The evolution of English literature in Hong Kong

The evolution of English literature in Hong Kong

On the eve of the 10th Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, we celebrate how far this former British colony's English lit scene has come
Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival
Hong Kong author Xu Xi: "[Local English writers] are not trying to impress a canon, they're trying to invent something new."
The Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival opens tomorrow, celebrating its tenth anniversary with a packed schedule of lectures, readings and discussions. It's a big change from a decade ago, when the festival was a lonely outpost in the wilderness of Hong Kong English-language literature. These days, more people in Hong Kong are writing in English than ever before.

It's the outsider inside who sees things differently. If you're perfectly comfortable in your life you have a lot less to write about. — Xu Xi

2010 New Wave

Few people can take stock of the evolution of writing in Hong Kong as well as Xu Xi, one of the city's pioneering English authors. Though she spent much of her life overseas, Hong Kong has always inhabited her thoughts. Her 1994 debut, "Chinese Walls," drew from her memories of growing up in 1960s Tsim Sha Tsui. Another one of her works, "The Unwalled City," published in 2001, explores Hong Kong's rush towards the handover to China in 1997. She is also the co-editor of three anthologies of Hong Kong fiction, the most recent of which is "Fifty-Fifty."

"When I put out a call for submissions for the first collection, the stuff that came in was surprising to me," Xu says. "It was very Hong Kong in its voice, from people who really knew this place and had less of an expatriate mentality than before." Whereas English writers had traditionally focused on its colonial history, emerging writers had a stronger connection with the cultural flux, mobility and mix of identities that define Hong Kong.

Hong Kong English writers now have more confidence that their work will be published, read and discussed, says Shirley Geok-lin Lim, who headed up the University of Hong Kong's creative writing program in the late 1990s. "That's always useful, because creativity is not an individual genius, it's the production of a rather large social and cultural milieu. I think Hong Kong, since the handover, has been entering into this kind of moment where younger people who write in English can find publishing outlets and other people to talk to about their interests."

Man Hong Kong Internatonal Literary FestivalShirley Geok-lin Lim: "Creativity is not an individual genius, it's the production of a large social and cultural milieu."Nascent Hong Kong flavor

With no literary tradition to draw from, it's possible that local English writing could evolve into something a bit like the 1980s New Wave of Hong Kong film, which mixed social commentary with accessible genre stories and a gritty, urban aesthetic. Local writers "are not trying to impress a canon, they're trying to invent something new," says Xu, and they're willing to break narrative form and infuse their work with Cantonese-influenced English.

Transience is a theme that comes up a lot in Hong Kong writing, which is no surprise, considering the ephemeral nature of so much Hong Kong life. Everyone and everything is always coming and going. Hong Kong writers have always been outsiders, either as expats, overseas Chinese or simply the locally-born who felt at odds with the city around them. "It's the outsider inside who sees things differently," says Xu. "If you're perfectly comfortable in your life you have a lot less to write about."

But it's still premature to talk about a distinct Hong Kong literature. "People were already writing in English in the 1890s and 1910s in the Philippines. In Singapore it goes back to the 1950s and 60s. In Hong Kong it really only goes back to the 1990s," says Lim. "But being belated doesn't mean that it's better or worse. It just means that there's a different trajectory. It's still not clear to my mind what will finally emerge."

Building infrastructure

Whatever work that does emerge in the future will benefit from Hong Kong's growing literary infrastructure. Xu Xi has been helping City University set up the world's first Asia-focused master's program in creative writing, whose faculty will include local writers like Justin Hill as well as international authors like Canada's Madaleine Thien and India's Sharmistha Mohanty. Meanwhile, magazines and journals like Asian Cha and Muse, both launched in 2007, offer writers new oulets for publication.

Man Hong Kong International Literary FestivalXu Xi's latest work "Evanescent Isles."Then, of course, there's the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which is an opportunity for writers to discover new readers and vice-versa. This year's edition will bring together more than 80 writers, including local authors like Nury Vittachi, rising stars like England's Rajeev Balasubramanyam and internationally-renowned writers such as Louis de Bernières. "The emerging writers, local writers and lesser-known talents all benefit from having big names on the program," says the festival's general manager, Melissa Long.

Xu Xi, who will be taking part in two discussions at the festival, remembers it as a chance for writers to connect over food and drink. She remembers one meal in particular where she met other Asian writers from the Philippines, Australia and Canada and realized that they were all dealing with questions of transnational identity in their work. "For the writers, it's what can happen off-stage that is really memorable," she says.


Details of the Man Hong Kong lnternational Literary Festival available at

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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