Hong Kong Literary Festival: Irvine Welsh, Ma Jian, Cheryl Strayed among must-sees at Tai Kwun event

Line-up for this year’s festival at Hong Kong’s new Tai Kwun arts and culture hub features a host of international authors and will cover key themes such as feminism and the #MeToo movement, LGBT issues, and travel

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2018, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2018, 8:35pm

Now in its 18th edition, The Hong Kong International Literary Festival is making a return to its early golden era, drawing big names and the promise of even bigger audiences.

This year’s festival – which runs from November 2 to 11 – will be held in Hong Kong’s new arts and culture hub, Tai Kwun.

“We want to create more of a buzz and an impact in those 10 days and being under one roof will enable us to create more of a festival atmosphere,” says festival director Phillipa Milne. “It’ll be good for audiences to walk around Tai Kwun and see writers, and for writers to mingle with the audience.”

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Last year’s event attracted 5,000 people, double the number that attended in 2015 when Milne started in her role. She says this year the aim is to double the numbers again and pull in 10,000 people. With names on the line-up including Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, travel writer Geoff Dyer and exiled Chinese writer Ma Jian, author of The Dark Road, it is a distinct possibility.

“We’ve been steadily increasing the number of participants and free events, and having the festival in Tai Kwun this year means a capacity for bigger audiences,” Milne says.

The 10-day event will be spread across three Tai Kwun venues: the Auditorium (capacity 200 people), F Hall (capacity 90 people) and a small room for writing workshops. A literary lunch with British author Susie Orbach will be held in the Tai Kwun restaurant, Old Bailey.

The festival’s key themes will be feminism and the #MeToo movement, LGBT issues, and travel – all hot issues that are sure to create a lot of conversation, which is what the event is all about. This is underlined by the festival’s new logo – blue and red quotation marks.

“While we are a literary festival and the focus is on books, we want people to know that we are also about ideas and conversations,” Milne says.

The festival’s board had expanded in the past 12 months, with new members consisting of Adrian Warr, Hong Kong managing director of PR firm Edelman; Paul Tam, executive director of the Hong Kong Ballet; and Martin Haigh, Asia senior vice-president of Ticketmaster. The board also has two new co-chairs: Angela Mackay, Asia-Pacific managing director of the Financial Times, and Simon Westcott, CEO and owner of Luxe City Guides.

Ticket sales for the public open on September 14. For access to advance tickets, you can become a donor.

Here are six highlights from among the 50 events taking place.

Irvine Welsh

Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, best known for Trainspotting, revisits Leith’s most famous junkies in his 2018 book Dead Men’s Trousers to find out if, 25 years down the road, age has made them any wiser. In a session moderated by Hong Kong-based author Paul Kay, Welsh will talk about what brought him to write the original cult classic and its sequel, Porno.

Irvine Welsh: Dead Men’s Trousers, Nov 10, 2pm, JC Cube, Tai Kwun, HK$125

Ma Jian

Exiled author Ma Jian’s novel The Dark Road was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award in 2014. In this session, he will discuss his latest book, China Dream, which blends reality and fantasy to create a biting satire of President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” propaganda. The event will be held in Mandarin with simultaneous English translation.

Ma Jian: China Dream, Nov 10, 7pm, F Hall, Tai Kwun, HK$100

Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed was escaping plenty of demons when she trekked 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail in the US, including the loss of her mother, the break-up of her marriage and heroin. Her personal account of the journey, Wild, became a New York Times bestselling memoir and was made into a film. She will discuss what travel writing reveals to those who dare with Ravi Mattu, deputy Asia news editor at the Financial Times.

Cheryl Strayed: Wild, Nov 10, 5pm, JC Cube, Tai Kwun, HK$125

Jenny Zhang and Emma-Lee Moss

Jenny Zhang is a Shanghai-born, New York-raised poet and author of Sour Heart. Emma-Lee Moss (aka Emmy the Great) is a musician and culture writer who returned to Hong Kong after moving to London at the age of 12. They will share stories and insights about returning to one’s “home country” in adulthood.

Jenny Zhang and Emmy the Great in Conversation, Nov 3, 8.30pm, JC Cube, Tai Kwun, HK$125

Susie Orbach

Psychoanalyst, writer, activist and social commentator Susie Orbach co-founded The Women’s Therapy Centre in London in 1976 and The Women’s Therapy Centre Institute in New York in 1981. She will talk to Simon Westcott about her long career and what makes a good psychotherapist.

Susie Orbach: In Therapy, Nov 10, 3.30pm, JC Cube, Tai Kwun, HK$125

Geoff Dyer

This is one travel writer who refuses to be put in a box. His books mix genres, blending fiction, non-fiction, memoir and travel writing. He will talk about his collection of essays White Sands, travel writing, and his famous disregard for standard literary genres.

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Geoff Dyer: Where? What? Where?, Nov 3, 7pm, JC Cube, Tai Kwun, HK$100