To Read or Not to Read (in Hong Kong), that is the Question

“Ah! I’ll never, never meet such a man again. You ought to have heard him recite poetry—his own too it was, he told me. Poetry!” He rolled his eyes at the recollection of these delights. “Oh, he enlarged my mind!” “Goodbye,” said I. He shook hands and vanished in the night.

– Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899), Ch. 3

I’m sat in a coffee shop at one of Hong Kong’s biggest book stores, waiting for my interviewee to show up. Just as I suspect he’s going to stand me up, he arrives looking slightly sheepish, both hands holding onto a copy of Balzac’s Father Goriot. This makes it difficult for hand-shaking, but we give it a half-arsed go anyway. I notice that his hands are cold. I apologise for not specifying the locale while he tries to make himself comfortable in a seat that’s too big for him. He fails, and his discomfort translates into more ways than one. His eyes are shifty. His arms are crossed. His torso is turned to an awkward angle. Negative body language code red alert. He’s expecting the Spanish Inquisition treatment, and we’ve not even started yet. This is going to be a tough nut to crack, I think to myself, but we’ll play it by ear and see how it goes.

blog_11octThere’s been a marked change in the way I interact with others these days. Where I used to be on the receiving end of questions from cross-examining parents and sceptical professors, I seem to be the one asking all the questions lately – both inside and outside the classroom ambit.

My targets range from high school students to unpublished writers, who I approach in the semi-professional capacity of a teacher/interviewer-cum-friend. It’s a kind of legitimised nosiness, I guess, having carte blanche to probe the other person’s brain while being able to absorb and mull over all kinds of exclusive, ungoogleable information.

From my many conversations with very different people, I’ve noticed that we somehow always end up talking about identity, one’s sense of belonging and the psychology of regional attachment. This is especially relevant to the current social climate in Hong Kong, so I can understand why such questions would be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Here’s a low-down on the sort of responses I’ve been getting so far:

Scenario 1:

In one of my classes, I had everyone come up with ways to ‘characterise’ themselves. When we discussed places of origin, I asked a student how she would introduce herself to a foreign friend, and this is her answer:

“I’d say that I’m from Hong Kong, a former British colony.”

Scenario 2:

I recently interviewed a local writer who has penned a few short stories and an unpublished book, and when I asked him about his intended readership base, this is what he had to say:

“As someone who writes in English, I don’t intend to write for any local readers. I simply don’t think that Hong Kong people will be interested in what I have to say – especially when it’s in the form of English fiction.”


Gweilos and Opiums: all them colonial reminiscences

What is to be gleaned from this?* The comments above are a snippet of how two generations of Hong Kongers view themselves in relation to their colonial past, but when placed together, they capture an ironic split at the heart of the post-Handover Hong Kong psyche.

There’s this throwback nostalgia for what seems like an intellectually/politically ‘freer’ age under late-20th century British rule, but there’s just as prominent an awareness that English is no longer the ‘big dawg’ lingua franca among the public. I suppose this chasm is especially felt by the ‘50-year interim generation’, which refers to those born between 1984, the year in which the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, and 2047, when the ‘one country, two systems’ principle expires and Hong Kong officially changes its status from ‘Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, China’ to ‘Hong Kong city, China’.


Born in the 1970s vs Born in the 1990s

In fact, the present relationship between Hong Kong and the Mainland brings to mind some of my favourite lines from T.S. Eliot’s 1920 poem ‘Gerontion’, in which the philosopher-poet laments the powerlessness of man against the tide of historical change:

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates a fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us.

(Lines 33-44)

Reminded of Murray House in Stanley

Given HK’s post-1997 developments, Eliot’s lines are apt. If there’s any city that has had to cut through countless “passages”, “corridors/and issues” while being “guided” by higher forms of authority, it’s got to be Hong Kong.

What’s also uncanny is how pertinent the descriptions about ‘giving’ are to our postcolonial history: the ‘promise’ of autonomy was given back in 1984, but its “supple confusion” lies in the half-century time frame, which, upon inevitable expiration, will only (if it hasn’t already) “famish the people’s craving” for existing rights and freedoms.

Eventually though, the disillusioned will cease to believe, and the indifferent will settle for ‘believing’ “in memory only” those passions of what, in retrospect, appears to be little more than bygone naïveté. By then, the truth that remains is the fear that “weak hands” in power will not take no for an answer, at which point neither the fear of all nor the courage of a select few can hold sway over policymaking. Granted, this is an apocalyptic reading of events, but for those who are anxious about the city’s future, such Eliotic foresight isn’t too far a stretch from what many anticipate to be in store.

20:47 pm. I manage to bag myself a seat on the East Rail Line to Lok Ma Chau. There’s a 20-minute window till I reach my destination, so I take out my prized, second-hand copy of Thoreau’s Walden and Civil Disobedience. Just as I flip to the chapter on ‘Reading’ for a spot of commuter meta-reading, my metro neighbour looks at me funny, but soon returns to minding his own business on the phone. Turns out he’s also reading something: It looks like an online fiction series in Chinese, but I’m not sure. Svetlana Alexievich has won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature, announces the Cable News broadcast overhead. I look away from the TV screen, then notice that most people around me are engaged in some form of screen-scrolling, and I feel a sudden urge to abandon Walden and screen-scroll as well. I should find out who Svetlana Alexievich is.

Moot food for thought: “The majority of Hong Kong people are not interested in reading English fiction.”

Specimen 1:


From SCMP, dated 11 Jan 2015

The first thing that struck me about this article isn’t the headline. Instead, it’s the editorial decision to place this piece under ‘Retail’, not ‘Culture’ (which SCMP calls ‘Lifestyle’, an arguably different concept).

I grew up with Dymocks; when I was a kid, it used to be one of the few shops that dad would take me to as an excursionary treat, where I stocked up on my Judy Blumes, Louis Sachars and Jacqueline Wilsons. I can still remember celebrating that proverbial Sweet Sixteen with a self-funded Dymocks purchase – Nabokov’s Lolita. Reading this literary forbidden fruit in front of my parents was a way of declaring teenage defiance, and the good ol’ bookstore was my comrade-in-arms in this rite of passage. Now that it’s been given the boot, apparently “shifting reading habits” are partly to blame.

What’s funny though, is that I don’t see a rise in local demand for Kindles or e-books, so the ‘shift’ probably has more to do with fewer people wanting to read, than with people ‘digitalising’ their mode of reading.

My copies of 'Lolita', the 'forbidden fruit' of the 20th century American lit canon

My copies of ‘Lolita’, the ‘forbidden fruit’ of the 20th century American lit canon

Specimen 2:


From a Foursquare review

‘What you need to know’ about HK’s Eslite Bookstore fact no.1: Its bubble milk teas are great.

Now I ain’t got no beef with ‘em boba bevs, but when the city’s biggest bookseller is known more for its beverages than its, eh, books, then Houston, we have a problem. The original Eslite in Taiwan is also known for being open 24/7, but here in Hong Kong communal reading gets a curfew of 10 PM #because #rent, which is fair, especially when the city cares more about cutting cost than about cultivating culture.


I think I got this from one of the Oxfams in Oxford city centre, possibly Turl Street

This tug between commerce and culture, then, brings me back to Thoreau and his reflections on reading in Walden. The author was an advocate of passive resistance, and during his two-year retreat to Walden Pond, Thoreau spent most of his time strolling, reading and thinking in ascetic solitude. For him, withdrawal was more an intellectual commitment than a political gesture, as it opened up the time, space and environs for a man to live a true ‘life of the mind’.

Halfway through the book, he spells out the dilemma that all post-Industrial Revolution moderns (including us) face when it comes to reading and books:

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.

And to the mercenary naysayers of lit and culture, Thoreau has a lil’ shout-out for y’all as well:

When the… scornful trader has earned by enterprise and industry his coveted leisure and independence, and is admitted to the circles of wealth and fashion, he turns inevitably at last to those still higher but yet inaccessible circles of intellect and genius, and is sensible only of the imperfection of his culture and the vanity and insufficiency of all his riches, and further proves his good sense by the pains which he takes to secure for his children that intellectual culture whose want he so keenly feels…

Arrogant dickhead? Maybe. Accurate assumption? Absolutely. If Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby had a son, Thoreau’s subject would be him. The good news is that there’s no shortage of successful Jay Gatsbys in the world, and as long as they live, there will still be hope for the patronage and funding of arts and lit.


Once a Fitzgerald fan, always a Fitzgerald fan

The question that’s left for us to solve, then, is how to get the public to care about this numinous ‘intellectual culture’. The first step, imo, is to actually stop using the term ‘intellectual culture’ and just call a spade a spade.

So how does ‘reading and thinking about good books’ sound?

*Disclaimer: I don’t run a politics blog, so I won’t subject anyone to my amateur pol-sci insights.


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