Montefiore, along with biographer Carol Thatcher, the daughter of the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, for a candid conversation with the audience.

But nothing is more indicative of the city's inclusive culture than naming Professor Leo Lee Ou-fan the Writer of the Year. Born on the mainland, he grew up in Taiwan and taught at Princeton and Harvard, among others. Lee has been a strong cultural voice since settling in Hong Kong in 2000. "The city has a diverse culture and very dynamic, and you'd never get bored here, that's why I chose Hong Kong for my retirement," he said in fluent Cantonese at the opening ceremony. His three talks at the fair, delivered in English, Putonghua and Cantonese, encapsulated the unique strength of Hong Kong being positioned near the Taiwan Strait and at the tip of the Pearl River Delta.

The seven-day book fair testifies to Hong Kong's core value of political and cultural inclusivity, and shows that a platform for free and peaceful exchange of different opinions is not a thing of the past.

Oliver Chou is a senior writer at the Post and a member of the advisory panel of the Hong Kong Book Fair