21 September 2019
Hong Kong's book fair offers more variety and attracts more visitors than similar events in Taiwan or the mainland. Photo: Xinhua
Hong Kong's book fair offers more variety and attracts more visitors than similar events in Taiwan or the mainland. Photo: Xinhua

Book fair shows Hong Kong’s special place in China

At the stall of the Cosmos bookshop at the Hong Kong Book Fair, business is brisk.

Customers are crowding around the piles of books, many of them on sale at a discount.

“I come to the book fair every year and buy several books,” said Liang Ming-de, a secondary school teacher from Shenzhen.

“There is a range and variety we do not have in Shenzhen. The customs could confiscate them on my way home, but usually they do not.”

An estimated one million people will attend the 26th edition of the fair, which started Wednesday and runs until Tuesday.

It has a record number of 580 exhibitors from 33 countries and regions, including publishers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

There is nothing like it in the Chinese-speaking world.

The Taipei International Book Exhibition is held in February and attracts 500,000-600,000 people.

It has many high-quality books, but not the number and diversity of visitors that come to Hong Kong and not so many mainlanders.

There are many fairs, too, in mainland cities, but they can only exhibit books that are approved by the government, which restricts the titles from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the rest of the world.

That is why the Hong Kong event is so attractive to mainlanders, bringing thousands of books together under a single roof, as well as dozen of readings and events in which they can participate.

“Hong Kong is a glowing pearl in the world of China that deserves to be cherished and nourished for its sheen to last,” said Lung Ying-tai, the author of 17 books and Taiwan’s minister of culture from 2012 until she resigned in December with the rest of the cabinet after the Kuomintang’s heavy losses in local elections.

She is speaking at the fair Saturday. The title of her talk is “My memory is what I am.” It is her first public address in Hong Kong since December.

The importance of Hong Kong as a publishing center has only increased during the three-year rule of President Xi Jinping.

He is shrinking the space for civil society, arresting journalists and authors and restricting what may be said and written in the public domain.

So, as it has been since 1949, Hong Kong remains the place where books and articles can be published on important topics that are banned in the mainland.

One of the titles at the Cosmos stall is Tombstone, a History of the Great Famine, by Yang Jisheng, a veteran Xinhua journalist.

This extraordinary book, of 1,208 pages, is the authoritative work on one of the most important events in China – and the world — in the 20th century.

It should be available in public libraries in every city in the country. It has been translated into English, French and German and won many awards.

The fair’s Author of the Year is Leo Lee Ou-fan, a professor of Chinese culture at Chinese University.

“Ou-fan” is the Chinese version of Orpheus, a musician and prophet in ancient Greece.

A native of Henan province, Lee graduated from National Taiwan University before going on to the University of Chicago and Harvard.

A sprightly 72, Lee is a walking advertisement for Hong Kong.

“I taught in the US for 30 years,” he said.

“The academic environment is very good. But, after retirement, life there is dull.

“My friends in Taiwan would like me to live there. I could do that.”

But he moved with his wife to Hong Kong in 2004.

“I do not like a monotonous life. I like variety and change,” he said.

“Here you have East and West mixed together.

“You have three languages – Cantonese, Mandarin and English.

“It is a very attractive city. You cannot get old in Hong Kong.”

On Thursday evening, some participants at the fair, including Lee, were invited to the Jao Tsung-I Academy, an arts and cultural centre in Mei Foo Sun Chuen named after one of the city’s most remarkable polymaths.

Born in Chaozhou, Guangdong province, in 1917, Jao moved to Hong Kong in 1949 and has lived here ever since, holding important teaching posts.

He is a scholar, poet, calligrapher and painter; his works are on display in a gallery at the academy.

Only in Hong Kong – not the mainland, nor Taiwan under martial law – could Jao have had such a rich career.

“Some foreigners mistakenly believe that Hong Kong is a cultural desert,” said Jess Lam, exhibition and public program manager at the academy.

“How wrong they are. They should take a walk around this center.

“They should go to the book fair and see how many books there are and how many people buy them.

“Culture is alive and thriving.”

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker