Winnie Chau wonders how local English-language writers survive in Hong Kong’s barely-there literary scene.
What are you reading? Still plowing through that last chapter of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”? Or speed-reading e-mails on your Blackberry? When was the last time you picked up a local novel? Probably never, given the sorry state of our English-language literary scene.
It’s woefully under-represented at the ongoing Hong Kong Book Fair, with local booths dedicated largely to Chinese-language pop culture instead. And what about our annual Literary Festival? “It’s turned into a promotional vehicle for overseas writers and has little to do with promoting local writing,” says Lawrence Gray, founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Writers’ Circle (www.hkwriterscircle.com). It seems our homegrown English-language writers are getting more than their fair share of anonymity.
“Anonymity for a writer is destructive,” says Gray, a screenwriter from the U.K. who arrived in Hong Kong in 1991 to discover that local writers were rather complacent about their amateur status. Hence his idea to set up a writers’ group offering feedback to professional and amateur, local and expatriate writers alike. “I think there is a lot more local English writing than there used to be,” adds Gray, who publishes an annual short story collection to get HKWC members’ voices heard. “But at the same time, fewer people are reading!”
Perhaps the most avid readers are the writers themselves. “Material written and published here for the local market is material that is guaranteed not to find a readership, because there is no market. It sells to the small community of writers who buys one another’s books.”
According to Dymocks’ business development manager, Matthew Steele, the proportion of English publications by Hong Kong-based writers is “very low,” despite succesful non-fiction books on our city’s history and culture. “Fiction is very difficult because there are so many other books from across the globe to compete with, making it difficult to stand out. But non-fiction can be very successful,” he says.
The fact that we have more publications about Hong Kong than for Hong Kong is not only visible in chain bookstores. “We can’t publish literary work; the sales wouldn’t make it worthwhile,” says Pete Spurrier, publisher of an independent press, Blacksmith Books. Publishing mainly non-fiction and a small proportion of fiction by non-local writers, Blacksmith Books has an international audience in mind. Though some books experience similar sales in Hong Kong and the U.K., Spurrier emphasizes that their publications focus on providing texts that are “professional with an Asian interest,” which can easily fit on the bookshelves of London or L.A.
Very often, it’s not that publishers aren’t interested in literary works by local writers, they simply cannot afford the low sales. “We have no funding anywhere; we have to go commercial,” says Spurrier, who has become one of the founding publishers of Independent Publishers of Hong Kong (IPHK). Established two years ago, IPHK is a non-competitive collaboration of Hong Kong-based independent presses. Thanks to the joint effort, members of IPHK are able to take part in literary events, such as the Hong Kong Book Fair and the London Book Fair, which would otherwise be unaffordable.
Among the eight members is Sixth Finger Press, initiator of IPHK, which publishes bilingual and translated books. “We bridge the Chinese- and English-language writing worlds, which is often rather divided in Hong Kong,” says publisher Madeleine Slavick, who is also a Hong Kong-based poet.
But in a Cantonese-speaking city, who reads in English, let alone writes in it? Tammy Ho Lai-ming is one of the few. The locally born-and-based writer has had over 100 English poems and short stories published on five continents. “I tend to pick the language which would be a more effective means of expressing what I want to say,“ says Ho, who is optimistic about the future of the local literary scene. “There are a small number of people who are skeptical of a non-native speaker’s ability to write in English. But I find these people to be few and far between. Generally, people are very supportive and open to new voices.”
Ho is also the co-founder of the first and currently only Hong Kong-based, Asia-focused online literary journal, Cha (www.asiancha.com). “We think it is important to try and expose Hong Kong literature internationally,” says Ho, who has contributors ranging from ages 17 to 70. ”We’ve published a good mixture of local writers, expats, and Asians living abroad.”
The fact that being a writer is an unprofitable career in terms of money and fame may still hold an eternal truth. But Nicholas Y.B. Wong, guest editor for Cha, thinks otherwise. “Writing has multiple meanings to me,” says Wong, who is a tertiary teacher by profession, a writer by interest. “One of them is to be honest to my passions.” Wong finds that the city’s fast pace and lack of tertiary training hinders the development of creative writing in Hong Kong. There is also a lack of writing competitions for creative works to give potential local writers incentive. But do writers need it? “No writer would depend on encouragement to write. Encouragement is a bonus,” he says.