Hong Kong's budding writers continue local love affair

As the standard-bearers of a tradition, one-third of new local writers choose to depict life in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 3:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 8:23pm

While political activists press for change and the fashionable show off their new looks, there is another group of people who are quietly documenting the stories about this city. They are Hong Kong’s budding writers.

Kwok Ka-kie, 33, a full-time gardener and part-time interior designer, is one of many new local writers who are recording Hong Kong’s transforming identity.

His conservative attitude towards technology explains his emotional attachment to books. “Readers can know things by turning pages,” he said. “Books are honest.”

To realise the dream of publishing a book, Kwok quit his full-time job last year and spent almost one year writing and illustrating a book, Memoir of Sun, Moon, Star, about his neighbourhood, the Starstreet Precinct in Wan Chai.

Hong Kong’s first power station started operating in this area in 1890. Because the power station brought light to the neighbourhood, people named the three streets nearby Sun Street, Moon Street and Star Street, Kwok wrote in his book, published in July.

In the 1980s, a developer began to acquire properties in the area, turning it into an upscale district for shopping and dining.

Video: Saving Moon Street, one(pencil) stroke at a time

“It seems that the cha chaan teng (Hong Kong style restaurant) on the right side and the western restaurants on the left side represent two different styles,” wrote Kwok. “However, the difference gradually decreases and disappears.”

Kwok drew and wrote about everyday life on Moon Street: the six-storey tanglou or tenement building he lives in, his dog Docker, his partner Geoff, his local neighbours Cliff and Amanda, their rooftop garden plants Rabbit, Poodle and Skeleton, their local cha chaan teng and the group of old women who feed stray cats.

“Grandma Lam is the only person who feeds stray cats every day in this community, even storms can’t stop her,” he wrote. “After dinner she leaves her home and goes to visit and feed every stray cat.”

“I wanted to document their lives and preserve the human emotions within,” Kwok said.

A desire to document local lives is not unique to Kwok. Although political publications still dominate the city’s book market, books about daily life in the SAR have become more common since the handover in 1997, according to a report released by the Hong Kong Trade and Development Council earlier this year.

One-third of new local writers choose to depict life in Hong Kong. Yet, sales of such books are stable at around 1,000 each year, according to Yuki Li, a publishing manager for Joint Publishing, which has 18 bookstores in the city. The company also holds an annual writing competition for aspiring writers.

“New writers are inspired by their lives and experiences in Hong Kong,” said Li.

Li’s company and a local real estate developer sponsored the publication of Kwok’s book. For each book sold at HK$148, he gets about HK$12.

“Financially speaking, the situation for young local writers is not ideal,” said Wong Nim-yan, an assistant professor studying local literature at the Chinese University. “There are not many opportunities for them and it’s hard for them to get noticed.”

They are, however, the standard-bearers of a tradition that goes back more than half a century. Local daily life had been a favourite topic among local writers since the 1960s, said Wong. Then, a first generation of Hong Kong writers started to explore their unique Hong Kong identity.

Things changed after Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, when attention turned from literature and arts to politics and economic development, Wong said.

One writer striving to document Hong Kong’s change is Ma Ka-ki, who writes under the penname Fei Pak or Brownwhite. The 29-year-old administrator for an art exhibition organiser was inspired last year when he visited a traditional printing shop in Tai Kok Tsui, west of Mong Kok, which has been run by an elderly couple surnamed Kwan for 36 years.

They are one of the seven elderly couples portrayed in his book Mom and Pop Store, also published this July.

The old shops, such as Mr and Mrs Cheng’s rice shop in Sai Ying Pun, are remnants of a slow-paced life that is disappearing fast. A local real estate developer has purchased the shop and a 22-storey hotel will be built on the site. The old couples’ enduring relationships are also treasures left from that time, said Ma. “People didn’t tend to give up on relationships easily in that era,” he said. “They knew how to cherish each other.”

The couples in this book started their shops and marriages in the 1960s and 1970s, when Hong Kong’s economy was weak and society plagued by protests and violence. People at that time didn’t tend to throw things away, especially relationships, he added.

“The old values of love, including tolerance and care, might sound old-fashioned when you speak of them now,” said Eric Tseng, one of Ma’s friends.

Just like Ma, gardener Kwok also misses the way his community looked four years ago when he moved there from Shek Tong Tsui, in west Hong Kong Island. Rents have soared, and the old cha chaan teng he often visited has been forced to close down. High-end bars, cafes and boutiques have moved in.

He might have to move away by the end of this year due to increasing rents. “The community has been overdeveloped,” he said. “It hasn’t developed with the down-to-earth residents and people’s lives have been affected in a bad way.”

“If I don’t draw the stories of this community nobody will remember them, so I feel this is my mission,” he added.

Kwok ends his book with four pages devoted to fashionable urbanites. They are the kind of people moving to the Starstreet Precinct. Out of reach for him, his dog Docker and grandma Lam, his neighbourhood has turned into a “capitalist paradise” for the rich, but the old community lives on in his book.