City Beat

Freedom and openness of Hong Kong Book Fair make it an event worth relishing

Week-long offering of quality works draws more than a million visitors and with good reason

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 2:13pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2016, 8:49pm

Are Hongkongers book lovers?

The annual book fair, which ended last week, drew a total of more than a million visitors, and if you saw all those eager faces waiting in the long queues outside the Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai on the opening day of the publishing carnival, then dashing in to get first dibs, the answer could be an easy “yes”.

But no one can disagree that the week-long Hong Kong Book Fair, one of the largest in the world, has very much become a commercial event or a summer activity, while publishers treat it as the best venue and opportunity of the year to boost sales and dispose of old stocks.

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That helps to explain why organisers every year try to build up a main theme for the fair in order to lure visitors with a “special” attraction, while local publishers and those from overseas specialising in different types of publications have their own agenda.

This year was no exception. While the official theme was Chinese martial arts, kung fu, or wuxia literature, education-related titles and school guides of various types were much sought after by many parents locked in heated discussions on how to help their children “win at the starting point”.

So-called “banned books” and works by well-known political figures were also in demand, this being the first major book fair after the Causeway Bay Bookstore controversy and the Lunar New Year Mong Kok riot, and with the Legislative Council and chief executive elections approaching.

But it was not until I met mainland literary critic Zi An, a long-time researcher on Eileen Chang, one of the most influential and renowned Chinese writers in modern times, that I had a better realisation of another meaning of the book fair. In a place like Hong Kong, which enjoys the freedom of publication and speech under the “one country, two systems” principle, it helps to keep literary pursuits alive despite the publication industry’s inevitable commercialisation in this internet age.

As the editor of Eileen Chang’s Collections, Zi told an audience of hundreds during a fair session that Chang was a great writer not just because of her special literary skills but more importantly because she dared to tell the truth about human nature, regardless of how ugly that truth could be. Her works therefore transcended ideology and class, and kept her alive in the hearts of many readers. “Chang is an unstoppable legend,” Zi said, adding that China needs more writers like Chang.

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I myself am also a fan of Chang, partly because many of her novels were set in Hong Kong during the 1930s and 40s, and also because the delicate and measured language she used was so unique. But I’m far from an expert to wax eloquently about her works, many of which touched on the subtle wrestling between women and men, even as lovers.

What drove me to write about this topic this week was the free and open atmosphere in which people were enjoying discussing and debating the merits of a variety of works and writers at the fair.

The annual book fair, now in its 27th edition, has become an icon of the city with its rich categories of titles ranging from politics, literature and social issues to education, tourism, fine food and lifestyle, among countless others. It’s not just an occasion for publishers to boost sales volumes or for people to grab discounted books – it’s a good time for readers to learn to treasure such an opportunity to access and appreciate quality works.

May Hong Kong have many more book lovers, not just book buyers.