Dynargh dhe'n Blogofrob

Thursday 27th April 2006

Hong Kong isn't known as a cultural hotspot - either for Chinese or Western culture. The common perception is that the latter is almost completely absent from these balmy islands, and that's not a surprise. The residency in Hong Kong of Western music, art and literature depends on the expats from that part of the world, who, along with their professional qualifications and reluctant families, must also bring a demand for it. However, the expat demographic in general doesn't care too much for cultural variety so unless you're fulfilled by U2 and The Da Vinci code (on which topic, what a fucking prick) don't come here expecting too much.

This isn't something of which we, as a group, are ashamed, and nor should we be. European and American culture is for Europe and America. Hong Kong is for making money and getting pissed. This week's issue of HK Magazine (a listings paper, a bit like a 6th form Time Out) opened its interview with a local aspiring poet with, "There's a million things to do in this city. Why bother writing poetry?" Therefore last month, while idly flicking through the pages of the same publication and wondering if I would go to any of the places listed if I had someone to go with, I was surprised to read about the Hong Kong Literary Festival opening in town.

True to form, HK couched the festival in apologetic terms, careful not to alienate its readers. The Nobel Lecture from Seamus Heaney was recommended for "anyone who wants to hear verse read in a Northern Irish brogue" while The Sea, the Booker Prize winning novel of John Banville, the other big name attending, was dismissed as a book no-one has read and "pretty much identical" to anything Kazuo Ishiguro has ever written. Although, I haven't read The Sea either, so perhaps that's fair comment...

Anyway, it turns out that, at least in part, the perception of gweilos as literature-phobes is bollocks, as is the idea of the city as a cultural desert. While I did get a few odd looks when I mentioned to people in the office that I was off to a literary festival event, all the talks I went to were well-attended, albeit mostly by academics, students and publishers. Hong Kong was, it turns out, an ideal city in which to hold this kind of festival. The place is small enough that any of the venues were easy to reach by foot or a short taxi ride. The events were popular but rarely oversubscribed. Entry was either free or fairly cheap. This meant that I could finish up at work, have a quick look on the website to see what was on, and 10 minutes later be sat in a little theatre listening to Ma Jian rattle on about sky burials (OK, so it wasn't all Western Literature), watching a panel of "experts" have a lively debate over what was going on in North Korea or wondering whether Nell Freudenberger only got a publishing deal because of her looks (she didn't).

I would of course feel a little short changed if I didn't come out of some of the events without a slight animosity towards my fellow festival goers, and so I developed an irritation towards the 'nodding-at-no-one' syndrome, which I noticed was endemic in middle-aged academic looking women who nodded knowingly at points although nobody was seeking their approval or checking that they had understood. To be honest, I think I was just jealous, sitting there like a lemon in a suit, realising that the majority of the audience spent their lives thinking about and working on things they were interested in, even had a passion for. For them the event was merely a complement to their daily lives, while I shoehorned it in at the end or very beginning of days mostly consisting of boredom, dull fear and incomprehension.

89 - posted at 16:53:21

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