Online novelists find success in print and on the big screen in Hong Kong
Young amateur authors who serialised their novels on an internet forum are finding success in the real world, landing book and film deals, writes Elaine Yau
When his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Sit Ho-ching began writing about their relationship as a way to cope with his grief. He later reworked those musings into a semi-autobiographical novel, and posted it in serial form over two years on the popular portal Hong Kong Golden Forum.
His narrative of their father-son dynamics, punctuated with other personal experiences like career setbacks and break-ups, proved to be a surprise hit with internet readers.
Men Can't Be Poor generated so much buzz that a traditional publisher picked up the print rights; 10,000 copies of the novel have since been sold. To cap it all, it has been made into a movie starring Bosco Wong Chung-chak and Stephy Tang Lai-yan and is scheduled for release in August.
Sit, who runs a restaurant in Central, says the experience has been surreal.
"When I saw an unedited version of the film recently, I felt overwhelmed with joy and disbelief. I was writing it online little more than a year ago," the 35-year-old says.
Men Can't Be Poor is the third online yarn by a local writer to be made into a film as well as published in physical form. The other two, Journey to the West and Lost on a Red Minibus to Tai Po, also created something of a splash in local cinemas - the former because of its explicit sex and the latter for unexpected plot twists involving murder and necrophilia. Film director Fruit Chan was sufficiently intrigued by the plot of Red Minibus to turn it into a movie, The Midnight After, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year.
The growing popularity of these amateur writers has given a boost to Chinese-language publishing in Hong Kong.
Sun Effort, the first local publisher to release print versions of online novels, has eight such titles in its catalogue.
"As the novels can be read for free online, publishers are afraid sales will be affected. After taking up Journey to the West in 2010, we spent a whole year discussing with distributors and bookshops about how far the sex and foul language could go. In the end, it was sold as an adult book, wrapped in plastic with a warning banner over the cover."
The decision has paid off. The first print run of 4,000 copies sold out in two days.
At the 2012 book fair, Sun Effort sold 15,000 copies of its three online novels, including Journey and Red Minibus, racking up HK$1 million.
"We attracted two groups of readers - those who prefer novels in traditional format and fans of the online novel who want to keep the physical book as a memento."
Cheung says the online novelists show a kind of daring that sets them apart from most regular writers.
"They take flights of fancy on story development. They are not afraid to push moral boundaries. Journey to the West deals with men's visits to Dongguan brothels. Lost on a Red Minibus to Tai Po involves a scene where a boy rapes a corpse."
That's not to say that sleaze defines local online fiction. Although the first stories posted on Golden Forum were mostly salacious tales peppered with salty language, Cheung says that the current crop of authors no longer rely on sensationalism to attract readers.
"Ninety per cent of online novels now are not about sex. There's a wide range of genres, including suspense, supernatural fantasies and romance. Many are poignant depictions of everyday issues affecting Hongkongers."
Sit's fiction falls into this category.
"In Men Can't be Poor, I wrote in the first person. In the story, [my character] works for an investment firm selling London gold derivatives. He is unnerved by the cold-bloodedness of his colleagues who think nothing of losing their customers' life savings," Sit says.
"It's based on my real-life experience. I discovered that I could not have any emotions if I wanted to survive in the field. You had to be like a robot. It's contrary to my personality and I eventually quit."
Another major theme in the story is his guilt and regret for not having spent more time with his ailing father.
"The 'poor' in the title doesn't refer to money. What I mean is that a man can't stint on [caring] for his parents as they will likely die before him. The last chapter is about the death and funeral of the dad. I was crying as I wrote it."
Sit's subsequent tales also feature semi-autobiographical elements. His latest, titled What Happened to Us?, was inspired by a childhood friend.
"I was prompted to write that after being reunited with a long-lost friend. After being so close when we were children, I wondered why I let such a valuable friendship fade after we grew up."
While Sit tends to tug at readers' heartstrings, a 27-year-old clerk writing under the pseudonym Universal God has a fondness for bizarre and supernatural characters.
Among the protagonists in Disorders, a collection of his short stories, are a freak who likes killing insects and Superman in a homosexual relationship with Batman. Then there is the zombie who has to reconcile his appetite for human flesh with modern-day family and work responsibilities.
But his latest work, Bullying on an Australian Working Holiday, is an attempt to debunk often rosy portrayals of such trips.
"People always write about how sun-drenched holidays expand their horizons and give them new perspectives on life. I don't want to write any of that," Universal says.
He had returned from a working holiday where he ran into crooks, bullies and mean employers just out to exploit him, and decided to weave the experiences into a fictional travelogue.
This burst of creativity has mostly occurred on Golden Forum and, ironically, helped lift the image of the portal, which had been better known as an outlet for expletive-laden tirades from angry young nerds and for vigilante campaigns dubbed human-flesh searches.
It was a fortuitous trend, Golden Forum boss Lam Cho-shun acknowledges.
"When I became CEO in 2008, we had quite a bad image. 'Golden boy' [as regular users were called] became a pejorative term. The kids were seen as people on fringes spewing vulgar rants online," he says.
Keen to highlight better material on the portal to improve its image, Lam discovered that some contributors could write good stories.
"The language they used was initially quite immature, like assignments done by secondary students. But later, we began to see serialised fiction."
Citing Journey to the West, Lam says that the novel is quite well written. "Although it contains foul language, that is just the way young people speak nowadays."
The turning point came in 2011 when Journey caught publishers' attention. Now, the storytelling channel on Golden Forum features about 60 authors.
"We are happy that our users get recognition. They always credit us after they make good," Lam says.
Writers like Cheung Son derive a lot of enjoyment from the more interactive process in delivering novels online.
"After you post a chapter, readers respond almost immediately. They talk about the latest plot development and offer suggestions on the storyline," says Cheung, a 25-year-old marketing worker.
Readers' comments have shaped parts of Nobi Nobita at Eighteen, his tale which envisions the boy companion of cartoon cat Doraemon growing up to be an average guy, who encounters lots of setbacks and feels edged out of society.
"There's a character in the story who gets the girl of Nobi's dreams - he's polite, handsome, athletic and perfect in everything. But netizens hated him so much, I had to trim the sections about him in the later segments."
Its impact on individual creativity aside, this kind of delivery has other drawbacks. The author of Lost on a Red Minibus to Tai Po, who writes under the pseudonym of Pizza, says pressure from readers can be overwhelming.
He started posting his story in chapters on Golden Forum in 2012.
"At the craziest time, I was writing 10,000 words a week. Tens of thousands of people were reading my story, and they kept urging me to post the latest chapter," Pizza says, recalling how fans would tell him off whenever he was late posting a segment.
"Young people do not watch television now. They read my novels as if they are following a TV drama series," he adds.
"As the story progressed, I got all kinds of feedback. The comments made me feel lost; I didn't know how to please all of them. The pressure was so great that I wanted to jump off a building."
Now working on a historical suspense novel set in Hong Kong, Pizza says to avoid such stress, he won't post any work until 80 per cent of the story is completed.
But even with print royalties and movie deals, Sun Effort editor Ivan Cheung says it is difficult for writers to making a living solely from online novels.
A writer typically receives seven to 10 per cent of the book price in royalties. With books costing around HK$70 each, the sale of 5,000 copies will only yield about HK$40,000.
"You need at least two months to write a novel, and the editor requires a month to organise publication. So it takes at least three months for a book to get to the market. Are the sales enough to cover salary for the three months?"
That is fine by Cheung Son, who began writing online fiction for his own pleasure. Nobi and another tale, Deadly Game in Victoria Park, have since been picked up for print publication.
"My books give me unexpected publicity and I am now writing syndicated columns for two publications."
While the columns bring in added income, Cheung says money was never the goal: "I wrote novels for fun and, unexpectedly, people enjoy reading it. It gives me lots of satisfaction."