Weekly Hong Kong poetry group gains allies and stature by stressing inclusion
Group that began with informal readings 10 years ago now collaborates with Asian and local institutions
Since the beloved weekly open mic night Peel Street Poets launched 12 years ago, it has grown as Hong Kong’s fledgling literary scene has evolved. Originally started as a series of informal poetry readings at a tiny Soho cafe that has since closed, the event once was a regular haunt for creatives including journalists, tennis instructors, chefs and English teachers.
Over time, this ragtag collection of poetry fans became a bona fide, diverse community. Some even became inspired to publish their own work through the encouragement of their friends and peers at Peel Street Poets.
“I always talk about us as a literary arts collective because we’ve gone beyond being an open mic night,” says Hongkonger Nashua Gallagher, who co-founded the group at the tender age of 16. “We are a hub. We are an incubator for ideas and events.”
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Following the success of their tenth anniversary slam event and last year’s appearance at TEDx Wan Chai, the organisers plan to continue collaborating with other local and Asia-wide literary institutions such as the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, literary journal Cha, and the Hong Kong Writers Circle.
“The literary scene is definitely growing here,” adds Henrik Hoeg, who joined the group five years ago and is now its regular MC at events. “We hope to keep the connection between the international scene and local grassroots organisations.”
Gallagher believes Hong Kong has been a dynamic melting pot ideal for the arts to thrive. “I think Hong Kong’s always had a strong tradition of freedom of expression,” she says. “People say that this city’s soulless, all work hard, no play. Although the city has its share of social problems, there is still space and room for this arts movement to grow.”
Beyond the arts, Peel Street Poets have positively influenced the wider community through its work with local schools, the homeless charity ImpactHK, literacy group Room to Read’s Hong Kong chapter, and Rainlily, a local crisis centre for sexual violence survivors.
Underpinning it all is the group’s inclusive nature and fervent belief in the power of the written word to trigger social change. “We understand the power of poetry,” says organiser Akin Jeje, who was inspired by Black History Month to dedicate an annual Peel Street Poets event to the work of the African diaspora.
“Some of the most amazing, sublime poetry comes from those who seemed a little awkward or nervous at first,” he adds. That is partly why the group makes a concerted effort to ensure that newcomers feel supported and encouraged.
Jeje also emphasises that, despite being a primarily English-language group, Peel Street Poets encourages performers to read in different languages. “A lot of our friends have introduced us to local [Cantonese-language] poets like Arthur Leung, Agnes Lam, Nicholas Wong and Louise Ho,” he says. “We don’t forget that we’re in Hong Kong and we are of Hong Kong.”
The rising global popularity of slam poetry has contributed to the group’s continued success among expats and locals alike. Recent guest performers have included Australians Zohab Khan (a poetry slam champion) and Omar Musa, as well as British slam poet Harry Baker. “The catalyst for this sudden interest is definitely the internet, YouTube, social media,” Hoeg says.
“Spoken word poetry speaks directly to people,” Jeje adds. “It’s emotive, it’s performative, and it jumps off the page. People can definitely connect to it in a way they can’t with written poetry.”