Hong Kong Literary Festival Underscores Cross-Cultural Connections

In Feature Articles by Kate Whitehead

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble was the star attraction at this year’s Hong Kong Literary Festival

The embattled Hong Kong International Literary Festival had a resurgence this year, underscoring cross-cultural connections between Asia and the West.

By Kate Whitehead

The Hong Kong International Literary Festival wrapped up its 15th edition last weekend with a talk by British writer Dame Margaret Drabble, the event’s headline author.

Hong Kong Literary FestivalThe English novelist was among 36 authors, poets, historians, scholars and journalists at the 10-day literary carnival that also welcomed the philosopher A.C Grayling and celebrity chef Ken Hom.

The festival has struggled since losing its Man Group sponsorship (the same Man Group behind the Man Booker Prize) in 2010 and has seen a high turnover in managers — five in five years. New program manager Phillipa Milne, who replaced outgoing Jessie Cammack in the summer, says she’s in it for the long haul and was pleased with the high level of audience engagement this year.

“We got good feedback, audiences were happy, and the best part was seeing people get so involved in the Q&As and discussion,” says Milne.

This year saw a lot of events related to the issues of identity and immigration: American author, poet and playwright Jabari Asim, acting director of the MFA program in creating writing at Emerson College in Boston, spoke about his book The N Word; PP Wong spoke about her experience of growing up in London as a British-born Chinese, as explored in The Life of a Banana; and Susan Choi, born to a Korean immigrant father and a Russian Jewish American mother discussed her cultural heritage with Hong Kong writer Xu Xi.

“A lot of people in Hong Kong grew up somewhere else — British-born and American-born Chinese and a whole generation who were schooled in America, Australia and Canada. The identity issue resonated with them and those events were popular,” says Milne.

Also popular were the talks on China. Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women, and Jason Ng, who spent his adult life in Italy, Canada and the U.S. before returning to Hong Kong ten years ago, both saw their events sold out fast. And Mike Meyer, who spoke about urbanization in China and his most recent book, In Manchuria, drew an engaged audience.

“Non-fiction relating to China goes down very well here. People can go in, they don’t need to have read a book, and they can listen to 90 minutes of someone speaking about what is happening in China. It’s often said people in Hong Kong don’t read. They might not be reading fiction, but they are reading news and non-fiction,” says Milne.

She is already looking ahead to next year’s festival and hoping to secure three to five big-name authors. In addition to well-known fiction authors, she is also hoping to line up non-fiction writers as well as poets, which are well-received in Hong Kong, where poetry makes up a large part of the literary landscape.

“I’m already sending out invitations for next year and want to get in early before writers’ 2016 diaries are full. For many writers, coming to Asia will be of interest, and I’m hoping to line up a short trip to China or somewhere nearby for next year’s writers,” says Milne.

Seventy-six-year-old Drabble now prefers to do international travel with a family member and attended this festival with her daughter, Rebecca Swift, who also offered a talk about her literary consultancy.

“Writing can be quite isolating. The part of writing that I really enjoy is the research — going to places, wandering around and having a look at things. Hong Kong is a fascinating place,” says Drabble.

By the end of her week-long stay in the city, Drabble said she was looking forward to writing a short piece of fiction on Hong Kong.

Writers who have an international profile and might appeal to a Hong Kong audience can contact festival manager Phillipa Milne for consideration for next year’s festival: phillipa.milne@festival.org.hk.

About the Author

Kate Whitehead

Kate Whitehead is a Hongkonger and has made the city her home since she was eight. She escaped for university and returned after her master’s degree and was on staff at the Hong Kong Standard and South China Morning Post and was the editor of Cathay Pacific’s inflight magazine, Discovery. She now writes freelance for the SCMP, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, WWD and Forbes.