SHIRLEY HAZZARD avoided coming back to Hong Kong for 57 years, largely because she hoped to preserve the impressions of her childhood home for a novel, the 2003 National Book Award winner, The Great Fire. After returning for the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, she says she needn't have bothered staying away. The Hong Kong she found this week had no effect on her memories. The city's absolute transformation bore no relation to the village she left in 1948. Hazzard, 74, has been among the highlights of the festival's fifth year. At the China Club on Thursday night she recalled the key points of Hong Kong's transformation after the second world war. She says Hong Kong is unique in that it reinvented itself amid colonial constraints, unlike the independent India or Indonesia. Hazzard also spoke of working for Special Operations, a branch of British Intelligence, as a 16-year-old who 'stuck pins in boards' as the junior member of a team of Chinese and western spies monitoring the mainland during the civil war. Her colleagues' love of languages and literature helped mould Hazzard into a writer. 'It was my education,' she says of her two years in Hong Kong. Walking to the Special Operations office - near Flagstaff House, now the Museum of Tea Ware - Hazzard would pass an 'exercise cage' for Japanese prisoners facing trial for war crimes. 'It was hard there, meeting eyes, to know who was the accused,' she says. 'It was a time of racism ... and yet all this was in flux and breaking down.' Chinese writers remain the key to the festival. Last year it was Han Shaogong and Qiu Xiaolong winning new readers. This year Shan Sa and Yu Hua reminded us that the festival is a crucial literary gateway between the mainland and the rest of the world - even if few agents are capitalising on the opportunity. A large part of the festival's appeal for international writers is the chance to meet Chinese scribes. Shan Sa apologised for her 'strange French Chinese accent' after taking the stage at the China Club. But the audience, made up of most of the authors at the festival, hushed from the moment she started reading in English from her novel The Girl Who Played Go. The Paris-based writer stole the show from three literary heavyweights on stage alongside her: Hazzard, Thomas Keneally and M.G. Vassanji. The festival's yearly debate over Asian literature written in English has lost none of its fire. As an Indian-Briton, Hari Kunzru was asked to weigh into last year's on-stage dispute between the chief literary critic for London's Sunday Times newspaper, John Carey, and Indian writer Pankaj Mishra. Carey, unprompted, told the audience last year: 'The language gap is so enormous it's perfectly impossible to put Asia in the English language.' He also accused leading Indian writers, particularly Arundhati Roy, of using a 'lyrical, playful, Disney style' to describe horrible events. Mishra, who was among the first to read Roy's manuscript for the Booker Prize winner The God of Small Things, replied that the same could be said of westerners who wrote about Asia, such as Rudyard Kipling. Kunzru leans towards Carey. Some Indians misrepresent the country by writing 'for an export market', he told an audience at the Central Library, Causeway Bay, on Tuesday. The following day Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi used his reading at Cipriani's to question Kunzru's right to comment on the country, when he was born and raised in Britain. Debates on matters of Asian literature are becoming an important part of the festival. Each year we ask why so few, if any, agents focus on finding Asian books to translate. We also grumble that more mainland and local Hong Kong writers who work in Chinese should be part of the festival. But with two days to go before the end of the festival - and the biggest star, Booker winner Alan Hollinghurst, appearing for the first time today - the only real complaint is that we are spoiled for choice. Why does the 'cultural desert' bloom only at this time of year - festivals of the arts, literature and film, the Impressionism exhibition and concerts by R.E.M., Sting, Norah Jones and Diana Krall?