When I was growing up in Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s, there were certain recurrent and well-entrenched characterisations of the city. Among these were our being a cultural desert and that the people were uninterested in politics and only wanted to make money.
Now, people seem more interested in protest than profit. Our young activists want to occupy Central rather than work in it. Has our cultural life been as transformed as our politics?
You would think so, as troubled times often prove to be fertile ground for the literary imagination. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case. One reason may be that we have done a terrible job in promoting and developing our own literature.
A recent letter in the Financial Times from Kelly Falconer, the founder of Asia Literary Agency in Hong Kong, takes up this troubling issue. She points out how our bureaucrats habitually promote performing arts at the expense of the literary art. "Little money and less attention has been set aside for the cultivation of literature in Hong Kong," she wrote, "be it in translation from Chinese or in the promotion of writing in general. The Hong Kong Arts Development Council habitually and largely funnels its generosity towards the performing arts."
Literary events and festivals have little public funding support. Among those she listed are the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, StoryWorthyWeek, Poetry OutLoud, Liars' League and Literary Death Match. She is right. It's funny how some young people want to become journalists but I have yet to meet a kid who says he wants to be a novelist.
It's not like we don't have our own literary tradition. We have, after all, produced Eileen Chang and Louis Cha, better known as Jin Yong. Our city has inspired some good books that may, in time, become classics. There are Chang's Love in a Fallen City, John le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy, Martin Booth's Gweilo, Timothy Mo's The Monkey King and Han Suyin's A Many-Splendoured Thing, less a love story as in the movie than a good account of our city of refugees and transients. Even The Joy Luck Club ended in Kai Tak and Shenzhen.
Our political discourse will surely improve if we have a literature we can claim as our own.