Hong Kong and Singapore vie for recognition as Asia’s international business and finance centre, leading shopping destination, port and air hub. While neither city wins renown for literary tradition, for 10 days this month they concurrently hosted writing festivals that claim not to compete but cooperate to bag bigger names, part of broader civic drives to enhance cultural credentials. At the local level, the Singapore Writers Group and Hong Kong Writers Circle collaborated on short story anthology Tales of Two Cities, celebrating the metropolises’ differences and spotlighting what they can learn from each other.
“Hong Kong has a more lively underbelly. Singapore is more sanitised but maybe not as much as we think,” Ecuadorian Lucia Damacela, a writer based in Singapore, says. She and other Tales authors read at last month’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali.
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“Singapore is currently flourishing, while Hong Kong struggles to settle its identity,” Edmund Price, an editor of Tales and previous HK Writers Circle anthologies, says. Culture can blossom from the top-down, he believes, “only with a level of bottom-up enthusiasm”.
“Blossoming of the arts might have been driven by Singapore’s government at first, but now it’s ingrained,” Australian Russell Darnley, who has been writing about and occasionally living in Singapore since the 1970s, says.
“There are cultural clashes in both cities,” Singapore writer and teacher Marion Kleinschmidt, says. “The stereotypes are there to be played with, not to be exploited but exploded.”
Singapore’s nanny state reputation aside, it’s Hong Kong where several writers now see threats to self-expression. Tales chose not to focus on those concerns or the umbrella movement. “We are not a political organisation and soap box preaching wasn’t our job and the anthology wasn’t the right forum,” Price says.
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“Nevertheless, there are some stories with some political or social bite to them.”
“I suspect that nobody needed to nudge the Singaporean writers to avoid controversy,” award winning film maker and author Lawrence Gray, who left Hong Kong after 24 years to live in Malaysian border town Johor Baru, says.
“Singapore feels a secure place at present and whilst it may be true that times of stress produce art with its back against the wall, I think stability can have the same effect when it allows cultures to mix and blend together freely,” Singapore Writers Group founder Alice Clark-Platts, a human rights lawyer turned crime novelist, says.
“Singapore’s key competitive advantages are its geographical centrality in Southeast Asia, modern infrastructure [transport and communications], and its multilingualism,” Singapore’s National Arts Council, which oversees the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), states. “As a festival, we pitch ourselves as the gateway to discovering the great writing talents from Southeast Asia, and Asia as a whole.”
“Singapore is a multi-ethnic city with lots of proud diversity. Hong Kong is mainly ethnic Chinese with minorities that are mostly invisible in the larger community,” Hong Kong writer and poet Joy Al-Sofi says. “In Hong Kong many local writers write in Chinese, and there is little, if any, cross-communication” across language barriers.
In contrast, “SWF has become one of the few truly multilingual literary festivals in the world,” using official languages English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil, Singapore’s arts council says.
Hong Kong’s festival should also go multilingual, local born writer Jane Wallace says. “An event which brought local and international writers together would be very interesting to both parties and encourage more Hongkongers to get into fiction.”
Free expression is handmaiden to free enterprise in both cities. Government initiated public-private cooperation spawned the Korean wave sweeping Asian pop culture, boosting tourism and soft power, S. Mickey Lin, a Tales editor, author and SWF panellist on emerging Singapore voices, observes. “I don’t see why that model can’t be replicated elsewhere.”
“Singapore’s government and society is trying to promote more creativity and is putting more effort into creating opportunities for writers and artists,” Gray, having an English language TV series produced there, says.
“Hong Kong can certainly learn from Singapore’s government how to create easier to manage grant application procedures and to recognise the different stages of the creative process. And Singapore can learn from Hong Kong how to keep out of the way of the creative process and not to think everything should be on the level of a government service announcement extolling the virtues of holding the handrail on an escalator.”
Singapore’s government surely craves soft power from its cultural products. It’s unclear whether there’s any official constituency for Hong Kong to develop its soft power. Of course, alternatives exist.
“Start reading books and doing poetry jams instead of spending all weekend buying discounted rice cookers,” Wallace, author of sci-fi novel Into the Light, suggests. “Both [cities] need to realise the worth of art for art’s sake, not just as a means of making money.”