Steve Braunias ferrets out books and snakes in Hong Kong

Journalist Steve Braunias describes attending the recent Hong Kong International Writers Festival, gauging the mood of writers and publishers in a city where freedoms of speech are increasingly being suppressed. Braunias was supported to attend the March 2023 festival by an Asia New Zealand Foundation Media Travel Grant.

I had been to Hong Kong several times before on my family holidays so had some basic familiarity with the island. But a week there by myself on assignment was something else entirely. The whole week was totally fascinating and always educational. I was learning something about Hong Kong, and Hong Kong writing, every day.

I travelled in my hat as literary editor at the Newsroom site, where I publish reviews, short stories, interviews and anything else in connection with New Zealand writing.

The central discourse of New Zealand writing is Pakeha but much of the most exciting new books over the past few years have been by Maori authors such as Becky Manawatu and Tayi Tibble. New Asian writing, too, is making itself felt, and I wanted to deepen that connection by covering the Hong Kong International Writers Festival. We are near neighbours in the Asia Pacific rim. I was very curious to wander a little bit inside their literary scene, hear some of their writers, and get a sense of the issues they face.

People standing on an outdoor escalator in Hong Kong

Braunias: " spend a lot of your time moving but standing perfectly still, which is to say I discovered the joy and engineering miracle of The Escalators."

Hong Kong was the first Asian country to host an international writers festival. Jaipur in India is now the most famous literary festival in Asia but Hong Kong led the way. Interesting that Hong Kong would have the initiative; interesting, too, that they should stage a festival of English writing in a country where English is the minority language.

On previous visits, I'd always stayed in Kowloon. This time I stayed on the island itself, and booked a sumptuous and insanely affordable two-room suite on the top floor of a hotel in the Mid Levels.

I didn’t actually have any idea what the Mid Levels even meant before I arrived but got a good idea of it from my room: it was kind of terrifying to be so high, more or less half-way up the hills to the Peak. It was also exciting to discover that my hotel was very close to, or even possibly the precise location, of a hotel where the great Chinese writer Han Suyin had stayed in after the war, and wrote about in her famous novel Love Is a Many Splendoured Thing. I read Suyin's memoirs on the way to Hong Kong and was thrilled to know I was following somewhere close to her footsteps.

Footsteps is a bit of a misnomer in the Mid Levels: you spend a lot of your time moving but standing perfectly still, which is to say I discovered the joy and engineering miracle of The Escalators. What an incredible idea, to build a commuter escalator that essentially scales a mountain. It begins downtown on reclaimed land then rises more than half-way towards the Peak; it travels down in the morning, and travels up again from 10am. Strange to think of generations of millions of people standing like shop dummies on the Mid Level Escalator.

I spent a lot of time on the Escalator. I spent a lot of time reading the strange codes of the South China Morning Post. I spent a lot of time finishing the memoirs of Han Suyin; but she belongs to the past of Hong Kong writing.

I wanted to investigate the current literary scene, and the best session at the writers festival I went to in that regard was an event featuring Dung Kai-cheung, introduced as "the most revered and well-known novelist in Hong Kong".

He spoke about his novel first published in 1999 and translated into English in 2022 with the brilliant title A Catalog of Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of.

A poster in a bookstore window showing a man and a woman with white hoods over their faces

Braunias: "The China Question hung over everything but a lot of the time it hung distantly, not really a going concern for life and literature."

A member of the audience asked Dung about his publishing career. He mentioned he'd had a book published in China, in 2011. "That was when the atmosphere was more open," he said. "But then everything stopped. You can’t get published in China anymore. And maybe that's not a bad idea."

I asked, "What do you mean by that?"

Someone laughed; someone else coughed; there was a scrape of a chair, and then silence. It was an awkward question and it put the author on the spot. But after he measured the best thing to say, he answered simply and openly. "To write about what it's really like here in Hong Kong," he said, "would be impossible."

The China Question hung over everything but a lot of the time it hung distantly, not really a going concern for life and literature.

One of the international guests at the Hong Kong festival was the great writer Pico Iyer; he was asked at his event about travelling to North Korea, and to what degree his perceptions were influenced by the Political Question.

He talked about seeing a man walking along a country lane by himself at the end of the day. This, to Iyer, was North Korean life – the ordinary day, a man coming home from work, dinner and sleep in a family home.

I don't know if Hong Kong's Political Question was central to the tens or hundreds of thousands of commuters I saw each day standing on The Escalator.

A woman reading from a book on stage

Braunias attended readings and writers talks at the festival, hearing from some of Hong Kong's most distinguished writers

I ran into Iyer in the lobby of a venue at the festival. He was sitting on a couch looking at a classic 1964 book of photographs by Richard Avedon with text by James Baldwin. He was a charming and friendly man. We spoke about Paul Theroux, VS Naipaul, Leonard Cohen, and travel writing. The China Question didn't come up.

Neither did it come up when I attended probably the most unusual event at the writers festival: a three-hour walk through jungle in the dead of night, looking for snakes.

This was led by Adam Francis, author of A Field Guide to the Snakes of Hong Kong. He wore a white safari suit and picked up myself and two other people from the central pier in his white Tesla, the door opening up and out like some weird white wing. Destination:  across to the mainland and then half-way to China, parking at Ng Tung Chai village on the edge of Tai Mo Shan country park, where we were given torches and looked for snakes. I was happy.

This is what I had come to Hong Kong for: to get inside the island, to see what it really felt like. 

The Foundation's media programme helps New Zealand journalists cover stories that shed light on Asia and on New Zealand’s ties to the region. We support journalists to build their knowledge of Asia by providing media travel grants, internships in Asian newsrooms and fellowships for senior journalists.